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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On the lawn in Prospect Park, the gap in abilities was vast. The Montreal Hasid, a natural athlete, ran circles around the other players. Sol, dressed in hip jeans and a Yankees cap, was enthusiastic but gawky.

Sol and Horowitz organized the biweekly Footsteps game themselves with support from the organization, which sent a social worker to some of the games. Horowitz handled logistics, while Sol recruited participants.

Until May, the players met at a rented Brooklyn basketball court under the highway, on Third Avenue. A group of Hasidic men had the court just before them, so Horowitz told people to come a little late if they were afraid of running into someone who might recognize them.

Sol actually did recognize one of the Hasidic players. “Their wives probably think they’re at shul, learning,” he said. “It’s a shame they have to hide it.”

By all accounts, the basketball games were a mess, at least at first.

“We gave up playing with rules,” Horowitz said of the first time they played.

Some of the kids had never touched a ball. Others had a bit of game. Their coach, a 28-year-old former Lubavitcher Hasid from Brooklyn’s Crown Heights named Hirshy Cohen, had no coaching experience.

“It wasn’t like a high level of coaching that was needed,” Cohen said.

The players split the court into two half-court games, relatively experienced players playing on one side and first-timers playing on the other. Cohen tried to get the new players to run drills, but there wasn’t much interest. Instead he just let them play, refereeing a bit and managing the flow.

The games were coed, which was a matter of principle for Sol. He says he lived for too long with Orthodox edicts about separating the sexes.

“To me, not coed seems like another [Orthodox] idea,” he said.

With the arrival of warm weather, the game has moved outside. That’s good for the players, who had to pitch in to help cover the cost of the rented court.

For now, the change of venue feels good. More people come, and the soccer game is more relaxed. Sol and Horowitz picked teams, trying to convince even those who hadn’t wanted to play to join in.

In between games, Sol cooked up hot dogs on an aluminum pan grill. One attendee asked if the hot dogs were kosher. Told they were, the attendee joked, “Then I don’t want any.”

*Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at [nathankazis@forward.com](mailto:nathankazis@forward.com) or on Twitter [[@joshnathankazis](http://www.twitter.com/joshnathankazis)*


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