Jewish Athletes at Gay Games Connect Their Judaism with Sports

Inside the lobby of the Hotel Pennsylvania, headquarters of this week’s Gay Games, David Steinberg explained his personal connection between Judaism and sports.

“I don’t know when I started doing this,” said Steinberg, “but by the time I’m in the second stretch of a run, I’m going through the amidah (silent devotion) in my head.”

Steinberg, 32, makes no claims to be a professional athlete, but he is halfway toward becoming a Reconstructionist rabbi.

Fresh from the 10-kilometer race, Steinberg said sports can be a religious experience.

“Running is a very, very spiritual, very religious thing for me,” explained Steinberg. “It’s

It was “a way of honoring my creator and all that,” he said.

Along with about 100 other Jewish athletes from the games, Steinberg spent last Shabbat at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s gay and lesbian synagogue.

The synagogue sponsored a “Gay Games Shabbat” aimed at giving Jewish athletes a place to feel at home.

The weeklong Gay Games being held here — part of the nationwide Gay Pride Month — are the largest amateur athletic event in sports history, attracting an estimated 11,000 athletes from more than 40 countries, including some professional and Olympic athletes, competing in 31 sports.

This year marks the fourth Gay Games, which were held for the first time in 1982.

Included in the competition are two Israeli athletes — a women’s basketball player from Jezreel and a marathon runner from Tel Aviv.

The games are set to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, when a police raid of a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village turned into a massive three-day demonstration that became a turning point in the struggle for gay rights.

On Sunday, a march to commemorate Stonewall and rally for gay rights is expected to attract thousands.

‘TIED IN WITH WHO I AM’

And a gay cultural festival featuring theatre, dance and other events was being held throughout the week.

“It is one very, very gay week in New York City,” explained Ken Dorph, a volunteer at the games.

For Roz Quarto, director of operations at the Gay Games and a first baseman on the women’s softball team, it is also a very long week.

But despite sleepless nights and the endless crises involved in coordinating the thousands of athletic competitions, Quarto seemed to have things under control.

“For me, sports is very tied in with who I am as a person,” she said.

Born a Roman Catholic, Quarto converted to Judaism in the fifth grade when her mother, an Italian, married a Jewish man.

From then on she received a full yeshiva education, attending Solomon Schechter Day School and the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County.

Even then, said Quarto, she had an inkling that she was different.

“We had classes with boys and girls separate, which seemed to bother everybody but me,” she said.

Overweight and withdrawn as a child, Quarto said she came into her own the first time she played kickball, and discovered she was good.

With that came popularity and her ticket beyond the yeshiva world.

She was bused to public school competitions to play in varsity sports.

It was, she said, a far cry from religious athletics.

“In the yeshiva league,” explained Quarto, “20 points was a high-scoring basketball game.”

Now a year-round employee at the not-for-profit Gay Games, Quarto gave up her career as a lawyer to dedicate herself to broadening the venues in which lesbians and gays can express themselves.

“There are so many times as a gay person when you just participate in life generally and people don’t see you for everything that you are. And so often our parents or our family or our straight friends don’t really like to see that part of you,” she said.

Anyone who pays the $60 registration fee can participate in the not-for-profit Gay Games, and all athletes receive a participation medal.

One person not participating in the games was Ira Jasinover, who instead was volunteering for the Stonewall 25 organization, which had set up a booth at the games.

REBBITZIN JUNGREIS MOTIVATED HIM

Jasinover — who said he had not been involved in any political activities since college — said he decided to volunteer for the Gay Pride Month activity after reading an article that mentioned Jewish motivational speaker Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis.

He said he recalled a lecture Jungreis had given to his United Synagogue Youth chapter, more that 15 years earlier, in which she warned about becoming complacent about being Jewish, especially in a place like New York.

“It came to my mind that the gays in New York City are very much like that, because they’re very comfortable about being gay.

“You know it’s very easy to be gay in New York City and not do anything, just to blend in,” he said.

“For some reason, all of a sudden the connection was made,” said Jasinover. “I have no idea why.”

Ellen Markowitz, a participant in the tennis competition at the games, said her grandfather was a Reform rabbi.

But her own strong feelings about her Jewishness, and her desire to have a Jewish partner, she said, were mostly unconscious — and cultural.

“I just feel more comfortable with women who are Jewish,” said Markowitz, 32, a New Yorker who was playing in the women’s tennis competition.

“I can’t see spending the rest of my life with someone if they’re not Jewish. It feels incongruent,” she said.

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