How baseball helped camp get Torah

“Coincidences” — those meaningful occurrences which I credit to God desiring anonymity — continue to abound. Here’s the latest one in my own life …
Last Shabbat, I was privileged to be our synagogue’s galilah, the one who dresses the Torah scroll after it has been read, readying it for return to the Ark. That scroll was the one my family in Pittsburgh gave to us here at Beth Torah a dozen years ago; I covered it with a new mantle, replacing the one worn-out from so much loving use. Waiting for me in the mail when I returned home was the story of another Torah, another Pittsburgh story, this one clipped from the city’s Jewish Chronicle.
We here in Dallas are proud of our Texas Rangers, riding high over the American League in this year’s baseball season, while my hometown’s Pirates sink in the National. But this story harks back to a more glorious time in Pittsburgh baseball, and its Jewish connection is profound. A God-fueled coincidence, indeed!
Emma Kaufmann Camp has a virtually unmatched record of continuous service to the Jews of its city. Now owned and operated by Pittsburgh’s Jewish Community Center, it is enjoyed by hundreds of area youngsters every summer. It began much more than a century ago as a place to give crowded immigrant city dwellers — primarily mothers and their young children — an outdoor summer experience. Named for a member of a major philanthropic Jewish family of the time, it was fondly referred to as “Emma Farm.” That name remains today. It’s where I got my own first camping experiences, beginning in the years of World War II, and where I later became a counselor. Today, on newer, expanded grounds, “Emmafarm” — pronounced as a single word — rises as a mountain in the landscape of Pittsburgh’s Jewish history.
The camp never had its own Torah, always borrowing one for summer use from one or another of the many city synagogues. But 15 years ago, Lenny Silberman — then Emmafarm’s director and now head of the Kaufmann Camp network — learned that the U.S. Military would have three scrolls for sale following the closure of its bases in Iran. The smallest scroll — light enough for a camper to lift as hagbah at the conclusion of services — would cost $8,000. The most prized possession of Silberman — a true Pittsburgher in his love for the Pirates no matter their league standings — was a bat once used by the team’s most revered player, Roberto Clemente, the first-ever Latino inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. He took it to a national sports convention and sold it — for exactly $8,000.
After Silberman had the money in hand, “I kissed the bat goodbye,” he told Chronicle reporter Adam Reinherz. “It’s a baseball thing — like when you hit a home run.” But he didn’t talk about it then. The real “home run” wasn’t hit until last month. After all the years before Silberman told his story, it took two more to locate Roberto Clemente, Jr., whose father died back in 1972, when his chartered plane, filled with aid for victims of a Nicaraguan earthquake, crashed soon after takeoff from his native Puerto Rico, falling into the Atlantic, killing everyone on board.
The big Torah celebration, with the junior Clemente on hand, took place at Emmafarm July 24. There, 400 campers heard his message.
“I made them show me their index fingers,” he said. Then he told them, “Take a look and see what you see. Your fingerprint makes you unique. No one will ever be able to match that in the world. So whatever you touch, touch it in a positive way.”
The Emmafarm Torah is formally dedicated in honor of Silberman’s mother, Marianne, and in memory of his father, Herbert, a Holocaust survivor. Somehow, in a sleepaway camp on the pastoral outskirts of western Pennsylvania, it embodies everything that is both Jewish and American.

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