With the first pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training in Arizona and Florida next week, sports fans’ thoughts turn to the national pastime. Rabbi Jason Bonder, who heads the religious school at Temple Emanuel of Tempe, has a particularly strong tie to the sport, having played in the single season of the Israel Baseball League back in 2007.
Becoming a rabbi “was not Plan A for me,” Bonder says. “I grew up loving to play baseball and played for a long time.” Judaism, he says, “was my parallel path.”
As a youngster growing up in Plainview, on New York’s Long Island, he played in Little League and town leagues. After graduating from eighth grade at a Solomon Schechter Day School, a Conservative Jewish school, he went to public high school. “Schechter was a small school and we thought it might be better for me to go to public school and be a part of bigger classes and everything, but a big part of it was, ‘Well, the public school has a ball team.’ And I wanted to play and compete and so, yeah, I made the team and went to public high school.”
He played Division 3 baseball for Muhlenberg College. He also double-majored in history and religion studies at the school in Allentown, Pennsylvania. While working at the school’s Hillel in his senior year, he learned of an opportunity to play professional ball in Israel.
Larry Baras, a Boston-based entrepreneur, founded the small professional Israel Baseball League that summer with six teams – representing Modi’in, Petach Tikvah, Bet Shemesh, Ra’anana, Tel Aviv and Netanya – and a 40-game schedule. Two former Major Leaguers – Art Shamsky and Ken Holtzman – were among the team managers.
“I would describe it as baseball camp for adults,” Bonder says with a laugh. “They flew in 120 of us from around the world.”
In addition to the 77 players from the U.S. like himself, the league’s players came from as far afield as Australia, Japan and the Dominican Republic. The Dominican players, he says, “were by far the best players I’ve ever played with on the same field.”
He pitched for the Tel Aviv Lightning during the league’s sole season. He started a few games, but mostly served as a relief pitcher. He earned a 1-1 record and he recorded a save in the last game of the season.
The players were housed at a school for underprivileged children while the students were on their summer break, he says. “Living conditions were not the best at all. ... Some people had air conditioners. Some people didn’t. ... It was a very interesting experience, but I was right out of college and I was living for free and getting paid a very nominal, very small amount of money to play ball, and it was a lot of fun.”
Then, he was ready to move on to his graduate work in Jewish studies at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, which led to his rabbinical studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He was ordained in June 2015.
While playing in a baseball summer league during high school, the Philadelphia Phillies drafted the leadoff hitter from his team. Having someone that close to him make it that far helped him evaluate his own chances more realistically, he says. “I kind of developed this philosophy of at the end of the day, can I look in the mirror and say, ‘I gave it my all, my best shot to make it to the highest level of baseball that I could’? And so, for me, that moment was at Muhlenberg.”
In addition to playing on the Muhlenberg team, he played in a summer league sponsored by Major League Baseball. “That whole summer was kind of like, ‘Wow. These guys are pretty darn good,’ ... the summer where I said, ‘You know what? It looks like I’m not going to be able to go to that next step. I’d better figure this out.’ ”
When he figured it out, baseball’s loss was the rabbinate’s gain.
This article recasts an interview originally featured in the Temple Emanuel newsletter.