03 May RABBI WALLERSTEIN ZT”L LOVED THE O.B.B.L.: REMEMBERING RABBI ZECHARIAH WALLERSTEIN Z”TL
THE INTERVIEW BELOW IS AN INTERVIEW THAT ARI HIRSCH FROM THE JEWISH VUES DID WITH RABBI ZECHARIAH WALLERSTEIN Z”TL DURING THE SUMMER OF 2010. BY READING THIS ARTICLE, IT BECOMES VERY OBVIOUS WHAT A SPECIAL PERSON RABBI ZECHARIA WALLERSTEIN REALLY WAS.
Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstein is a man of many positions. Rabbi Wallerstein is the head of Ohr Naava, a girl’s organization which gives shiurim for over 3,000 girls at night. The Rabbi also runs a girls’ seminary called Ateres Naava, a girls’ high school called Bnot Chaya, a plastic bag business, is the President of the Crown Heights Yeshiva in Mill Basin, gives a chabura at Ohr Yitzchak on Tuesday nights and Ohr Naava on Wednesday nights. Yet with so much to do, Rabbi Wallerstein still finds time for one of his most beloved passions: playing softball in the O.B.B.L.
How many years have you been playing in the OBBL?
I played at Kaufman’s and then at Regency for twenty years.
What is your position?
I play first base. I used to play left field.
Has your team ever won the title?
We have won five titles.
What does the O.B.B.L. mean to you?
Actually, I look forward to playing on Sunday mornings. It’s pretty much the only sport I play the whole year. I look forward to the competition, being together with a bunch of guys, and having a good time. I love sports.
What part of the OBBL would you say needs improvement?
Middos. I feel that grown men shouldn’t take a game so seriously that they scream at each other and hold grudges and be upset. I think that there are a lot of kids that watch and there are fights about calls and things like that which are a big Chillul Hashem. I think that when we go to the game we should take it seriously and try as hard as we can to play the game as best as we can. Outside of that, we need to remember that we are adults, we are examples to our children, and that comes before whether you are safe or not at home, whether it’s a strike or a ball.
Why do you think the OBBL is so successful?
I think that teamwork is a very Jewish thing and I also think that the whole basis of Judaism is being part of a team. Achdus is being part of a team. So here you are part of a team every Sunday morning. We’re part of a minyan, we’re part of a mishpacha, we’re part of Klal Yisroel. We’re always part of a group. So here, you’re part of a group, you’re part of a baseball team and part of a league. It’s important. Everyone wants to belong [to something]. I deal with a lot of kids at risk. I deal with children who are on drugs. I deal with kids who stay up until 5 o’clock in the morning and kill time. In thirty-two years of dealing with children, I have yet to meet one who is on drugs that is an athlete. The first thing I ask them, or a kid with low self-esteem, is “Do you play ball?” and the answer is “No.” Because if you play ball, the adrenalin you get from playing ball is better than any drug you can get in the world, and if you’re good at it and if you work hard at it, then you belong to a group. One of the reasons kids fall into the street is because they feel they don’t belong to anything and the street has its own underground railroad, so to say, its own gang mentality, so the minute he hits the streets, those kids take him in and he belongs. But if he’s on a team, he belongs. I’ve been playing hockey since I’m five years old and B”H, I never smoked, I never drank, I never did drugs and I hung out with kids who were cool. I was cool and I was a drummer and everyone asked me why I didn’t do all these things. Why would I drink and do drugs? I was a hockey player! My drug was skating, getting that goal, getting that breakaway. So I find that the best thing for parents is to get their kids to play sports, to make them good, to work with them, and to make them part of a team. It’s the cleanest yetzer hara in the world and it’s healthy. Guys who are good ball players are not drug addicts, they do not need it.
Is playing baseball bitul zman?
For sure not. Playing a sport is not bitul zman. Studying the major leagues, studying the teams, knowing all the nonJewish players and their averages is avodah zara. Avodah Zara is something that you’re working at that is zara-strange, nothing to do with Judaism. But b’chai bahem exercising and playing ball I think that is why Hashem created sports. It’s good for your self-esteem, it’s good for your body, but believing in sports and making it into such an important part of your life is avodah zara. You can be a fan, but Derek Jeter shouldn’t be your super star, Reb Moshe Feinstein should be your superstar. Walking around in Derek Jeter shirts, I don’t think parents realize we’re making it into avodah zarah.
Many people might say that men playing ball Sunday mornings throughout the summer is chutzpah after the men leave their wives the entire week. How do you respond to that?
That’s a good question. If you have a good marriage and your wife respects the things that you love and you respect the things that she loves, then aside from playing ball you should spend time with her over the summer. Come up early on Thursday. Playing ball in a good marriage is something I think a wife would understand. And a husband at the same time might have to go shopping at Woodbury Commons because that’s what she enjoys and that’s part of a good marriage. If playing baseball is a problem in the marriage then there’s a lot more going on. The time that you spend with your family, you should really be there, and not on your cell phones. Fathers should take their little boys to the games to watch. It’s very important. When a kid looks at his father, and he’s an athlete, he looks at his father in a different way; he’s more human. Just like he stands next to his father during davening, he should watch his father when he plays ball. He should get a whole picture of his father. Of course, then his father shouldn’t be cursing and being a sore loser and yelling.
