Sports & Immigrant Jews

Immigrant Jews delved into sports to prove their mettle as Americans.

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Reprinted with permission from the American Jewish Desk Reference (The Philip Lief Group).

Although few people in the contemporary era equate Jews with the world of sports, Jewish Americans have a long and rich history in amateur and professional athletics. Sports provided Jewish immigrants with an opportunity to feel "Americanized" and express their ethnic pride. Because of the broad popularity of athlet­ics among diverse sectors of the American public, suc­cess in the field gave Jews a measure of social status and respect. Through their involvement in a common American experience, Jews helped allay notions that they were alien and undesirable without sacrificing their Jewish identity or their importance to the Jewish community at large.
jews and sports
Modern sports evolved in the United States in the 19th century, and the religiously liberal, up­wardly mobile German Jews viewed involvement in organized athletics as a means of gaining stature and recognition. The wealthiest of this group, such as Au­gust Belmont, bought race horses, while others pur­chased teams in the new and evolving sport of baseball. This generation of immigrants established the Young Men's Hebrew Association (YMHA) in 1874, aimed at emulating the Christian YMCA in using sports and recreational activities to improve the moral, social, and educational life of young German Jews.

Countering "Softness"

The late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed both a flood of new Jewish immigrants into American cities and an increasing symbolic attach­ment to encouraging athletic prowess for the nation as a whole and especially for young American males. At a time when massive urbanization and immigration drastically altered the composition and demographics of the country, many Protestant reformers expressed anxiety about the decline of the virtuous values asso­ciated with the rura1 frontier. They bemoaned the "softness" and "complacency" associated with the de­velopment of modern society. The Jewish voice urging involvement in sports was loudest among the most as­similated and successful sectors of the German Jewish community, who viewed it as a core component of acculturation.Jewish sporta

Although the YMHA as an institution continued to serve German Jews, its programs increasingly sought to teach Eastern European newcomers what it consid­ered to be the necessary components of Americaniza­tion. For its leaders, athletics and morality went hand in hand. Jewish institutions such as the YMHA and the Educational Alliance embraced the belief that par­ticipation in sports was an important method of easing the transition from immigrant to American. Both Jew­ish and non-Jewish reformers sought to develop orga­nized sports clubs and athletic associations as a means of developing "teamwork" and "cooperation" skills among these new immigrants.

Progressive Era re­formers viewed team sports as a tool to prevent vice and delinquency among youth by moving them out of the streets and into supervised spaces such as gymnasiums, playgrounds, and ball fields. In 1911, Julia Richman recommended to the Committee on Education of the Educational Alliance that the gym be opened on certain afternoons for "girls between the ages of 11 and 15, who are wandering aimlessly about the streets and who might be attracted to amusement halls and other places of dubious influence."

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