Fundamentally Freund: Praying towards the wrong home plate

Imagine the impact it would have on Israel’s religious and cultural life if the observant Jews of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles were to transplant themselves to the Jewish state.

ULTRA-ORTHODOX MEN walk past soldiers at the Kotel in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
ULTRA-ORTHODOX MEN walk past soldiers at the Kotel in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It was a warm summer night at Citi Field, home to the New York Mets baseball team, and the stadium was bathed in excitement.
From the game’s opening pitch, the 35,374 fans in attendance, including yours truly, were electrified at the prospect of a Mets victory.
A win would complete a thrilling three-game sweep of the Washington Nationals, putting the two teams in a tie for first place.
The Amazin’s, as the Mets are known, do not disappoint, storming ahead in the bottom of the third inning with three dramatic home runs, each sending the crowd into a frolicking frenzy of baseball bliss.
The deafening applause and clamorous cheers were interrupted only by the thundering ovations that greeted the players as the game unfolded on the field below.
Finally, the seventh inning stretch arrived, the beloved brief intermission between the top and bottom halves of the inning, when fans traditionally rise from their seats and sing “Take me out to the ball game.”
Legend has it that the custom of taking a short break was born when US president William Howard Taft attended an opening-day game on April 14, 1910, and stood up to stretch in the middle of the 7th inning, prompting the rest of the crowd to do the same (back then, it seems, presidents still garnered the respect of the electorate). Others have pointed to various 19th-century newspaper reports to suggest that the pause in the game predates Taft’s extension of his limbs.
But whatever the origin, I too got up from my chair, only with a different purpose in mind: to catch the minyan the evening prayer, that takes place next to the kosher hotdog stand.
Yes, that’s right. A Jewish prayer service is held at virtually all weekday games, as Mets fans from throughout the ballpark gather to fulfill their obligation to the Creator.
Dozens of men, young and old alike, stand there in the open, swaying back and forth each day as throngs of fans walk by on their way to grab some peanuts or buy a souvenir.
What a great country this is, I thought to myself, grateful to America for the unvarnished freedom it provides, one that enables Jews to pray openly at a major sporting event surrounded by tens of thousands of people.
Scanning the crowd of worshipers, I noticed the wide variety of Jews who had gathered. Some look like yeshiva students who spend their days poring over Talmudic tractates, while others appear to have come to the ballgame after a long day at the office.
But they are all clearly enthused by the Mets’ performance, just like everyone else in the stadium.
When the service begins, all turn in the same direction. I break into a smile when I realize that the minyan is facing home plate, the place where batters stand to hit the ball and runs are scored. How apt, one might think, that these die-hard fans turn their eyes toward Heaven in such a manner.
But after checking the compass app on my iPhone and realizing that the worshipers’ backs are toward Jerusalem, it suddenly hits me, like something straight out of left field.
This scene, perhaps more than any other, symbolizes what is wrong with too many religiously observant American Jews: they are facing the wrong direction, turning their backs on Jerusalem by choosing to remain in exile.
In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides famously wrote, “If one is located outside the land, he should turn his face toward Eretz Yisrael and pray. If he is in the land, he should turn toward Jerusalem...if in Jerusalem, he should turn toward the Temple.
If in the Temple, he should turn his face toward the Holy of Holies” (Laws of Prayer 5:3).
Indeed, for the past 1,900 years, that is exactly what Jews have done.
Wherever they found themselves on the globe, they would turn three times a day, each day, and face the city of our dreams and destiny.
This is a matter not only of identifying with our collective past, but expressing a longing for a redemptive future.
Nonetheless, now that it is easier than ever before to make one’s home in the Jewish state, only a small trickle of religious American Jews chooses to do so each year.
Obviously, not every person is ready to make aliya. It can require a great deal of sacrifice, and many face personal, family or professional demands that do not allow them to make the move.
But many more can do so and simply choose not to. And this is a loss for us all. If hundreds of thousands of observant Jews were to suddenly come to Israel, it would change the country, just as the arrival of masses of Russians did over the past two decades.
Imagine the impact it would have on Israel’s religious and cultural life if the observant Jews of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles were to transplant themselves to the Jewish state. It would not only revolutionize the religious world, but would also bolster the centrality of Judaism in Israel’s day-to-day national life.
And because observant American Jews would bring their experience in juggling religious commitments and the demands of the secular world, they would serve as a valuable role model for various elements of Israeli society.
So as I stood there at Citi Field reciting the Amida prayer, in which we ask God to gather in our exiles from the four corners of the Earth, I tossed in my own little plea: may this year see the Mets prove victorious in the World Series, and all of their Jewish fans finally living in Jerusalem, our nation’s true home plate.