On fall Sundays, Daniel Eisenstadt makes the drive from Center City to the Mandell Education Campus on Old York Road with his wife and two daughters.
They go to participate in the Kehillah of Old York Road’s Sunday Soccer League, where his 10-year-old and 7-year-old daughters play and where he and his wife serve as volunteer coaches.
“Our two younger girls were both interested in playing soccer, but all the leagues that we knew of, whether in Center City or on the Main Line, were heavy Saturday leagues,” said Eisenstadt, a member of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel who described his family as traditional. “Although we’re not fully shomer Shabbat, our preference is to try hard not to make commitments that prevent us from always going to shul or always observing Shabbat in the way we want to.”
The league, which is celebrating its 20th year, is comprised of five co-ed divisions broken down by grade. There is also a special needs team for older kids. For the upcoming season, which begins Sept. 9 and ends Nov. 18, the league expects more than 200 players.
This fall, if enough people sign up, there also will be a new special needs team for younger kids and a soccer skills training clinic for middle school girls.
“Our league is incredible,” said Kim Decker, the league coordinator. “We’re not a travel soccer league. That’s what we’re not. We’re a community league. And when I say community, [I mean it in] the best possible way, in a special, incredible way. We don’t turn anyone away for lack of funds or, clearly, people’s abilities or disabilities. We welcome every kind of person. It’s where I made my closest friends.”
Decker encourages people interested in the league to register before July 31, to get a sweatshirt, in addition to the jersey the players or the T-shirt the coaches will get. Registration can be completed at kehillahsoccer.org, by emailing email@example.com or by calling 267-630-5772.
Decker said the league brings people from across the Philadelphia area and across the spectrum of Jewish observance, as well as some non-Jews.
Some members of the kehillah started the Sunday Soccer League in the late ’90s, with the goal of providing an opportunity for children to play soccer on Sundays. Over the years, the league has grown, with an uptick of about 25 percent this past year, Decker said. Considering the fact that many Jewish communities are shrinking, Decker said this growth makes the league special.
The league also puts on special events, for which it sometimes partners with other Jewish organizations in the community, such as an edible sukkah-making event with jkidphilly in the upcoming season.
“Kids learn the basics of the game of soccer, but they also learn sportspersonship and friendship,” Decker said. “They’re just having fun. That’s what it’s really about. … It’s really about building community.”
Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, the whole community inclusion director at Jewish Learning Venture, used to have a son and daughter in the league.
Her son played on the special needs team. As he is on the autism spectrum and has an intellectual disability, he needed someone with him on the field to help him navigate. The kids on the special needs team have a range of needs and not everyone requires as much support as her son.
When they first got involved, Kaplan-Mayer said, her younger daughter wanted to play and, because of the special needs team, her son was able to join her daughter in the league.
“It was really nice to see him in a place where it was comfortable for him to try the experience,” Kaplan-Mayer said. “[It was] just a totally supportive environment. He really enjoyed going and seeing the kids.”
Because the Eisenstadts were already spending Sundays at Mandell Education Campus, they decided to get involved as volunteer coaches.
It’s a communal league, Eisenstadt said, but the soccer is competitive. The coaches, including the parent volunteers, take their jobs seriously. The league provides uniforms, and the kids get cleats for the league, which steps up everybody’s game.
“We didn’t do it choosing what would be the most competitive soccer league,” he said. “We did it because it was a Jewish soccer league, but we’ve been really pleased with the level of both instruction [and] coaching, on both soccer and menschlichkeit.
“When you’re part of a league, it’s one thing to get good instruction to your kids about the sport, but it’s almost as important, if not more important, that they understand sportsmanship and they understand what it means to be part of a team and what that commitment means.”