What’s your take on wearing tzizis when playing baseball?
I do. The heter for not wearing tzitzis is getting them dirty and sweating profusely. It’s not a basketball game. You’re not sweating profusely. I don’t know the psak; you’d have to ask a Rav because if you’re wearing shorts then your tzitzis are touching your skin and you have a problem. I don’t wear shorts when I play baseball because I’m always dreaming about sliding. It’s a mitzvah to wear it every second and I’m not willing to give that up.
Do you follow professional sports? What team(s) do you root for?
I’m a Yankee fan, a Giants fan, and a Ranger fan. I know the Yankees are … It doesn’t make any changes in my life, it’s just a point of information. Do I talk about the Yankees? No. I grew up with them. Do I want them to win the World Series? Yes. Would I miss something to go to a game? No. But I think that comes with age.
Please tell our readers about the Motzei Shabbos program you started up with at the Kiamesha Bowling Alley?
We found many years ago that Kiameshe became a big hang-out. Kids were just sitting there and smoking- girls and boys. It was not a good place at all. And then from Kiameshe they were going to all these parties. And there really wasn’t anything for a girl to do Motzei Shabbos. So we came up with the idea that we were going to rent out the bowling alley for girls from 11- 3 am. They come for free and bowl. There’s air hockey and pizza for everyone. No boys on the premises. Then we found out after that a lot of girls who were hanging out on the side, who didn’t really want to hang out, but they didn’t really know what to do, we called them the “tourists,” who were on their way to a party, would drop by and they would end up coming to bowl. And the girls know that Motzei Shabbos for 8 or 9 weeks they can come bowl and hang out with their friends. We’ve been extremely successful and have cleaned up the mountains. There’s between 100 and 200 girls every Motzei Shabbos.
Is there anything special going on at Ohr Naava that you would like to share with Vues readers?
We’re always growing. We just hired an Ohr Naava Shadchan. This year for the first time ever we had a bake sale and a Chinese Auction. We have our Avinu Malkeinu in Brooklyn College. We also opened up a High School two years ago. We have thirty girls who were all on the street and all had not been in school, and of these girls who the rest of the world had given up on, out of the nine graduating girls, seven of them are going to good seminaries next year in Eretz Yisroel. We’ve proved to the world that if the whole world has given up on you, but you haven’t given up on yourself, you’re going to accomplish a lot. It doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks. And a lot of people had given up on these girls, but they hadn’t given up on themselves. We gave them a place.
Is there anything else you would like to add about the OBBL?
Baseball is a family game and they shouldn’t forget that. When these guys come with their stats, they’re taking the fun out of the game. This is the problem with our yeshivas today. Goyishe competition is based on the Greek Olympics. Judaism doesn’t have competition. You won’t find it anywhere in the Torah. One time the Gemara talks about competition. The Kohen chosen to do Trumas Hadeshen was the one who ran up to the Mizbeach first. One time there were two Kohanim who ran and one pushed the other off and he broke his leg. Now he had a blemish so he couldn’t do it. So the Gemara said competition is not for Jews. From that point on they did their finger choosing to see who would get to do it. Competition is one of the problems with sports. We need to talk to our children about it. For instance, the Super Bowl. The whole year a team can work really hard and get to the Super Bowl and then the camera zooms in on the losing team and you see these big mean guys sitting on their helmets, guys sitting and crying on the sidelines. What are they telling the world? It doesn’t matter how hard they tried. If you don’t win the final game, then it’s all worthless. And this is what we’re telling our children in school. If you don’t get the hundred, it doesn’t matter how hard you worked. If you only got a 65, you’re worthless. The valedictorian is the one who gets up and the rest of you sit down. There’s one yeshiva I know who doesn’t have a valedictorian. They’re brilliant. Because there are kids who are sitting in the crowd who worked much harder than the valedictorian and they see this kid get up there and they’re 65 students but they tried. But they’re not going to get rewarded so when they get to high school, they’re out and they end up on the streets. Effort in sports is not rewarded. It used to be: It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. That’s gone. Today it’s: It’s not whether you win or lose. It’s whether you win. Totally changed. I think the parents when they play sports, when they come home and they’ve lost, even if it’s a championship game, they need to turn to their family and say: We worked hard, we tried, I did my best, who cares who wins or loses, instead of walking home and saying: I don’t want to talk today. We got slammed. What are you teaching your children? That’s the danger of American sports, that there’s only one winner, and that’s very sad.
I got an email a few years ago. They showed a scene from the Olympics, maybe eight or ten years ago where there was a famous black woman in a relay race who tripped and fell and I believe she broke her ankle and she was laying on the track and everyone in the race ran right by her. Then you see the medics come out and put her on the stretcher. Then the email fades out and they show the Special Olympics where there are ten Down Syndrome children and they’re about to start the race. About six or ten yards into the race, the kid in the middle stumbles and falls on the floor, just like she did. They all take one step, stop, turn around, they all pick the kid up, and carry her to the side. One of them got hurt, so they all stopped racing. Then this thing comes across the screen that says: So who’s really normal? The Down Syndrome kids understood: it’s not about winning or losing. Someone got hurt. In the Olympics with us, it’s all about winning, so if someone is hurt, jump right over them.
This was such an amazing lesson to me. We can take a lesson from these Down Syndrome kids- it’s not all about winning.