All true sports fans know that the best stories take place off the field of play.
Rabbi Ami Pykovski’s journey is no different.
The Israeli Chabad Lubavitch rabbi and former soccer player has been nicknamed “The Soccer Players’ Rav” across the Israeli sports scene.
Growing up in a non-Orthodox home and serving in the IDF (including service during the Yom Kippur War in 1973) and moving to Los Angeles in his youth to play soccer, Rabbi Pykovski spoke to The Jerusalem Post recently about his experience in soccer and his religious growth and influence through the years.
“I returned to Israel nine years ago after 36 years in Los Angeles,” said the now 62-year-old Pykovski. “I used to play soccer with Maccabi Los Angeles, I used to play center-back. I had a teammate who told me that I should come to his house for a meal one Friday night. I looked at him like he was a meshuganeh [a crazy person]. I used to go to the disco on Friday night, I was like ‘what are you talking about, come to a Shabbat meal?” And then I went and I enjoyed it so much. His wife was cooking, there were like 30 people there, singing Hebrew songs. My Neshama [soul] felt good.
“And then he told me to come to shul one day and he introduced me to the rabbi, Rabbi Amity Ymini. At that time, I used to own a store near downtown Los Angeles, it was like 3,000 square meters. I used to sell like 10-15,000 dollars on Shabbos and during the week I sold maybe 400 dollars a day.
“So I was playing one year in New York and this Rabbi Ymini on Simchat Torah invited me to come see the Lubavitcher Rebbe. So this family I was staying with in Brooklyn told me at 10:30 at night, go to 770 [Eastern Parkway, the Chabad headquarters] and see the Rebbe. So I was walking there dressed like for a night club, open shirt, and an older Hasid came to me and asked where I am going, and he took me to this small apartment that was full of older men and he gave me a full glass of vodka and he told me drink L’chayim. And I said the bracha and then he told me ‘now you are ready to go to 770.’
When I got to 770 it was close to midnight and I couldn’t even move there it was so packed.
And I was pushed forward and forward into the inner circle where the Rebbe was dancing and I saw his face and I saw like two lasers of fire from his eyes. And I felt like I was in the Garden of Eden, I never felt better in my life. That was really the turning point in my life. And then when I came back to Los Angeles, I decided ok I am closing my store on Shabbos. But I had a 20-year-lease on the property and I tried to sub-lease it, but I couldn’t find anyone to lease it.
Rabbi Ymini said ‘write to the Rebbe’ so I wrote the Rebbe my first letter and said ‘I decided to close my store on Shabbos and I want a blessing that I’m not going to get hurt because I didn’t know what I was going to do.
So the Rebbe sent me back an envelope and inside the envelope was 18 dollars, a $10 dollar bill, a $5 dollars bill a $2 bill and a $1 bill and he wrote 1 – close the store before sundown on Friday, 2 – spread Simcha [joy] and he underlined the word ‘Simcha’, 3 – give charity and this money should go to tzedaka in your community.
“Then Rabbi Ymini came over and he was so excited that I got a letter back from the Rebbe. So I went to my landlord, who was also Jewish, and I said that I am a Jew and want to close my store on Shabbos. When I got to his office he was not there, then when I got back to my store there was something who walked in and said ‘I would like to buy your store. So I said speak to the landlord,’ and he said ‘I spoke to the landlord but he said you are holding the lease. So I want to pay you to buy you out of the lease.’ So he gave me a check, and I just want to tell you with that money I bought a house and opened a manufacturing plant.
When I came back to visit the Rebbe I got there and he knew everything that had happened, I don’t know how. He was smiling at me and he said ‘don’t talk and just thank God and he gave me a blessing that I should have lots of success and my whole life was changed because of the Rebbe.
After becoming observant religiously, Rabbi Pyovsky eventually decided to move his family back to Israel, but he wanted to stay involved in soccer.
