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