February 4, 2011
Pittsburgh Steelers on the ‘fringe’ of dynasty as fans embrace the ‘Terrible Tallis’
This article has been reposted with permission from The Jewish Chronicle.
If you’ve left your house or turned on the television in the last two weeks, you know: Pittsburgh’s going to the Super Bowl. But while huge portions of Pittsburghers — and, surely, much of the country — will be cheering for a Steeler victory, some members of the city’s Jewish community are celebrating in creative, and even educational ways.
At Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha Congregation Sunday school in Squirrel Hill, students will actually feel some unity with Green Bay, Wis. This Sunday morning, the school’s 90 students will connect with the 20 students of Congregation Cnesses Israel, a small Conservative synagogue in Green Bay, through Skype. Students at both schools spent the last few weeks learning football-related vocabulary in Hebrew, which they’ll swap with each other and answer sports trivia.
“When Pittsburgh was entering the AFC championship, I challenged the kids: on Sunday you come in with any Hebrew words pertaining to football, and anybody who does gets a prize,” said Shelly Schapiro, director of education. “Sure enough, some students they had their lists. But now, for the Super Bowl, those papers are piling up on my desk.”
Schapiro knew she could put that enthusiasm to work, and thought, “It’d be cool for the kids to connect with a congregation in Green Bay,” she said. “It was truly one of those moments when a light went off.”
Schapiro connected with Congregation Cnesses Israel because, “It’s exciting for our students to connect with other Jewish kids,” she said. “They know New York and Miami, but to think there are the kids the same age in somewhere like Green Bay learning about Judaism is special.”
Both congregations will donate the weekend’s tzedaka to the local charity of the winning team’s school — a Steelers victory means Green Bay money will go to the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry.
“It’s a way of showing we’re not just having fun,” said Schapiro. “We’re also helping out.”
At Community Day School an end-of-day pep rally will have students cheering to win a pajama day.
“We have a friendly wager with the Milwaukee Jewish Day School,” said CDS Principal Avi Baran Munro. “The head of school there and I have agreed to wear the winning team’s T-shirt and be ready to shame ourselves.”
While local students lived through just a few Steelers Super Bowls, it’s likely many residents of the Jewish Association on Aging remember quite a few more.
This Friday, patients and residents of JAA will celebrate the Super Bowl with a pep rally, waving their homemade, stenciled Terrible Towels. The entire Squirrel Hill building is decorated with Steelers posters and pictures of Art Rooney and Myron Cope, said JAA Director of Marketing Kathy Fuller.
“We’ve got an 8-foot tall blow-up Steeler,” said Fuller. “We’re all about it here.”
The excitement of a Steelers victory carries an important weight at JAA.
“When you work in a nursing home, you need things, especially during flu season, to encourage everyone to feel like there’s a reason to go on with the winter,” said Fuller. “The Steelers are doing that for us.”
At Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, congregants are finding a craftier way to support the Steelers — by making the, ahem, Terrible Tallis. Transforming the Steelers symbol into a symbol of Judaism is many years in the making.
“Back at Camp Ramah when I was 13, we’d make anything into a tallis,” said Rabbi Alex Greenbaum. “What makes it holy is not the material, but the fringes.”
When Greenbaum saw a beach towel version of the classic hand towel about 3 years ago, “It seemed like a good idea, though it’s not for everyone,” he said.
He created his Terrible Tallis and this year “used it as a teaching moment for my congregation,” he said. “I explained the laws of tallit and tzitzit.”
On Feb. 3, Greenbaum said he’ll hold a workshop for congregants to make their own Terrible Tallit. The excitement has even brought out congregants who rarely come to services, said Greenbaum.
“I find it fascinating — some people will show up to services just because they can wear their jersey,” he said. But praying in a Terrible Towel and actually praying for a Steeler victory are different things.
“My congregation asked if we could do a prayer. I said we really don’t want to go down that path — the Jets probably have more rabbis than the Steelers, and I don’t want a holy war,” said Greenbaum. “I don’t think God loves the Steelers more, but time has shown that the Steelers know what they’re doing. Luck, coincidence or God — someone is on the Steelers’ side.”