More than games: Sports rabbi champions a 'Zionism by sports' contribution

The one thing Joshua Halickman, the sports rabbi, misses most about American life is Sundays.

The halickman family in Jerusalem. (photo credit: DAN KUPFER)
The halickman family in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: DAN KUPFER)
It’s probably for the best that Joshua Halickman knew nothing about Israeli professional sports when he was in Israel for his gap year in 1991. The temptation to ditch studies for basketball and soccer games could have been irresistible.
Nevertheless, he is devoted to making sure today’s visitors and newcomers to Israel are better local sports mavens than he was then. Halickman’s “Zionism by Sports” game plan is two-pronged.
First, he founded, a website dedicated to bringing English speakers all the latest news, analyses and discussions regarding Israeli sports and Israeli athletes, as well as information on how to get tickets to games and how to get there. His companion Twitter site is updated every day but Shabbat. He even teaches a course at the Aardvark gap-year program about sports and Zionism.
Second, he is founder and head of the Maccabi Tel Aviv FC Foundation, a nonprofit arm of the famed soccer club. Leveraging the star power of Maccabi players to make a difference in the lives of at-risk youth, Israeli lone soldiers, hospitalized children, Holocaust survivors and people with special needs, he creates opportunities to do good for the community through soccer.
“This is very important to Mitch Goldhar, a Torontonian who owns the team,” says Halickman, a native of Montreal. Originally he was recruited by the soccer club to upgrade its English website, “and one thing led to another.”
He’s passionate about exposing people around the world to Maccabi Tel Aviv.
“Over the last year I bought more than 1,000 Birthright participants, tourists and new olim to our training facility for an interactive presentation and a practice session on the field with Maccabi coaches.”
The moment when fans and players stand and sing “Hatikva,” he says, “is a religious experience that every single tourist and Birthright and gap-year participant should have.” He knows many interesting factoids about Maccabi Tel Aviv’s history. For one, the team’s colors originally were white and blue, but the white was changed to yellow in 1942 to show solidarity with European Jews forced to wear yellow stars.
“The players are carrying the dreams of those people,” he says.
Halickman is not an ordained rabbi, although he is a trained scribe and cantor. The “sports rabbi” moniker was bestowed by Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, New York. This is the synagogue that made history in the Orthodox world by hiring his wife, Sharona Margolin Halickman, as a member of its clergy team, in which she served in various capacities from 1997 to 2004, when the family moved to Israel.
One time in the late 1990s, Weiss called Halickman for a primer about a certain NFL football team. Weiss was about to solicit a donation from the team’s owner and wanted to be able to talk shop with him. The trip was successful, and in shul the next week Weiss told congregants of his gratitude to “the sports rabbi.”
Halickman wasn’t comfortable with that nickname at first, but in 2006 he embraced it and turned it into the title of his sports blog from Israel.
“When we lived in Riverdale, I had season tickets for many different teams,” he says. “When we made aliya, one of the first things I did was to buy season tickets to Hapoel Jerusalem and Beitar Jerusalem. I took out a subscription to Yediot Aharonot and went through the sports section every day with my electronic dictionary; my Hebrew improved by leaps and bounds.”
The Halickmans actually met in Israel after high school. They dated through their college years at Yeshiva University and married in July 1995.
“We were part of the Israel Club at YU and we were both brought up in very Zionist homes,” he says. The couple started talking seriously about the move in late 2003, when their oldest son, Dov, was in kindergarten and second son, Moshe, was a newborn.
“We felt we should do it before Dov was in elementary school so he could adapt as easily as possible. And at the time, the real-estate market in Riverdale was extremely high and in Israel it was extremely low because of the intifada so we were able to capitalize on that. I don’t know if we would have come if we hadn’t owned our own house [in New York] and been able to buy an apartment and maintain a certain lifestyle here,” admits Halickman.
He took a pilot trip in March 2004 to meet with potential employers, real estate agents and friends of friends.
“The key to our success was the organization we did beforehand,” says Halickman, who was able to continue briefly in his position as chief financial officer of a large New York-based nonprofit after making aliya.
Dov is entering the army later this year as part of a photography combat unit. He honed his skills as the official photographer for the Sports Rabbi over the past two years. Moshe is an eighth-grader at the Himmelfarb School in Jerusalem and Yehuda Maccabi (he was born on Hanukka 2006) attends the Efrata School in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem, near the Halickmans’ home in Arnona.
“Arnona was very new when we bought here. The builders had empty apartments and needed revenue to keep building, and we lucked out with a great deal on a large apartment,” he explains. “We were one of the few Anglo couples in the neighborhood then, although now there are many. It’s still very diverse religiously and I think that’s what makes our neighborhood unique.”
Halickman spent a few years dabbling in different jobs, including freelance writing for The Jerusalem Post and heading a tour company for six years. During that time he was building up his website and gained press credentials for soccer and basketball.
“I was embedding myself in the Israeli media. In soccer I’m the only Anglo, and most of my friends today are sports reporters.”
The Halickmans also run a nonprofit venture, Torat Reva Yerushalayim in Jerusalem and New York, through which Sharona Halickman and a staff of teachers give group Torah classes to the elderly, people with special needs and new mothers who can’t easily get out of the house.
The one thing he misses most about American life is Sundays.
“I want my Sundays! I want to have a day when games could be played that is not on Shabbat, but it would also bring quality family time,” he says. “It would make society a lot better and the sports world would benefit.”