Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (or “JDS” as it was fondly known), the school my three brothers and I all attended from grades 6-12, had no football team and no swim team. Neither my brothers nor I cared about football; the absence of a swim team, however, we found frustrating. We couldn’t understand why JDS couldn’t rent pool-time from the JCC across the street. Fortunately, all of us were deep into our summer-league swim team, probably our collective favorite athletic venture of the year. We grew up in Northern Virginia, home of the illustrious Northern Virginia Swim League (NVSL), one of the largest public swimming leagues in the country. With over 100 neighborhood recreation centers fielding teams in 18 divisions, the NVSL presides over a 6-week competitive swimming season every summer, from mid-June through the end of July. The B-meets, which did not count for league standing and thus were markedly less competitive and more fun, were all on Monday nights. The A-meets, which did count, were on Saturday mornings.
Our first years in swimming, my brothers and I only did B-meets; my parents insisted that we attend synagogue on Saturday mornings. We were the only Jews on the team—my parents’ home is in the heart of the St. James Parish, featuring a large community church within a well-connected and active Northern Virginia Diocese—and our absence to the A-meets caused some raised eyebrows. I’m not sure I’d have had the impetus to question my parents’ edict alone, but Haskell, my middle brother, got feisty. He was by far the best swimmer of the four of us, and the coaches wanted him especially for Saturday meets; they knew he’d bring in points. One of them pulled us both aside. “Maybe you guys could have a talk with your parents?” they asked pointedly.
Haskell and I begged our Mom, who was the main stickler on the subject. Eventually we struck a compromise; as long as Mom didn’t have to serve as a timer or work the concession stand at Saturday meets (no problem, because they needed timers and concession workers on Mondays as well), and as long as we attended Saturday services with minimal complaining in the weekends before and after swim season, then we could attend meets during those six Saturdays. I’m sure, looking back, that it was a difficult compromise for Mom to make; I believe she understood that not only did we love swimming, but we yearned to be a part of our neighborhood community in Falls Church, VA, as well as our school community in Rockville, MD.
The memories of those summer swim meets are some of my happiest: I remember heading off to the pool just after sunrise with my brothers, having been too nervous to eat more than a granola bar for breakfast. The team would warm up together, each of us jittery in anticipation of our races. Then, when it was time to race, I remember the initial shock of diving into the cold pool again, sprinting as fast as I possibly could (NVSL races are never more than 100 meters), then anxiously slapping the edge of the pool and looking up to see how well I’d finished. Sometimes, that would result in tears; other times, in elation.
But there was a longer-lasting lesson in our summer swim team experience, which I don’t think even my mother foresaw. Many of our school friends, I realized, did not have friendships outside of the Jewish community. My brothers and I did, though—from swim team. Despite the initial hurdle of the Saturday meets, our mostly Catholic swim team friends, who all lived nearby, never made us feel any outsider status. I remember one Saturday night in particular, when I was set to drive a bunch of kids from swim team around in our family van—I believe we were going to make a series of “hits” in team’s yearly game of Super Soaker “assassination.” Mom had told us we couldn’t leave until after Havdalah. And so, when three stars were out, my brothers and I emerged from our house to find several team-members on our lawn, patiently waiting for us to fulfill our religious obligations so that we could all drive off into the Virginia twilight together.
My brothers and I together attended various Jewish day schools in France, then in Northern Virginia, and in Southern Maryland throughout our respective primary and secondary school years. The middle/high school we all attended, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (known as “JDS”), boasted a reasonably well-developed athletic program: They offered three seasons of sports, including soccer, basketball, track and cross-country, volleyball, softball, baseball, and briefly a lacrosse team. We competed against various other small schools, mostly parochial, in the Potomac Valley Athletic Conference.
Our most heated rivalries (i.e., the ones wherein we’d actually have some spectators at the games) were against two other Jewish schools: Beth T’Filoh, in Baltimore, and Hebrew Academy, also in the Rockville/Silver Spring area. Whenever we played either of these teams, our gym would be plastered with signs saying, “Let the Jews win!” or “Jews are the best athletes!” The rivalries were traditional, but good humored, and lacking in ferocity. Losing a basketball game, even to one of our “rival” teams, was no biggie—everyone would be over it in a day. Getting a low grade in Talmud—then you had a problem!
Looking back, I recognize and very much appreciate our school’s healthy attitude towards athletics: It was implicitly understood that sports were fun, but not the be-all-end-all of existence. If you wanted to be on a really competitive team, you played outside of school. (A lot of kids were on teams outside of school, either to have access to a more challenging program and possible “scouting,” or because our school didn’t offer a particular sport, as was the case with my brothers and me, who all participated in a neighborhood swim team.)
