When Eric Brodkowitz left home in Potomac, Md., to study at Yale University and to pitch for the Yale Bulldogs baseball team, his mother, Jill, did what any concerned Jewish mother might do: She turned to her local Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, who reached out to Chabad on Campus at Yale.
“Rabbi Shua Rosenstein at Yale was open and very inviting,” says Brodkowitz, today an investment analyst with Goldman Sachs and a pitcher on Israel’s national baseball team, which will compete in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. During his time at Yale, Brodkowitz—who in his senior year at Yale was a unanimous first-team All-Ivy League selection and finished the season with a 2.80 ERA—grew close to Rosenstein and his wife, Sara, co-directors of Chabad at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. “The rabbi invited me and my friends to Shabbat dinner. It was just a very welcoming environment.”
During his junior year, Brodkowitz lived on the same street as the Yale Chabad and began wrapping tefillin twice a week at the Chabad House.
“When Eric was on campus, we would meet often to lay tefillin,” recalls Rosenstein. “We always joked that it would help him as a pitcher.”
It certainly didn’t hurt.
Brodkowitz, who was discovered by Team Israel manager Eric Holtz towards the end of his senior year in 2018, has had a successful run so far with Team Israel. The right-hander started two games in the July 2019 European Baseball Championship B-Pool in Bulgaria—winning one game and striking out 15 in 9.1 innings pitched—as part of Israel’s sweep into the playoffs. Team Israel beat Lithuania in the best-of-three playoff series, qualifying for the 2019 European Baseball Championship, from which Israel emerged as one of six teams heading to the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Even post-graduation, Brodkowitz has continued to stay in touch with the Rosensteins. He recently stayed at their home in New Haven for the weekend of this year’s Harvard-Yale football game, and after being selected to play for Team Israel in the Olympics, he gifted a prized team jersey to one of the rabbi’s children.
“Rabbi Rosenstein was a big influence on me,” says Brodkowitz, who credits his mother for giving him the push he needed. “She said, ‘Go for a free dinner and explore… I had a great dinner, a great time and became very close to the rabbi.”
A Family That Focused on Traditions
Brodkowitz, who grew up in Potomac in the greater Washington, D.C. area, has always been connected to baseball, to his family and to his Judaism. His father, Ken, pitched and played outfield and first base during his student years at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore before injuring his arm. “He had Tommy John surgery and didn’t pitch after that,” says Brodkowitz. When Ken married and had children, he focused his energies on patiently and carefully coaching his children.
Brodkowitz speaks affectionately of his father, who was always “dedicated, caring and focused” with him and his two younger siblings and their sports pursuits. “He focused on mechanics, always practiced with me and never missed a game,” relates Brodkowitz, who says he continues to feel his parents’ active support.
While baseball was always a passion for the younger Brodkowitz, Jewish life holds no less an important place in his life. His family has always been affiliated, Brodkowitz attended Hebrew school and went to Jewish overnight camp for six years, and the family and continues to be connected to Chabad of Potomac.
He also benefited from a close relationship with his maternal grandfather, who he says “grew up in an Orthodox neighborhood in New York” and “faithfully practiced Judaism.” His grandfather proudly prepared Brodkowitz—and all twelve of his grandchildren for their bar and bat mitzvahs. “He is the type of guy where you learned the whole service and all the blessings; it was intense.”
Despite the high expectations, the ball player says “it was a good bonding experience.”
Wrapping Tefillin, Throwing Pitches During College
Brodkowitz continued to grow Jewishly while at Yale, even with the demands of playing varsity baseball all four years, coupled with the equally intense demands of being a double major in economics and molecular, cellular and developmental biology with a concentration in biotechnology. During sophomore year, he participated in a Birthright Israel trip, an experience he describes as “transformative.” Little did he know that only a few years later, he would become an Israeli citizen and play for its national baseball team.
As his baseball career developed, so did his Jewish engagement. Along with Shabbat meals at Chabad and regular tefillin pit stops, Brodkowitz enrolled in the Sinai Scholars program run by Chabad on Campus that integrates the study of classic Jewish texts, social programming and networking for top Jewish college students around the world.
Team Israel manager Eric Holtz first saw Brodkowitz pitch when Holtz’s son, who plays baseball for Columbia University, was playing against Yale.
“My son was a freshman at Columbia when Eric was a senior. I watched a championship game in which Eric pitched eight innings, giving up one run, and was just phenomenal. He refused to let his team down,” reports Holtz. “I didn’t know he was Jewish at all. After the game, I was looking at the stats and saw the last name was Brodkowitz. I immediately called the coach at Yale; he put me in touch with Eric, and the rest is history. Beyond being a great right-handed pitcher, he is one of the most wonderful young men you will ever come across.”
When Brodkowitz got a text from his Yale coach about Team Israel’s interest in June 2018, he was both surprised and flattered. By now a college graduate, he had just recently been hired as an analyst at Goldman Sachs, so he was also unsure of what to tell his new employers. Considering that he might need to miss some work to play in various baseball tournaments in Europe and Asia—not to mention the Olympics—it was an unusual request to say the least. Instead of rejection, to Brodkowitz’s delight his chance to play for Team Israel was met with an outpouring of support. “You have our blessing. How can we help?” came Goldman’s reply almost instantly, for which the pitcher/analyst says he is forever grateful.
In the months leading up to the Olympics, Brodkowitz stays in shape by working out in the gym and throwing baseballs daily at a field close to his work. And despite his packed work and training schedule, he is never too busy to discuss his Jewish pride with reporters or fans. “It has been a blessing and privilege to be able to wear ‘Israel’ across my chest,” he affirms.
An Active Alum with Yale and Chabad
Aside from his ongoing connection with Chabad at Yale—he remains active as an alumnus—Chabad continues to play an important place in Brodkowitz’s life in his work with Team Israel. Take, for instance, the team’s Friday-night experience while in Lithuania for a game against the country’s national team in the small city of Utena—about an hour and 20 minutes northeast of the capital, Vilnius. Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky, co-director of Chabad of Lithuania since 1994, made the trip before Shabbat to drop off all the supplies Team Israel needed to have an authentic Shabbat experience—something Brodkowitz and his teammates say they will never forget.
“There was nothing better than being in a country like Lithuania and having Shabbat dinner driven 100 miles from Chabad so that the team could celebrate Shabbat together,” adds Holtz, the manager.
Indeed, Peter Kurz, president of Israel Association of Baseball and general manager of Team Israel, has found Chabad to be an invaluable support to the team wherever they go. “Chabad has always played an important role in helping our national teams keep the Jewish spirit while we play in overseas tournaments—be it in Italy, the Czech Republic or even Bulgaria,” he says. Chabad has enabled “our team to maintain our Jewish traditions while still playing the game of baseball.”
More than a nice sentiment, Kurz says it’s this idea that stands at the heart of Israel baseball. The importance of Jewish tradition is in “our slogan,” he says: “‘Israel Baseball: Where Traditions Meet.’”
And it’s a key to what drives Brodkowitz.
“Eric takes great pride in his Jewish identity and his ability to help Israel compete in the summer Olympics,” attests Rosenstein. “I am confident that he will continue to inspire others in his journey, both as a committed Jew and a great baseball player.”