Despite Team’s Woes, Phillies’ Jewish Fans Still Flock to Games

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Fans will be coming out once again for Jewish Heritage Night next week. 

After Mark Steinberger got a transistor radio for his Bar Mitzvah in 1962, he would jog the AM dial until he found a station broadcasting Los Angeles Dodgers’ games from his Pottsville, Pa., bedroom. He sometimes had to settle for an all-night disc jockey in Fort Wayne, Ind., who happened to also like the Dodgers and would relay the score every few innings.

Steinberger eventually became a Phillies fan, and has been a season-ticket holder since 1976. While his allegiance may have shifted, his love of baseball has never wavered.


“To have 18 people entertain you for two-and-a-half to three hours, you can’t beat it,” said Steinberger, an attorney.

The connection between Jews and baseball is well-documented, as it was in last year’s National Museum of American Jewish History exhibit, Chasing Dreams: Baseball & Becoming American, and in the 2010 documentary, Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story.

That connection will be on display again next week, when fans gather May 12 at Citizens Bank Park for the annual Jewish Heritage Night with the Phillies.

Jewish Federation of Greater Phila­delphia, which organizes the evening, is expecting a sizable crowd — with 700 tickets sold so far —  despite the Phillies’ dismal record this year. The event this year is a doubleheader, opening with a community celebration of Israel Independence Day right outside the stadium.

So, just what is it that keeps fans coming back to Jewish Heritage Night and other Phillies games even when some might think you’d have to be a Phanatic to attend that event?

Steinberger said he gets inspiration to attend baseball games from sermons.

“In my untrained view, you can’t be an American rabbi and have a pulpit without talking baseball,” said Steinberger, 65, who belongs to Society Hill Synagogue, where Rabbi Avi Winokur has been known to wax poetic about baseball.

Winokur said he learned how to turn a Jewish double play — talking baseball and Torah — from his father, who was also a rabbi, who even found a way to address the dilemma faced by Sandy Koufax, who famously didn’t pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it was on Yom Kippur. At his father’s synagogue in Los Angeles during the High Holidays, a congregant would check the score on a radio outside the building, walk to the bimah and update Winokur’s father, who would then say, “The score is such and such in the seventh inning; now please turn to page such and such as we continue our service.

“At the time, I just though it was cute, but now that I’m a rabbi, I realize it was brilliant,” said Winokur, who splits his allegiance between the Dodgers and Phillies. “He made sure that people knew that he cared about the score.”

“And it also kept the kids in shul,” he added.

As for Jewish Heritage Night, which Winokur has attended a number of times, he said, “I just remember that camaraderie was great — that feeling of, we’re all just hanging out together.”

While an adolescent Winokur was cheering the Dodgers’ good times in California, Lee Hymerling was on the other coast, suffering alongside other Phillies fans. In 1961, in the midst of a stretch when the Phillies lost 23 straight games, a national record that still stands today, Hymerling was driving back from Connie Mack Stadium and accidentally ran a red light on Roosevelt Boulevard.

“The policeman said, ‘Where are you coming from?’ ” recalled Hymerling, now a 71-year-old attorney who lives in Haddonfield, N.J. and is a congregant at Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, N.J. “And it was perfectly obvious where I was coming from, but I said, ‘I’m coming from the Phillies game.’ He said, ‘Anyone who’s stupid enough to go to a Phillies game deserves a ticket.’ ”

Despite that incident, Hymerling continued to attend games at Connie Mack, Veterans Stadium and now, Citizens Bank Park.  Hymerling said he considers the current venue the best in all of baseball.

“Everybody is on top of the field,” he explained. “Maybe it’s by comparison because the Vet was so impersonal — you were way far away from the field — but in Citizens Bank, there really is not a bad seat.”

Josh Herman is a younger fan but can relate to Hymerling’s experience. He and some friends from his Jewish fraternity, Sigma Alpha Mu, decided to make the 11-hour drive from Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., to Philadelphia for the victory parade when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008. Somewhere along the way, the police stopped them and asked the driver to step out of the car. The next thing they knew, their friend was sharing the back seat of the police car with a German Shepherd. Herman and the rest of the passengers wondered whether the cop thought the friend, who had a stutter, had been drinking.

“He got back in the car, and we were like, ‘What happened?’ ”  said Herman, 28, who grew up in Lafayette Hill and attended Congregation Or Ami. “He said, ‘I don’t know. He was just going over my license and registration.’ ”

He didn’t know why the police let them go without a ticket but said he had explained to the officer, “We were going to the Phillies World Series parade.”

Herman, who lives in Center City and works in paper sales, has attended a number of Jewish Heritage Nights and said he enjoys hearing “the classic Jewish music between innings.”

But is “Hava Nagilah” enough to keep you in the stadium when the team is 10-17?

Given that everyone — from Phillies beat reporters to the team’s own front office to sports radio hosts — acknowledges that once again, the season will be a trainwreck, why is it that some fans keep coming back? And does being Jewish have anything to do with it?

“I think it’s about perseverance,” said Michael Saks, a 30-year-old teacher who lives in Bensalem and has attended a number of Jewish Heritage Nights. “On any given day, the score could be 10-2 or 5-0, and you can still come back and win, as long as you have fundamentals and the will. Jews have been persevering for thousands of years because we’ve been holding strong to our fundamentals, our basic principles.”

For some fans, the score and record is secondary. Adam Laver, a board member of Jewish Family and Children’s Service, had attended a few Jewish Heritage Nights when, in 2010, he got the idea to find a way for special needs clients “who have rare opportunities for socialization, to be together in a fun, safe, Jewish environment.” Citizens Bank now donates a suite every year during Jewish Heritage Night for special needs clients of JFCS. One year, the pop star Ke$ha was next door and came over to take photos with the fans.

“It’s definitely one of the highlights of my community service for the year to see the inspiration and the joy that the special needs clients have that night,” said Laver, an attorney who serves as a lay leader for a number of Jewish nonprofits.

Another highlight for Laver?

“Hearing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ in Yiddish.”

IF YOU GO

Jewish Heritage Night
May 12 at 4:30 p.m.
Celebrate Israel with music,
face painting, jugglers and
Maccabi athletes along Citizens Bank Way.

7:05 p.m. Phillies vs. Pirates
Glatt kosher food and snacks
will be available for purchase.
jewishphilly.org/phillies
to purchase tickets at a
discounted rate.

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