“I went to a lecture by Rabbi Yosef Yitchak Ginsbourg in Ramat Aviv and it was first light candle of Channuka and this was five years ago and he ended the class by saying we are lighting first candle and if you just came to hear the class, so your goal should be to spread the light.
“When I left the lecture, I thought ‘who can I help?’ and what came to my mind was reaching out to a friend of mine who was a coach at Beitar Jerusalem, Eli Cohen.
I told him ‘I made aliya after 36 years and I want to ask you a question and don’t want you to laugh at me, so I want to light a candle in the field.’ He said he was playing Maccabi Tel Aviv in Ramat Gan Stadium in front of 40,000 people. So I said I want to light candles and he said you should come to hotel and light with us before we go to the game. I lit the candle for all the team and explained to them and said the Lubavitcher Rebbe said that when soldiers go to war they should go with singing and full of happiness and I said if you sing and dance with me you will win the game.
“They are started singing “Anachnu ma’aminim bnei ma’aminim [we are believers, the sons of believers].”
All the players said we won because of you and since then I used to come every Friday to Beitar Jerusalem club training and I put tefillin on the players and said words of torah. Then I started to go to games and bless the players two minutes before they took the pitch and Beitar almost won the championship.
That is how I started to be connected to not just Beitar Jerusalem but to all the soccer players in Israel and was given the nickname “Rav of the Soccer Players”.
These days, Rabbi Pykovski is a staple throughout Israeli soccer.
“I see in the dressing room everyone says Shema and puts on tefillin. A lot of gentile players come to me and ask if I can bless them also. The Rebbe taught about the Sheva Mitzot Bnei Noach. And I teach them what they have to do.
“The teams started taking me to Europe with them, to bring kosher food. I was basically a Rabbi and a Priest.”
Through his sojourns, Pykovski has seen it all.
“Slobodan Drapic, a big coach, in Maccabi Netanya at the time, who came from Serbia was very curious and asked me to come to his team. He said ‘I think my mother is Jewish. And I told him, ‘then you are Jewish. Did you make a Bar Mitzvah?. He said ‘no, my mother gave me something and told me not to lose it.’ He brought it to me and it was tefillin. I checked if they were kosher and they weren’t so I bought the team a new pair and we made a bar mitzvah for him and I put the tefillin on him and he started shaking and crying.
“It’s unbelievable – my involvement in the players is very special. I have coaches who tell me ’you are worth 20 points a year to my team.’”
Rabbi Pykovski has also taken on the goal of lobbying for soccer league’s in Israel to avoid games on Shabbat.
“I am also very much in touch with the Israel Football Association about them making a decision not to play games on Shabbat. A lot of players care about this. There are many players who aren’t necessarily orthodox, but who if their team is playing a game or right after Shabbat will stay in a hotel nearby the stadium. I think it is very important because there are many Baalei Tshuva today and lots of people who say Rav Ami, I really would like the league to be more observant.
“I feel it should be a right of the players. The team owners should have the freedom to choose if they want to play on Shabbat. And to work on Shabbat is really against the law in Israel. As of today, 360 players have signed a petition that they do not want to play on Shabbat.
Some players will say to me ‘I signed a contract, that includes playing on Shabbat, how can I make a living?’ So my answer is that there are two types of death – a physical death and a spiritual death and spiritual death is in many ways worse.
There is an Israeli player who signed with a team in Greece and in his contract it included a clause that he is not allowed to drive or play on Shabbat. Now he is back in Israel and when I see him in the dressing rooms we share words of Torah
There are many players like this. People don’t understand, things are different today.
Asked how sports and religion can mix, Rabbi Pykovski once again took a lesson from the Rebbe.
“The Rebbe used to say ‘a man cannot progress in his life without growing in his spirituality.’ That is what I say when I see the soccer players in the dressing room. First I bring them joy, through joy comes belief, through belief comes faith and through faith comes victory and success.”