Major League Baseball’s First Shabbat-Observant Players
Elie Kligman, drafted by the Washington Nationals, may first opt for college baseball. An exclusive Aish.com interview.
It's a great time to be an Orthodox Jewish baseball player. In the just-completed 2021 Major League Baseball draft, 18-year-old Elie Kligman of Las Vegas was selected by the Washington Nationals – just one day after 17-year-old Jacob Steinmetz of Long Island, who boasts a 97-mph fastball, was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks. (Steinmetz is the son of Yeshiva University basketball coach Elliot Steinmetz, profiled last year on Aish.com.)
Kligman got the good news while traveling with Israel’s national baseball team, currently playing exhibition games in the U.S. as a warm-up to the Tokyo Olympics.
Despite the excitement of being drafted, Kligman has announced his intent to attend Wake Forest College and become the first Shabbat-observant player in NCAA Divison-1 Baseball – moving him one step closer to his dream of playing in the major leagues.
In the intersection of Jewish observance and sports, history remembers Hall-of-Famer Sandy Koufax, who in 1965 refused to pitch the World Series on Yom Kippur. Yet it wasn't until basketball player Tamir Goodman’s breakthrough 20 years ago, that the sports world had a Torah-observant Division-1 or professional player. Since then, the list of Shabbat-observant elite athletes remains small; Olympian AJ Edelman and ping pong champion Estee Ackerman come to mind.
Aish.com spoke with Elie Kligman and his father, attorney and professional baseball agent Marc Kligman.
Aish: Congratulations on the big announcement. That’s quite a feat of diplomacy. How did a major league team determine that Elie could observe Shabbat at the professional level?
Marc: We love baseball, so why can't two co-exist? We decided to break through barriers and figure out a way this can work. Baseball is challenging because so many games are on Friday and Saturday. Since Elie began playing as a kid, we’ve been working to schedule Friday games a few hours earlier, and Saturday games a few hours later. When there is a Saturday evening game, we've got things down to a science, where we say Havdallah, change into our baseball gear, and are out the door in 10 minutes. Having the coaches on board is also key.
Elie is not only has talent, but is a great kid who puts God first.
Aish: There are prior instances of major-leaguers finessing their religious restrictions: Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson never pitched on Sundays, and Ed Correa of the Chicago White Sox – a Seventh-day Adventist – didn’t play from Friday evening or Saturday. Yet why would a coach want a player like Elie who comes with such limitations?
Marc: Elie is not only has talent, but is a great kid who puts God first. This makes him a bigger person and a better ball player. His deep dedication to principles rubs off on the rest of the team. Leaders like this don’t come around often, and having him on a team is a big opportunity.
Aish: Elie, tell about the balance between Judaism and your love for baseball.
Elie: I've been playing in my backyard with my dad ever since I could hold a baseball, and have been playing competitively since age six. Ever since I can remember, playing baseball is what I love to do. I grew up religious and I've always known that on Shabbos, we don't play baseball. Shabbos is the day for God, and that's not something I've ever thought about changing. So when it comes to keeping Shabbos, eating kosher, and praying three times a day, I'm not going to violate God.
Aish: Over the years, I’m sure people have said, “Elie, Shabbos is so challenging and you're missing out on so many opportunities!” How do you respond?
Elie: I simply explain that there’s no reason to put God second. No one has a good answer for that. Why would I put God second?
I’ve found that people are very interested in my observance. I’m constantly being asked: “What can you eat? What do you do on Shabbos?” When we had a baseball tournament in Las Vegas, some people stayed at our house and experienced Shabbos. So there have been opportunities to teach a bit about Judaism.
Aish: What about your academic studies?
Elie: I attended Desert Torah Academy until high school, and then did an online charter school, which is the best option in terms of combining Judaism and baseball. In addition to secular studies, my father, brother and I study Chumash and Gemara (Bible and Talmud) every evening for around an hour, the three of us together.
My parents never pushed religion on us, and always explained the "why" of observance. I enjoy learning Torah, because it builds a stronger connection to God. That's a great thing.
Elie Kligman was one of the country’s top high school prospects.
Aish: Elie has played various positions – pitcher, catcher, infielder. Where do you think he’ll end up?
Marc: At this point, we don’t know. But in terms of Shabbos observance, catcher is probably the easiest position to manage, because since it’s so physically demanding, most teams carry three catchers to give everyone a day off.
Like a quarterback, the catcher is the leader of the infield, with a good view of everything. Elie uses his excellent field command to direct people and make decisions at a very high level. He has tremendous intuition, anticipation, and understanding of the game. When Elie was younger, I would come off the bench to yell out instructions – and Elie would already know. I didn't have to say it. Judaism has a term “da’at,” which means an innate knowledge that becomes part of you. You can't separate the two. For Elie, baseball is the fabric of who he is.
Marc Kligman coaching a high school team in Las Vegas.
Aish: Marc, what was your Jewish upbringing like?
Marc: I grew up in Connecticut with parents who are very proud Jews. They sent me to Jewish day school through sixth grade. Besides offering a superior secular education, they wanted to give me a stronger Jewish education and background than they had.
But Judaism is primarily practiced in the home, and we didn’t do things the way I learned in school. So my Jewish observance didn't stick, especially when I went to public high school, and then to Johns Hopkins.
I put a lot of my energies into sports and played varsity baseball in college. I also hold a first-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and Practitioner-4 rank in Krav Maga. I’ve always felt that exercise, besides physical wellbeing, is important for mental and emotional wellbeing.
