‘I have never been more proud to be Jewish than right now.”
With those words, Bill Goldberg, the NFL football player turned champion professional wrestler and now actor, was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame & Museum.
More than 300 adults and youngsters attended the two-hour program as Goldberg and six other athletes — including Olympic gold medal swimmer Jason Lezak — were inducted last month into the museum, which is housed in the Suffolk Y JCC in Commack. It was the museum’s 18th induction ceremony.
Goldberg later told The Jewish Week that he “always wanted to be a role model for Jewish youth. I want to crush the stereotyping. People hear Goldberg and they think he’s an accountant or a nice little old man with a yarmulke walking down the street. The chances that a 6-foot-4, 290-pound man would be named Goldberg were quite slim.
“I’m able to use wrestling as a platform to crush those stereotypes. If I can give one little Jewish boy the confidence to go out and be the best he can be and not listen to stereotypical comments, then my job is done. I take it very seriously and hopefully it will have a positive effect on these kids.”
In the audience, Ben Adler, 16, of Syosset, described the induction ceremony, his second, as “very exciting.”
“I got to meet one of my idols, Bill Goldberg,” Adler said. “I’m a big fan of wrestling. It’s always great to see Jewish athletes. I spoke with him, and he is very nice and signed everything I wanted him to. And he took a picture with me.”
A group of 25 students from Congregation Ohav Sholom in Merrick took a bus to the event. Their principal, Mel Isaacs, said he hoped the event would “instill Jewish pride” in his students.
It appeared to have worked.
One of the students, Daniel Mermelstein, 14, said: “It made me feel proud to be a Jew.”
Stephen Dobre, 11, said he is a Duke basketball fan and was ecstatic to see Jon Scheyer, a guard on Duke’s NCAA championship team, who received the Marty Glickman Outstanding Jewish Scholastic Athlete of the Year Award along with Samantha Marder, a champion Ohio State softball player.
“It was amazing,” Dobre said of his meeting with Scheyer. “I want to one day be like him. I don’t know how they are as good as they are.”
In his invocation, Rabbi Jay Weinstein of Congregation Simchat HaLev in Syosset spoke of the pride he felt honoring the inductees and prayed that these athletes “continue to inspire us and make us proud.”
“May they always be proud to be members of the Jewish people,” he said. “What an honor to be standing before today’s heroes. … A hero is a person who is admired for courage, outstanding achievements, someone possessing an extraordinary gift, someone who commits an act of remarkable bravery or who has shown great courage, someone who is looked up to for outstanding qualities. A hero is a mentor, a teacher, one who can motivate others and one who leads by example.”
One of the inductees, former NFL offensive lineman Alan Veingrad, did just that at the end of the induction ceremony. As a group of youngsters gathered around him, Veingrad rolled up his sleeve and showed them how to put on tefillin, the leather straps used during prayer.
The other inductees were: Virginia Tech basketball coach Seth Greenberg; Penn State volleyball coach Russ Rose; Achilles Track Club founder Dick Traum and the late female judo champion Rusy Kanokogi.
Before his induction, Lezak was asked the role Judaism had played in his life.
“As a kid I never thought of it,” he said. “I saw myself as an athlete and a Jew. It was not until the Maccabiah Games that I put two and two together. Last summer I went to Israel to compete in them. I don’t get a chance to be around a lot of other Jewish athletes and it was something special for me.”
Lezak later added that playing with other Jewish athletes “opened my eyes and made me feel I am a part of something. It’s something I felt I needed to be a part of — a sense of Jewish identity that I missed.”
As he signed autographs and snapped pictures with youngsters, Scheyer said he too hopes to be a role model for young people.
“I want people to look to me for the way I act,” he said.
Veingrad, an observant Jew affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, said in an interview that his increased Jewish observance began when he was playing for the Green Bay Packers and a local businessman invited him to his home for Rosh HaShanah.
“It had been 10 years since my bar mitzvah and I felt a tug in my soul,” he said. “I felt I had an obligation as one of a handful of Jews in the National Football League.”
A father of five who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Veingrad said it is possible to play sports and be an observant Jew. He noted that two of his sons are on a football team that plays on Sundays.
“I came from a background that was like most American Jews – I viewed my bar mitzvah as an exit out of the religion. My hope is that every [Jew] passes on this tradition. … Without it, life is empty.”
Veingrad later added: “We truly are one family and should be proud of it and stand up for Israel.”
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