For Ex-Orthodox, More Than a Game

With Sports Forbidden, Even Game of Soccer Is Act of Rebellion

Potent Statement: Tossing a ball around in the park is a powerful statement of rebellion for young people who leave ultra-Orthodox communities.
claudio papapietro
Potent Statement: Tossing a ball around in the park is a powerful statement of rebellion for young people who leave ultra-Orthodox communities.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published June 24, 2012, issue of June 29, 2012.
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In a crowded meadow in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, a group of 20-somethings swarmed a soccer ball like a bunch of sixth-graders at recess.

A few knew how to dribble, but some could barely kick. One tried to tell the goalie that he wasn’t allowed to pick up the ball. Errant passes peppered nearby groups lounging on the grass.

The players looked pretty much like any other group in the park on a balmy Sunday evening. The difference? The pick-up game players are all former ultra-Orthodox Jews making up for lost time.

In the Hasidic communities where most of the players grew up, playing sports is generally forbidden. Now the group meets every other Sunday to play either soccer or basketball, a game that some ultra-Orthodox consider the most non-Jewish sport, according to one ex-Hasid.

“I could probably hold my own in a real game [now],” said Sol F., 22, who just moved out of his parents’ home in the Satmar community of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

The players are members of Footsteps, a not-for-profit that provides social services to people leaving ultra-Orthodox communities. Footsteps is careful about the privacy of members who may still be leading double lives. The Forward agreed to photograph only the members who gave their explicit permission, and to refer to some members by their first name and last initial.

The afternoon started off slowly. Shmuly Horowitz, 22, who grew up in the Bobov Hasidic community in Brooklyn’s Boro Park, kicked around a soccer ball, then tossed a Frisbee and a football with a handful of other ex-Orthodox guys.

Soon they had park-goers scampering away, with their bad soccer passes and Frisbee tosses threatening to land on or near other people’s heads.


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