Program mixes flag football, Torah study

BY JOEL GOLDBERG, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

The football season began under the lights on Sept. 6 with the Saints and Colts nationally, and a double header locally: YPD vs. SLIC followed by St. Louis Kollel against GesherCity.

The inaugural season of “Torah and Turf” kicked off at the Jewish Community Center in Creve Coeur earlier this month with participants ranging from their early 20s to late 30s.

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Instead of strategizing about football before taking the field, Rabbi Avi Kula of St. Louis Kollel led a different sort of pre-game pep talk. Kula moderated a discussion group about the shofar and what it has to do with the theme of Rosh Hashanah. “We ask just basic questions and try to get people to think about why we’re doing certain things,” said Kula.

“Torah and Turf” is the brainchild of University City residents Mordechai Simon and Josh Gould, who decided last fall during Sukkot to combine football with Jewish studies. What resulted was a weekly gathering of about a dozen people in U. City to learn more about Judaism before throwing around the pigskin.

“Over the holidays a lot of people were in town,” recalled Gould, now a running back/wide receiver on the Kollel team. “A lot of people were off of work and off of school so we thought it would be a great opportunity for people to meet each other and get to know each other on a different level.”

A year later, the idea has grown into a four-team flag football league that will compete in a six-game regular season, followed by two weeks of playoffs.

The program was a perfect fit for Rabbi Kula, a lifelong New York Jets fan who has dedicated his life to teaching the Torah.

“What we’re trying to accomplish is to educate people through the Torah and we’re trying to do it in a way where it’s non-threatening and people can feel like they’re being inspired,” said Kula. “People love football and I enjoy playing football and that creates a lot of common ground to where people will come to a Torah part.”

St. Louis Kollel receiver Justin Brooks said he enjoys the competition, but it’s the preceding Torah sessions that make the gathering even more worthwhile.

“When I grew up I was a little more connected. I was bar mitzvahed and I got confirmed,” said Brooks.

“When I went away to college, I felt a little disconnect and I felt like I should be a little more involved to some degree. For me this was a great chance to do that,” he said.

The opportunity to educate a diverse group appealed to Kula.

“We have Orthodox, Conservative, Reform people. We have people who have been religious their whole lives and people who literally don’t know anything, ” Kula said.

Gould concurred. “It’s absolutely phenomenal. It sort of puts everybody on the same plane,” said Gould, the program’s co-founder.

Teams playing in the first game participate in Kula’s class at 7 p.m., before taking the field an hour later. The second set of teams join Kula to study at 8 p.m. and then play at 9 p.m. Kula’s night can best be described as ‘questions and quarterbacking.’

After two hours of Torah study, Kula has a chance to loosen up his arm — and the 27-year old rabb has opened eyes as a signal caller.

Brooks, the wide receiver, said, “I was very shocked. He’s a little more religious than I am but to see him get out there and toss a ball around. I didn’t expect that out of him.”

Kula’s loves the game of football, but his goal reaches well beyond the field.

“When people walk out, what I would hope is that they would realize that not only is the football something that’s in common with us, but the Torah’s something which is in common between us. That’s what really unites us as a people,” said Kula.

Opening night for “Torah and Turf” overcame initial adversity. Two of the teams were shorthanded, but the football and Kula’s classes continued, a sign of the group’s camaraderie. “We had some really good, competitive games,” said Gould. “It was nice that people volunteered to stay later or come earlier.”

The league will conclude in November with two weeks of playoffs. A new session begins next spring.

For more information about “Torah and Turf,” contact Rabbi Avi Kula at [email protected], or 314-726-6047.

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