Faith and the foul line: Rabbi takes to local basketball courts with spiritual ceremony, spirited basketball

Rabbi Fishel Zaklos of Chabad Naples, rises for a shot at Fleischmann Park during Zaklos' orthodox Jewish outreach program for men of the faith to play basketball together and learn more about the Telfillin, a set of Jewish prayer boxes and armband.

Photo by GREG KAHN // Buy this photo

Rabbi Fishel Zaklos of Chabad Naples, rises for a shot at Fleischmann Park during Zaklos' orthodox Jewish outreach program for men of the faith to play basketball together and learn more about the Telfillin, a set of Jewish prayer boxes and armband.

Synagogue on the Court

Rabbi Fishel Zaklos and members of the ...

Fleischmann Park

1600 Fleischmann Blvd, Naples, FL

The open Chabad basketball game is at the Fleischmann Community Park at 6 p.m. Tuesdays. Information: 261-0772 or www.chabadnaples.com

— Fan devotion to sports is sometimes likened to a religion.

Think Super Bowl Sunday. Think March Madness. But on Tuesday nights at Fleischmann Park in Naples, there’s a basketball game where faith and fitness truly share the court. That’s when Rabbi Fishel Zaklos of Jewish center Chabad Naples and others of the local Jewish community don athletic shoes and yarmulkes for a game of hoops.

Zaklos is an avid basketball player; his fearless hook shot is a source of some personal pride.

At a recent Tuesday night game, Zaklos was outfitted in a jersey that read Miami Heat on the front and Rabbi Fishel on the back. Zaklos noted that the last time he wore the jersey was in December, around the Chanukah holiday. The news of star NBA player LeBron James’ impending move to the Heat was like “a second Chanukah for me,” Zaklos said.

It was his love of basketball and Judaism that prompted him to put the two together for a weekly game, Zaklos explained. Also, Jewish sages advise that spiritual and physical soundness are linked, he said, with one serving to strengthen the other.

“Judaism is not only in a synagogue,” Zaklos said.

Prior to playing, the Rabbi helps the men put on Tefillin, which are two black straps with black boxes attached; one is strapped to the head, and the other wrapped around the arm. Inside the boxes are pieces of parchment with hand-written, holy verses.

Putting on Tefillin is a mitzvah — a commandment — and a significant one. For more observant Jews, it is something to be done every day, usually in the morning.

As Zaklos helped 14-year-old player Mika Crespo put on Tefillin before a recent game, he told the other men that Tefillin is a tradition dating back thousands of years, a ritual that Moses and David also would have engaged in. Now, Zaklos does it — and his sons will, too.

Once Tefillin is on, it’s a time for the wearer to offer prayers, Zaklos explained.

Because Tefillin is wound around a wearer’s head and arm, Zaklos jokingly called it “the Jewish wrap,” a joke that had even more punch when Mika’s cell phone rang during the ritual and the ringtone was none other than rapper Eminem.

It was Mika’s second time putting on Tefillin, he said. The first was a year ago, at his bar mitzvah. And he’s not really a basketball player; he’s more into soccer. But he was looking forward to playing basketball with other members of his faith.

“It’s a guy thing that we’re doing right now,” he said.

He didn’t know if putting on Tefillin and saying a prayer would improve his game, he conceded.

“The spirit’s with me, I guess,” Mika said, smiling.

For many Jewish men, Tefillin is a forgotten ritual. Benjamin Newmark attended a recent Tuesday night game, although not to play; he’s not very athletic, he admitted. Raised in Miami, his family attended a conservative synagogue. But it wasn’t until he was older that he learned about the ritual of Tefillin.

Now, he puts on Tefillin every morning, and he even helped his 74-year-old father put on Tefillin for the first time about six months ago.

“It’s one of the ways a Jewish man connects his soul to God,” Newmark said.

As for pairing Tefillin and basketball, even the non-playing Newmark thought it was a good idea. Like Mika, he saw the game as an opportunity to bond, and since Tefillin is something many Jewish men haven’t done before, the chance to experience it for a first or second time in the easygoing atmosphere of a basketball game couldn’t be bad.

“A lot of men are apprehensive to ask questions about things they haven’t done before,” Newmark said.

Adam Gordon of Naples also attended a recent game. The first time he put on Tefillin was in Israel in 2007, during a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The second time was before playing basketball with Zaklos.

A different atmosphere, to be sure. But perhaps not so different, Gordon explained.

He connected with Chabad Naples because he wanted to get involved with other members of the local Jewish community. And although a public basketball court in the summer evening heat shares few obvious qualities with one of the most sacred religious sites in the world, for fellowship and faith, it’s a slam-dunk.

“As different as it is, it’s still the same,” Gordon said.

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