Everything I Learned about Being a Rabbi I Learned from the Boston Celtics

Rabbi Daniel Schaefer

Shabbat Shalom. A special welcome to our guests from Milwaukee. I apologize in advance for my topic this evening.

As I approach the end of my tenure at Ohabei Shalom, I have been reflecting on my four years with this wonderful community. It has been a great privilege to serve this Temple and be your rabbi. It helps me to think in metaphors and analogies, and so tonight I want to tell you how “Everything I Learned about Being a Rabbi I Learned from the Boston Celtics.”

I should clarify at the outset that I didn’t learn Hebrew or how to study Torah or lead prayers from watching a basketball team. Such a statement would be preposterous. Those are things that hopefully all Jews have a chance to learn in their lives, but going to rabbinical school for six years was also helpful for that. Being the rabbi of a synagogue is about so much more than those foundational pieces of knowledge and I want to share five insights that I’ve taken from my time at TOS, through the lens of being a Celtics fan.

My love of the Celtics and my interest in becoming a rabbi both began at a very young age. There was something magical and larger than life about both of them. As I grew up, I met rabbis and basketball players and I realized that they were human too, but some of that sense of awe still remained.

As a child, the magic of watching Larry Bird and Kevin McHale and Reggie Lewis, was in how they defied expectations and went beyond what seemed possible. A no-look pass, a clutch shot, or soaring through the air to dunk a basketball ten feet in the air seemed like something only a superhero could accomplish.

The magic of being a rabbi is that you are an inheritor and transmitter of thousands of years of tradition. Not just rabbis and scholars, but every Jew who prayed, persevered, and passed on the tradition to the next generation. If I ever seemed larger than life, it is not because of my height, but because I stand on the shoulders of giants. As much as I sometimes only want to speak for myself, I know that my words and actions reflect on them as well. It is a great responsibility, but it can also feel transcendent.

The downside of wanting to play for the Celtics is that most people don’t have the height, athleticism, or basketball IQ to make it to the NBA, but today any Jew can become rabbi. That is enriching our tradition and adding new sparks of wisdom, love, and joy to what was already pretty special.

The second lesson that I learned is that history matters deeply, but it’s not what unites us. There is no more historic team in the NBA than the Boston Celtics. They’ve won seventeen championships. They dominated professional basketball in the 1960s and 70s and were pretty amazing in the 80s too. When you attend a basketball game at TD Garden you see 17 championship banners hanging from the rafters and a plethora of retired numbers. There are more Celtics in the Hall of Fame than any other team – 36 players, 6 coaches, 6 contributors, and 2 announcers.

And Temple Ohabei Shalom is arguably the most historic synagogue in Massachusetts. We are of course celebrating our 180th anniversary this year as the first and longest continually operating synagogue in the Commonwealth, but we were also the first major synagogue to have a female Senior rabbi, Rabbi Emily Lipof. Family Table was founded here. We helped settle Soviet emigres in the 70s and 80s and built a first class preschool, the Trust Center just upstairs.

Like seventeen championships, these are wonderful accomplishments to look back on and celebrate. The Celtics do a great job of honoring their former players and coaches and history, but what unites them is their goal of winning their next championship. It’s a lot harder to find organizational alignment in a synagogue, because a synagogue is a lot more multifaceted than a basketball franchise, but I think there are three things that unite us: The first is that we are here to create connection; connection to tradition, to community, to God. We also exist to make the world a better place through tikkun olam. And finally, and I think most importantly, we are united in the effort to pass down a vibrant, enriching Judaism to the next generation.

The next lesson I learned from the Celtics is that we all mourn in our way. Five years ago, the star of the Boston Celtics was the diminutive point guard, Isaiah Thomas. In 2017, his younger sister Chyna died in a tragic car accident the day before the NBA playoffs. It would have been understandable for Thomas to take time away or skip a game. He said that he “wanted to give up and quit” after learning of his sister’s death. But eventually decided that “quitting isn’t an option.” and that he would “keep going for my sister.” A day after his sister’s funeral, Thomas scored 33 points and two weeks after she died, on what would have been her 23rd birthday, he scored 53 points in an overtime victory over the Washington Wizards. It was one of the most stirring performances I’ve ever seen in my life.

If Thomas had approached me as his rabbi and asked what he should do, I would have probably counseled taking time away to mourn. But we each mourn in our own way and have the right to make our own choices as long as we don’t hurt others. I’m so grateful for those of you who have allowed me to sit by your side while you mourned. I hope I listened and counseled in ways that were helpful and supported you to make your own best choices.

The fourth thing that I learned about being a rabbi from the Boston Celtics is that for a team to succeed, everyone has to put their ego aside. I have faint memories of Bird and McHale winning championships in the 80s. Most of what I remember is from when they were past their prime. So the first really good team I got to experience in Boston was when the Celtics traded for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to join with Paul Pierce to form a new Big Three. They were three all-stars at the peak of their powers, who were used to having the ball in their hands and being The Man on their team. But everyone on the Celtics knew that Kevin Garnett was the best of them. He was the only one who had been named Most Valuable Player of the league, but he came in and set an example of sacrificing. It was all about the team and their collective success and not about his individual stats or accomplishments.

The owner of the Celtics, Wyc Grousbeck said that, “Everything changed the minute KG walked into the first practice.” And Garnett’s then teammate and current basketball analyst, Kendrick Perkins said “It was just the tone that he set; the sacrifice and things of that nature…I always tell people that KG was the one that established the whole sacrifice. He took a backseat to everybody, especially to Paul and Ray. He set the identity. He set the culture.”

I actually think Kevin Garnett would make a great rabbi. He’d have to cut back on the cursing, and of course convert, but who knows… “Anything is possible.”

One of my teachers in rabbinical school said that this is the model of Jewish leadership, to be a shepherd in the lineage of Abrahma, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David – to guide a flock by leading from behind rather than in front. If you run out in front and hope the sheep follow, you’re gonna lose a lot of sheep. Rather, you need to allow them to lead, watching over them from behind, gently guiding them when they go astray, and occasionally like the Moses of the midrash carrying them back when they lose their way.

The final lesson I’ll share tonight is that daily practice can lead to total transformation. One of my favorite roles as rabbi at TOS has been tutoring students for their b’nei mitzvah. One of the things I told every student as they started to learn their Torah portion is that it’s better to practice 10 minutes every day than once a week for an hour. Meeting each week with students was a great way to get to know them and build relationships, but it was also a great way for me to practice my Torah chanting, because I had to learn what they learned.

When I started here in 2018, I was mediocre at chanting Torah, but I got so much better over the years. As the Celtics get ready to play the Milwaukee Bucks in a win-or-go-home Game 6, I think the star for Boston is going to be Grant Williams, who famously started out his NBA career missing his first 25 3-pointers. It was bad. That year he shot only 25% on 1.4 attempts/game. The next year he made a solid 37% on a few more attempts, but this year, his third in the league he has transformed into a star role player, knocking down over 41%, an incredible rate on double the amount of attempts from his first year, all while playing amazing defense. Grant got better by practicing every day and I hope I’ve gotten a little better as a rabbi during my time at Ohabei Shalom.

I appreciate your indulging me tonight in these insights. I could have added ten more if we had time. Of course, the real truth is that I didn’t learn any of these things from the Boston Celtics. There are things we can learn by reading or observing, but the most valuable things we learn from experience. I learned these lessons from you – through the relationships I built here and through the opportunity to teach, lead, and serve this community. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be your rabbi.

Shabbat Shalom.