The Hall of Fame on Long Island

The National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame is in a JCC, on Long Island. It's not Cooperstown, but there's some magic there all the same.
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There’s a running joke between Sandy Koufax and Mets co-owner Fred Wilpon about attending the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Commack, Long Island. Koufax tells Alan Freedman, the founder and Director of the Hall of Fame, that he’ll only commit to attend if Wilpon is there, too. Wilpon tells Freedman he’ll only come if Koufax shows up. So, even though Koufax was inducted into the inaugural class of the Hall of Fame in 1993, he’s never set foot in the actual building. But every year, Freedman calls anyway.

Jokes aside, the catch-22 emphasizes Freedman’s main mission over the past two decades: convincing outsiders to take the Hall of Fame seriously even though Commack isn’t Cooperstown, Springfield, or Canton. Many of the greatest Jewish athletes of all time—Koufax, Hank Greenberg, Sid Luckman, Dolph Schayes, and Mark Spitz—were either busy or deceased when inducted. Such other well-known figures as broadcaster Marv Albert, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, and basketball coach Larry Brown thanked Freedman privately for the honors, but did not appear at their respective inductions.

“People, as I learned after the first couple of years, thought it was going to cost them money to be inducted,” Freedman tells me three days before the 2013 ceremony. “I laughed. This is going to cost me money. We just want you to show up.”

Freedman, the Hall’s gregarious leader, seems undaunted by the challenges of promoting the history of Jewish athletics. “We were trying to go for the bigger names because nobody knew who we were. But by the fifth year, people saw what we were doing and we developed a following.” A few well-known sports figures have accepted their awards in person, such as former Yankees broadcaster Mel Allen, offensive tackle Ron Mix (who is also in the Pro Football Hall of Fame), and pro wrestler Bill Goldberg, who put on tefillin at his induction. Each year, the selection committee must strike a balance between choosing inductees with name recognition and those who will realistically show up for the ceremony. “We still need the bodies, “ Freedman says. “We want people you can meet here if you’re interested. That’s the chance we take.”

***

The National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, it turns out, isn’t its own entity. Freedman runs it out of the Suffolk Y Jewish Community Center, which, at 160,000 sq. ft, is one of the largest JCC in America. Walls full of sports memorabilia blend with flyers advertising JCC summer camps. Biographical posters for the upcoming inductees still have to be moved from Freedman’s office into the Hall of Fame room, but the task must wait—a women’s group has reserved the space for a few hours.

Growing the organization and establishing an identity has been a gradual process. “We began as Long Island, then New York, then became national about 12 years ago,” Freedman says. A competing hall of fame focused on Jewish athletics was supposed to open in Manhattan in the mid-’90s, but quickly folded because of money problems. There are regional halls of fame dedicated to Jewish athletics—three in California, two in Pennsylvania, one in Michigan, and one in Rochester, New York—but those don’t cover a national scope. Only the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Tel Aviv can claim a wider reach.

Using the JCC provides the Hall of Fame with financial stability; the Suffolk Y also pays Freedman’s salary. A few years ago, Freedman worked on blueprints for a separate building with Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the firm known for designing the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The plan called for an in-house movie theater, computerized informational kiosks, and individual rooms for each sport. The project required $2 million, but was abandoned during the recession. “Do I still want a free-standing facility? Yes and no,” Freedman says. “I don’t have to worry about the lights. I don’t have to worry about the heat. The Y is paying for all of that. The Y is saying if we raise the money, it’s ours. I don’t think that’s going to happen in my lifetime, but at least what we have is going to continue to grow.”

And what the Hall of Fame has is a unique platform capable of celebrating the underappreciated history of Jewish athletics. Freedman runs educational programs during the year with men’s groups, youth groups, even YMCAs. But while the response within the local community has been very positive, Freedman continues to look for athletes and sports figures who can help extend the Hall of Fame’s public influence.

“You’re using history from a different perspective,” he says. “If somebody had been talking to me about Jews in sports when I was 12 years old, I wouldn’t have cut Hebrew school so much.”

***

On April 21, the 2013 National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony begins at 10:30 a.m. in the JCC’s 600-seat auditorium. About half the seats are empty. Local politicians make half-hearted speeches and then apologize for needing to leave early. Initially, the occasion feels suited for public access television.

This year’s class of inductees consists of two swimmers, two basketball players, two lacrosse players, a fencer, a wrestler, an NFL player, a photographer, a disabled runner, a gymnast, a boxer, a soccer player, and a weightlifter. 11 inductees are male; four are female. Randy Grossman, who won four Super Bowls as tight end for the Pittsburgh Steelers between 1974-1981, is the only honoree in attendance with anything like name recognition.

