Baseball and softball are akin to a right of passage for youth. Those bonds feel almost sacred when forged on fertile diamonds. For families who observe the Sabbath, these sports are a natural profession of faith and are offered in local leagues which accommodate for weekly observance.
Thirty years ago, Ronnie Becher and Mary Pilossoph wanted a direct counterpart to the already established Kosher Little League for boys. This time for Jewish girls interested in softball. Whereas their brothers, or even dads, honed their craft in the Kosher Little League, a League of Our Own had a saturated market for young Jewish girls, and took inspiration from the sports comedy and drama film “A League of Their Own,” which was released a year earlier in 1992 and is preserved in the National Film Registry.
“When they got up to bat you would hear the groans,” Becher said of the girls who gave KLL a whirl. “It was not warmly received.”
Starting out, Becher, then a teacher at P.S. 24, raised the profile of the league by providing eligibility to girls at the school who wanted a chance to compete. This increased the membership base, and did a good deed for even those who were non-Jewish.
“I went around and spoke to the girls and we made up flyers,” Becher said. “We wound up getting a significant number of girls from P.S. 24.”
The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale played an instrumental role in commissioning the League of Our Own. For the socially active Orthodox synagogue, it was worth getting behind so that local Jewish girls interested in sports felt they belonged and were part of something bigger than themselves. A few of the rabbis’ children have even strutted their skills for KLL.
“To feel part of that continuum in even a small way through the title of the league meant so much to me,” said Saranoa Mark, a former shortstop in League of Our Own who played for the local Yankees and Pirates in the early 2000s. “Everyone respected each other and our game spoke for itself.”
Rafi Halpert is the commissioner of ther league and assumed the duties during the pandemic. Halpert lives in New Rochelle, but he is in no way an outsider in Riverdale. Without him stepping up to manage the league, it may have stalled for good.
“My wife was one of the first players to play in the league and I wanted to make sure our daughter and her friends would have the same opportunity,” Halpert said.
Under Halpert’s watch, there were four teams in both the Junior and Senior divisions. The former division is composed of girls in the third to fifth grades and the latter cohort is in sixth to eighth grades. The Padres prevailed in the Junior Division while the Blue Sox struck glory in the Senior Division.
Despite the push for equal opportunities for girls, the mission of KLL and League of Our Own is one and the same to this day. A majority of the players already attend schools together at SAR, and KLL specifically has attracted players from Westchester County and Manhattan. Given that Saturday is off limits for the ballplayers, the schedule features games on Sunday and Tuesday.
The games are competitive and create friendly rivalries, according to Josh Schlanger, whose son, Eitan, plays in the six-team Junior Division.
Eitan, who mostly plays first base for the Twins, is immersed in the experience to the point of reciting different teams and players with ease. Schlanger says many times during the season his conversations with his son shift to results around KLL among other developments.
And if it is that fun, well, then who can blame him.
“There were weeks where it was all he could talk about,” Schlanger said. “He would talk about the team standings and who is the best player on each team.”
This season the Junior League Championship was won by the Orioles, who defeated the Dodgers, 14-4, on June 18.
KLL co-commmissioners Danny Kochavi and Danny Lew capped off their first year in charge by inviting all the teams out for the finale, which also featured the Royals defeating the Rockies, 6-3, for the Senior League Championship.
“There was a sense throughout the season that anyone could make it,” Schlanger said of the competitiveness of KLL. “They invited everyone to come out and watch the championships and it was a great community experience.”
Kochavi and Lew each have sons competing in KLL, and by taking on the mantle as co-commissioners and coaches, it was their chance to give back to a league valued by many in the local Orthodox community.
“After a few years coaching, we wanted to bring another level of fun and camaraderie to the league,” said Kochavi, who saw the league player pool grow from 80 to 105 boys this season.
“Learn, play and build friendships” are the tenets Kochavi stresses. Those have been at the cornerstone for a while now, and the current co-commissioners are carrying that momentum on with their own management.
“The league is top notch,” Schlanger said. “The commissioners did a great job this year of making the teams as competitive as they could be.”
Even on the ball field, Jews faced discrimination as part of a larger anti-immigration bias in the early part of the 20th century. Still, sports was their best way to integrate into the American way of life, says Jeffrey Gurock, professor of Jewish history at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies of Yeshiva University.
“Historically sports was unknown for East European Jews,” said Gurock, who has authored 25 books ranging in topics from Jews in sports to New York City neighborhoods. “The Kosher Little League is a metaphor for how modern Orthodox Jews have tried to live harmoniously in two cultures.”
Gurock cites how the U.S. calendar is not cohesive with the Jewish calendar and its accompanied traditions. However, that did not stop Gurock giving his son a playing experience with KLL, and the same is true for droves of other Sabbath-observant families in and around Riverdale.
“It is an attempt to be as American as everyone else without going outside your religious fidelity,” Gurock said.
Gurock was equally interested in League of Our Own for the same reasons. His daughter’s childhood window missed out on the league, but he too was inspired by their mission.
“It reflects an awareness on the part of American women that they too can be part of American culture,” Gurock said.
League of Our Own made a lot of sense for the league’s name for its endearing Americana backdrop portrayed amidst the suffering of World War II. It felt like a dream come true to reenact it with their own real life stories.
“It held such a huge space in my imagination,” Saranoa Mark said of the movie. “My first dream was to be a baseball player.”
The inauguration of the league in 1993 was seminal, too, making it the only known girls sports league in the country at the time tailored for Orthodox Jews. Gurock petitioned the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia to create an art exhibit recognizing the grassroots league.
That vision became a reality in 2014, and so did an art book about it entitled Chasing Dreams: Baseball and becoming America published by the museum.
“My Sundays were spent in Seton Park from 8 am to 5 pm,” Becher said of raising her four children around the ball field. “I enjoyed every second of it.”