In It To Win It

They wander in a few minutes early — the rabbi, the baker, the doctors and many others — clasping hands and murmuring “Shalom aleichem” before preparing themselves for the evening’s proceedings.

But this isn’t synagogue, and soon they’re helmeted, armed with sticks and running full tilt. This is the Oakland Kochavim street/ball hockey league in Oakland, Calif., grown from a handful of guys from back east who pined for their childhood sport into a well-organized group with about 60 players on the roster.

“When I came here, I was so missing what I had grown up with back home in Toronto, where after going to synagogue for services often times we would play,” said founder Yossi Offenberg, 42, who works for the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. “I wanted to sort of re-create that experience, and sure enough I found kindred spirits.”

About 15 to 20 players turn out for each game, which is always played Sunday night, “when the wives will let us play,” Offenberg said. Tonight he’s a goalie. Bulked up with protective pads, he throws himself around with wild abandon, parrying merciless snapshots that send the orange ball careening his way.

Rabbi Judah Dardik, 32, a Tenafly, N.J., native now living in Oakland, remembers talking with Offenberg a few years ago about getting the men of their congregation, Beth Jacob, involved in a social activity; soon they and a few others were whacking a ball around the Orthodox synagogue’s social hall. “Everything went well, until the synagogue redid the floors and walls. And that was the end of hockey there,” the rabbi said.

For a while they played on borrowed space here and there: once on gravel (bad idea — no traction, lots of scrapes) and at least once on a public school’s playing field illuminated by their cars’ headlights. Then Offenberg struck a deal with the Dry Ice Roller Hockey Arena near Oakland International Airport, and finally the Kochavim had a home. Word of mouth has brought in players — mostly Jewish, though not all — from all over the Bay Area; even neophytes show up once they realize there’s no skating involved, just running.

“We just get out there and play,” the lanky Dardik said, donning his helmet. “I don’t want anyone to treat me like a rabbi, and I don’t play like a rabbi.”

Which is good, because although checking isn’t allowed, sticks, limbs and the floor accidentally collide. Often. And hard.

Andrew Lascher, 33, a Houston native who fell in love with hockey while attending college in Massachusetts, was playing in his second Kochavim game. “I got banged up pretty badly” the first time, the San Francisco pain-management doctor said with a grin, noting that a colossal hip bruise had healed only just enough for him to sleep on his side again.

Bob Jaffe, 46, brought macaroons from Grand Bakery, the Oakland bakeshop he owns. The Bergen County, N.J., native has played hockey since his teens. “The cops didn’t like it, but we used to try to flood our street and see if it would ice over,” Jaffe said, noting that he’s at least a decade older than most of the players on the Kochavim league.

“My doctor likes it,” he said while taking a breather. “I play softball, but you don’t break a sweat playing that.”

Josh Richman covers politics and legal affairs for California’s Oakland Tribune.

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