There is, however, one absent inductee who could’ve filled the empty seats. That’s Aly Raisman, who won two gold medals and one bronze at the London Olympics in 2012, and also used “Hava Nagila” as the music for her floor routine. The Hall of Fame honored Raisman in 2011 as the Outstanding Female High School Athlete of the Year, and she attended that ceremony. The selection committee chose her as a 2013 inductee months before the Olympics, and she agreed to attend that, too. But on the day of her induction, she’s in Los Angeles competing on "Dancing with the Stars."

Freedman shrugged off Raisman’s decision to capitalize on her success, saying, “We’ve committed to you, so you’re going to be inducted.” Barry Landers, former television announcer for the New York Islanders and master of ceremonies for the induction, reminds the audience multiple times that Raisman is “dancing with stars.” Raisman recorded a perfunctory thank-you video earlier in the week; after it plays, everyone applauds politely.

But, it doesn’t take long for the inductees in attendance to overshadow Raisman’s absence. Richard Bernstein, blind since birth, is an attorney who runs marathons and competes in triathlons all over the world. “Why is the mission of athletics so crucial?” he asks the audience. “Athletics teaches us that we can’t spend our days and our minutes and our hours trying to get over it. Athletics teaches us to get on with it.” Marilyn Ramenofsky, a silver medalist in the 400-meter freestyle at the 1964 Summer Olympics, talks about overcoming the lack of opportunities women faced as athletes prior to Title IX. The selection committee also chose to induct David Berger, an Ohio-born weightlifter who was one of the 11 Israelis murdered at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Berger’s father, who is 97 years old, accepts the award on stage and says: “I think if this world has any future, it lies in sports.” Two women seated in front of me start crying.

And then there’s Boyd Melson, winner of The Dick Steinberg Good Guy Award. Melson is a West Point graduate and professional boxer who wears a Star of David on his trunks and donates all of his purses to spinal cord injury research. He created Team Fight to Walk with his ex-girlfriend, who has been paralyzed since 1993. His charity needs to raise $2 million, so Dr. Wise Young, the former advisor to the late Christopher Reeve, can run stem-cell clinical trails in America. According to Melson, the clinical trials previously conducted in China have partially cured 15 out of 20 paralyzed patients, and three of those patients have regained full use of their legs. Melson doesn’t mention boxing once during his acceptance speech, but he emerges as the star athlete of the event nevertheless.

Even after the ceremony ends at 1:30 p.m., Melson rules the auditorium, signing autographs for the other inductees and networking with anyone who may be able to help grow his foundation. Richard Bernstein tells Melson he “has great energy” and is “the most remarkable guy,” which must mean a little extra coming from a blind man who’s completed 17 marathons.

“My dream is to become a public speaker for neurological conditions,” Melson tells me. “I believe I’m the best speaker in the whole world, and I believe that wholeheartedly.” Not the best boxer, but the best speaker. And Melson owns an 11-1-1 record in the ring. He seems primed for a long career in public service, committed to campaigning until those who are wheelchair-bound can walk again. As for his boxing career? “I’m just taking it one fight at a time,” he says with a smile.

***

When I first contacted Freedman about covering the induction ceremony, I admitted that, until a recent Google search, I had no idea the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame existed. “That’s something we hear quite a lot,” he said.

After everyone leaves the JCC on Sunday, I spend time alone in the Hall of Fame room looking at the plaques of past inductees. Freedman is running out of wall space, and he may have to start lining up the plaques in a new room to keep the future stories of Jewish sports figures on display.

I consider myself a sports fanatic, but I also must admit that I haven’t heard of many of the existing Hall-of-Famers, like Alan Shlomo Veingrad, former offensive lineman and 1992 Super Bowl champion with the Dallas Cowboys, who became an orthodox Jew after retiring from the NFL. In 1998, the Hall of Fame inducted six members from the inaugural 1946 New York Knicks. In 1995, Margaret Lambert was inducted for her track and field accomplishments. Lambert held German high jump records and was supposed to compete for Germany in the 1936 Olympics, but the government prevented her from participating. She moved to America and won U.S. championships before retiring in the 1940s. Now 99, she still communicates regularly with Freedman.

To Freedman, the little-known stories of those who overcame adversity or inspired others through sports mean more than the impressive statistics of well-known athletes. He considers Margaret Lambert and armcycle marathoner Helene Hines (inducted in 2003) as his favorite members of the Hall of Fame. “These people are so upbeat and optimistic and they have a right not to be. They just keep going. Life’s too important, there’s too much to enjoy, and that’s just what the [Hall of Fame] is all about.”

With this year’s ceremony complete, Freedman must start the process all over again. That means more community outreach, more fundraising, and eventually, more selections. He and the other members of the selection committee will comb through newspapers and online articles in search of engaging stories about Jewish athletics.

“There’s always going to be Jewish athletes out there,” he says. Whether they show up for their induction is a separate issue.

Photos courtesy of Jordan Teicher.


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