On a warm Sunday morning in mid-April, a softball game in Brookeville was sure laid back for what some here considered to be a milestone.
A man in his 40s ripped a double into left field, and after safely reaching second base, he immediately called for a replacement runner to take his place.
“I really don’t want to pull anything,” he said, laughing.
It was the middle of Passover, and due to the holiday synagogues were having trouble fielding teams. And so members of four teams from synagogues representing four Jewish movements combined to field enough players for the game to go on, although the game didn’t count toward the league’s standings.
It may have been a first for the all-male league to have players from Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues on the field together. But the fact that this milestone occurred and that it was greeted in such a relaxed way speak to what has kept the league going for nearly three decades.
In that time, the fortunes of the Suburban Maryland Synagogue Softball League have ebbed and flowed. It now contains 19 teams and 300 players, and players say the league’s laid-back approach has helped it thrive despite declining synagogue membership and the league’s requirement that players be member of a synagogue (or the son of a member).
Like other players, Marc Meltzer, the captain of Ohev Sholom, the Orthodox team in the intra-movement pick-up game, put what makes the league successful in simple terms.
“It’s a good opportunity to get out on Sunday morning, hang with the fellas and do something we don’t do during the work week or on the Sabbath,” he said.
Ken Salins, the captain of the Temple Emanuel team, the Reform participant in the four-movement game, described the “camaraderie” of the league. Having four movements on the field sends a message about Judaism, he added.
“Outsiders tend to see the Jewish community as one big monolithic group, but that’s not really what we are,” he said. “We have our different spheres we interact with and, unfortunately, those circles don’t intersect as much as they could.”
Part of the reason the league is so easygoing is that it skews older than many other softball leagues, according to league co-commissioner Larry Parizer. The older age of the players is due in part to the fact that synagogues tend to have trouble recruiting young adults, he and others said.
“The beauty of this league is that it’s not like the other leagues you see,” Parizer said. “It’s not too competitive, you can feel comfortable playing even if you’re not that great. And it’s on Sunday morning, which is a great time for Jewish people.”
But players do care about winning, and one team in particular, from the Washington Hebrew Congregation, has emerged as a powerhouse in recent years, winning the championship for four out of the past five years and starting this season undefeated after eight games.
First-, second- and third-place winning teams receive trophies.
Captain Rob Bindeman couldn’t explain his team’s success — he made a joke about attending a Dominican training academy — but pointed to camaraderie to the bond among players.
“Our rabbi has remarked that when we [the players] see each other at the synagogue, we don’t greet each other with a handshake; we greet each other with a hug,” said Bindeman, who has been on his congregation’s team for a decade. “I’ve seen teammates go from being single to having their third child. There’s this sense of community that a team develops, and that’s what’s special about this league.”