WINCHESTER – When Temple Beth El in Belmont reached out to Temple Shir Tikvah in Winchester more than a decade ago and asked if anyone wanted to play softball, it was hard to predict that anything would come of it. Eleven years, 40 teams and 900 players later, the Men’s Shul Softball League has emerged as a great bonding experience for many, and the team from Winchester embodies the camaraderie.
With the cancellation of the league’s season, Shir Chutzpah, the team representing Shir Tikvah, a reform temple in Winchester, has found creative ways to stay in touch and maintain their camaraderie through the pandemic.
Through virtual softball and team Zoom meetings, Steve Smith, a teacher from Winchester and the team’s manager, has turned a difficult situation into a bright spot as the days become more and more mundane.
Over the last few seasons Smith would email the box scores along with a humorous post-game report to his teammates, adding to the joy of playing each Sunday and helping the guys stay in touch.
This spring, when the season was supposed to begin, Smith proposed virtual softball to his teammates, citing a game he used to play with his baseball card collection.
In addition to the T-shirts and hats that every softball team has, Smith has supplied his teammates with an assortment of gifts over the years. One of his first gifts was team yarmulkes, which have gained some popularity at the temple. “To see the Shir Chutzpah yarmulkes sprinkled throughout the crowd, which I can pick out, is pretty cool,” Smith said. One year Smith made custom softball cards for players with their statistics and a brief biography on the backs of the cards. “Our rabbis over these last 10 years have proudly worn uniforms, yarmulkes and other assorted paraphernalia that I’ve given to them from our team.”
David Aptaker, originally from Abington, PA and now living in Arlington, appreciates how Smith has maintained the fun of game and the team camaraderie during the pandemic. “Steve is a great organizer and a great team-builder,” Aptaker said. He remembers Smith gifting the team ice packs one year.
While the virtual games keep the players in touch, jokes and friendly mocking among the players continues. Aptaker, one of the self-proclaimed better hitters on the team, has gone hitless in each of the virtual games aside from “a slow-rolling ground ball to the infield where all 10 fielders fell down at the same time,” which resulted in a double.
Neil Fisher of Lexington, Shir Chutzpah’s third baseman, has known Smith since the two attended Swarthmore College. They reconnected at Temple Shir Tikvah and became close through playing together on the softball team. “Steve is an incredible manager and an incredible person,” Fisher said.
The friendship they formed as teammates extends off the field and beyond softball season. According to Smith, Aptaker and Fisher, the team has formed a special bond – the teammates are there for each other, whether simply getting together to watch a game or lending a hand when a teammate is going through a personal struggle.
“There is a lot of camaraderie that is real and encouraging and spirit-lifting during this time where there is a lot of difficult things going on,” Fisher said. “This softball team has been a way to branch out and meet new members of the temple that you wouldn’t otherwise meet and form relationships.”
Aptaker spoke on his connection to the temple and what it means to him. “There’s a lot of people there who have interest in making the world a better place,” he said. “Good people there who care about bigger issues.”
Smith said that joining the temple has helped him with “reconnecting with a spiritualism I lost track of in my early 20s.” He also said that his children were a big factor in deciding to join the temple.
The goal for the team is to have fun, and the bond they have formed off the field is a personification of the Jewish brotherhood. “We enjoy each other’s successes. That’s really fun for us,” Smith said. “When David [Aptaker] hits a massive home run and when a lesser-skilled player gets a hit or makes a good play, that’s as exciting to us as anything.”