Nevertheless, despite the lack an obsessive sports culture, students—even ones without natural athleticism—were very much encouraged to try new sports and join teams. “Try out for basketball! We need people, and you might like it,” one of our gym teachers once told me, after seeing me shoot baskets (poorly) in the gym during a free period. I was predictably awful; I have no eye-hand coordination, and spent most of my time during games warming the bench. But I learned a lot from basketball—not only about the sport, but about being part of a team, and the value of keeping in shape year-round. When spring track season came along, I was glad I’d been running laps of the gym all winter long.
Judaism has traditionally held an ambivalent view of sports, dating from Hellenic times, and the “heathen” worship of the body implied by building enormous gymnasiums and participating in nude Olympics. Up to the rise of Zionism and the Maccabiah games, which have gone far to legitimize athleticism within our ranks, Jews have been more comfortable identifying as brainy than brawny. I remain grateful to JDS for embracing a modern and enlightened approach to sports, both for girls and guys (which might have been an issue in some religious schools), and fostering—if not Olympic-level skills—an appreciation for exercising the body as well as the mind.
Last weekend I ran the ING New York City Marathon, which was an amazing experience—essentially, a 26.2-mile long party celebrating running, community, and Gatorade. Running the marathon was a real “bucket-list” check-off for me, and the culmination (though certainly not the conclusion) of a love affair with running that began for me when I was 10 or 11, in the Jewish day school I attended in Northern Virginia.
Gesher Jewish Day School, where I was a student through 6th grade, was formerly housed in Agudas Achim Congregation (before it got a building of its own, the year after I graduated—I found it terribly unfair that the moment I was no longer a student there, Gesher suddenly had a swank new facility, including access to the local JCC’s swimming pool). Having to teach gym classes in what was, on Saturdays, the synagogue’s social hall, forced our P.E. teacher Mr. Slover to be creative. In an effort to get us motivated and excited about running as a sport in its own right (as opposed to a part of some other sport, like soccer or dodge-ball), he set up a competition called “The Big Cheese,” and put flyers for it all over the school. For my age group, the 6th graders, it involved running 18 laps around the social hall-cum-“gym”, on a “track” demarcated by carefully placed orange cones, in four minutes or less. The total distance was probably a third of a mile. If you achieved The Big Cheese, you got a prize—the nature of which Mr. Slover left intentionally mysterious, but promised would be “awesome.”
Each student had three tries to make it before a certain deadline. I remember that I failed the first two times, collapsing dramatically at lap 16 or 17 when Mr. Slover blew his whistle to signal “time’s up,” and in one case, crying in disappointment. I was all set to try again for my 3rd and final attempt (I had even been running laps around our courtyard on weekends, trying to improve my time) when the unthinkable happened—a blizzard struck the DC-area, and school was closed for an entire week.
After the initial elation at receiving another (unplanned) winter break, I realized with horror that my 3rdattempt at The Big Cheese would be cancelled along with school. There was no way I could make it by the deadline, now. I tried consoling myself with bitter thoughts that Mr. Slover’s prize was probably not that awesome, that The Big Cheese was a stupid competition anyway, and that getting a week off from school was the best thing that could ever happen.
When the snow melted and we returned to school, Mr. Slover showed yet again his gift for outside-the-box thinking, by unexpectedly pushing back the deadline for The Big Cheese. Third time was the charm, and come Wednesday (my next P.E. day after the return to school) I made my 18 laps in under four minutes, fair and square. I was overwhelmed by how incredible I felt—the satisfaction at having completed a race against the clock, beating my own time (and those of everyone who hadn’t taken The Big Cheese seriously) to achieve a goal. And, when Mr. Slover presented the prizes after morning minyan several days later—shiny copper medals on red, white, and blue ribbon (indeed, an “awesome” prize)—I knew I was hooked.
What followed was a middling career in middle and high school Track & Field, followed by the belated discovery (in senior year, three months before graduation) that long-distance running was “my thing,” and I should’ve been running Cross Country instead. Better late than never, I suppose. I took a break from running in college, then focused on swimming in my early 20s. I occasionally ran casually, for exercise or with friends. But nearly two decades after Mr. Slover and The Big Cheese, in 2011, I participated New York Road Runners’ “Israel Day 4-Miler” and was once again ensnared by that unbeatable thrill of competition against the clock.
That time, it stuck. I kept running, and I haven’t looked back since.