Aish: What was your route to Torah observance?
Marc: I attended Tulane law school, and the person in charge of students, Dr. David Kaufmann, was a very smart, PhD, intellectual – and a chassid. We started speaking about God, and one thing led to another. He invited me to Shabbos in their home, and I saw Judaism practiced the right way. It touched a nerve with me because there's so much about Chassidism that is thought-provoking.
From my day-school years, I could still pick up a Siddur and pray, but there were a lot of cobwebs and a bit of fear. At age 24, I was intimidated by the black hats, black coats, and beards – stuff I hadn't thought about much since age 12.
For me, Torah is a manual for how to get the most out of life. It gives me more inner peace, a greater understanding of how the world works
It was a transition process for me, because I was pretty happy being secular. So I had to adjust the expectations of what life would be like, and the uncertainty of how Jewish observance would affect my career, social life, and future family. Plus being so into sports, Saturday is a big day. Looking back, I think our family is a testament to a successful blend of the two worlds.
Aish: Tell us about Torah ethics and how that influences you personally and professionally.
Marc: For me, Torah is a manual for how to get the most out of life. Torah delivers real, practical results. It gives me more inner peace, a greater understanding of how the world works, and a better feel for where people are coming from and how to interact with them.
Aish: What was your biggest challenge in becoming observant?
Marc: When a police officer, firefighter, or military person wears a uniform, it gives off a vibe, a sense of what they stand for. For me, wearing a yarmulke felt like a magnet. So I avoided wearing it in public. Then a few years ago, I’d bought some kosher Chinese food and took it to the baseball stadium. As I was eating, one of my players said in all earnesty, in Spanish, “Where’s your little hat?” Once I realized that my clients didn't care, I just put on the yarmulke and was true to myself.
Wearing a yarmulke, you have to be mindful of your conduct, of representing God and the Jewish people. Because I’m an outward Jew, many strangers approach me – like the woman who wants to engage me in conversation at the airport in Panama, or a guy in Walmart in Waco, Texas who wants to shake my hand because he's a fan of Israel.
Wearing a yarmulke publicly takes some courage, like jumping in a pool. But once I did it, I’ve found it has opened more doors than it's closed.
L-R: Ari Kligman, Marc’s client catcher Dustin Garneau of the Detroit Tigers, Elie Kligman.
Aish: Elie, with your father a baseball agent, your career is in good hands.
Elie: Yeah, his work has been really helpful. I was introduced to the game a bit differently than most people. I got to meet his clients and watch a lot of games. Carlos Ruiz, the Phillies catcher who caught four no-hitters – and is one of my dad’s clients – was a big influence and gave me a love for catching.
Aish: Marc, besides being a sports agent, you also teach Sports Law at UNLV Law School, and are a criminal defense attorney.
Marc: I’m licensed in California, but due to the high California state taxes, our family moved to Las Vegas in 2013. We didn't know it at the time, but Las Vegas has a very developed Jewish community, with 10 kosher restaurants – dairy, sushi, hamburgers, you name it. We have a gorgeous synagogue. The Jewish population of Las Vegas is growing. We initially moved because of taxes, but this turned out to be a good move Jewishly.
In the meantime, I still conduct my practice in California. I love the fast-paced, intellectual interaction with judges, prosecutors, and clients. So I have my toe in both worlds, and can do both on my own terms.
Aish: How has your professional life given you the opportunity to teach people about Judaism?
Marc: When we lived in California, a local college had a “survey of religion” class, and I would do the “Jewish” module. They’d come to the synagogue and I'd show them Torah and Tefillin, speak about Jewish history and the Bible. I'd also mention the rules of family purity, a monthly time during which a married couple has no physical contact. It sounds antiquated, but this helps the couple communicate better on a non-physical level. With restraint comes refinement. And it leads to a monthly renewal like a honeymoon.
I’d tell the students there is no way that Torah is man-made, because no male would ever devise a cockamamie scheme to separate from his wife for two weeks. Men simply aren't programmed, DNA-wise, like that. So I’d cite that as one proof that Torah is Divine.
Afterwards, the students would write an essay about their experience at the synagogue, and four-out-of-five focused directly on family purity, saying how brilliant and fascinating it was. That's one example of how Torah works in practical, everyday life. It breaks stereotypes, and makes people step back and say, “Wait a second. That's not what I thought. Wow.”
Aish: How does Shabbos impact your relationship with clients, and your ability to be a successful sport's agent?
Marc: It can be hard to check out every Friday afternoon for 25 hours, especially if a client comes off the waiver wire on Saturday. But everyone knows that I’ll be back at 7 p.m., and we have until midnight to figure things out.
Beyond that, players are attracted to me because they see I'm guided by values and conviction. Also, the players’ parents like that they can trust me to help keep their kids away from trouble. I have many clients who are religious Christians; we share a belief in God and conservative values. Overall, my observance has been a filter, because not all players feel comfortable with it. That’s fine with me.
Kligman clan L-R: Elie, Laura, Tova, Marc, Ari.
Aish: Elie, what are your biggest lessons through all of this?
Elie: I learned that by staying strong in my Judaism, people will help. But if you show doubts, like "well, maybe I could play on Saturday," then people are less motivated to help – because they don't feel the need to.
And I learned that if you're talented and work hard, you don't have to sacrifice ideals to fulfill your dream.