What World Team Tennis Can Teach Our Synagogues

tennis courtsBy Howard Blas

It is rare that two of my favorite topics – tennis and Judaism – have much to teach each other. A few nights ago, as I watched the New York Empire battle the Washington Kastle on Opening Night of the World Team Tennis season at the legendary West Side Tennis club in Forest Hills, New York, I realized that this action-packed, colorful, fast-paced, family-friendly sport has a lot to teach our synagogues and prayer services.

Mylan World Team Tennis (WTT), co-founded in 1974 by tennis legend Billie Jean King, is tennis with a twist. Players (many ranked in the top 200 in the world) are drafted to six teams and compete in twelve matches, from July 31-August 13th.

This tennis format is family friendly – instead of the traditional “first player to 6 games” set, the first player to win five games wins the set. And there is only one set – no best 2 of 3 (or 3 of 5) like in traditional tennis. Scoring is no ad, so the games end quickly. And team points are cumulative and tallied at the end. If the matches are tied at the end of five sets, there is a supertiebreaker. Fans watch five matches (men’s and women’s singles and doubles and mixed doubles), played back to back on one very colorful court, they can cheer as loud as they want, and everyone goes him in under three hours!

These slight modifications to the traditional game preserve the essence of the sport, while adding excitement. Here are some lessons synagogues across the denominations can take from World Team Tennis and apply:

Give the court a makeover: courts are painted a very colorful purple, green red and blue – a far cry from traditional, monochromatic green or blue. It is amazing what a little fresh paint, polish, and color can do. Paint and freshen up that old shul building. And consider some new lighting as well.

Mix up the order of play: Each night, the home team coach determines the order of play for the five matches. Some nights, women’s singles leads off, while other nights, it is mixed doubles. It keeps the fans engaged and on their toes. While the matbeah tefillah – the order of prayers – is important, there is room for “mixing it up.” Experiment with new tunes. Consider adding or even “skipping” certain prayers some evenings or mornings.

Time limits get us out of here faster! In WTT, the clock is ticking. As soon as a point ends, the clock counts down from 25 seconds. Consider time limits to your synagogue service. Does a service really need to be 3 or more hours? A traditional service with a full torah reading in Israel takes no more than 90 minutes! (Basketball and even baseball are using clocks to keep the action moving). We have an important principle in Judaism of tircha d’ziburah – “paining” the community. Long services feel like torture!

Team consists of regular team members and special guests and is diverse: The core team, consisting of players from around the world, is on the roster all season, but several times a season, special guest players join the team. It is nice when the rabbi delivers the weekly sermon and the cantor leads the davening (prayer service), but guest d’var torahs – by congregants, visiting guests, other rabbis or educators in the community – add new perspectives. And lay leaders with the skills to lead the congregation in prayer add a lot to the team.

Make the players accessible to the fans: Following the match, all kids 16 and under are invited to the court. Players are seated at tables where they sign autographs and schmooze with the fans. Rabbis, cantors and members of the shul leadership should be accessible, reachable and relatable to community members of all ages.

Players are real people and model that no job is beneath them: The players come across to the fans as “real people” – they cheer for their teammates, and bring them towels, water and power drinks during the match. When rabbis and cantors relate to congregants as “fellow travelers” – parents, community members and citizens of the world, congregants can relate to them better.

Friendly staff do wonders for the franchise: Ticket takers, ushers, volunteers and on-court announcers are gregarious, friendly and helpful and help the guests feel good about being here. While ushers and volunteers smile and engage you as they walk you to your seat, playful announcers encourage audience participation. Helpful, friendly, welcoming synagogue staff who come over to introduce themselves to guests, bring over a siddur or Chumash and show guests the proper page make people feel welcomed – and inclined to come back again in the future.

The World Team Tennis season runs through August 13th with the finals taking place in New York City on August 26th. If you live in New York City, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, PA, Springfield, MO, San Diego, CA or Orange County, CA, come watch a match – and consider what this exciting tennis format can do to spice things up in your shul!

Howard Blas is the director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network.