Evan Kaufmann – Jewish Hockey Player for Germany

Originally published at JTA.org

More than 65 years ago, Evan Kaufmann’s great-grandparents were murdered in the Auschwitz death camp. Now he is taking the ice for the German national hockey team.

Following a successful hockey career at the University of Minnesota, Kaufmann tried out for several professional clubs in the United States before being advised by his agent that his best option was to play for a team in the German Ice Hockey League, or the DEL. His late grandfather’s German roots enabled Kaufmann to receive German citizenship quickly, and he and his wife, Danielle, relocated to Dusseldorf in 2008.

This weekend, the 27-year-old forward will represent the German national team in the Minsk Cup, a four-nation tournament. He also plans to compete with the national team in May’s world championships, and hopes to have a chance to make the German Olympic squad that will compete in the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia.

During his first years playing for the DEG Metro Stars, Kaufmann kept his Judaism to himself and didn’t tell his teammates that he was the grandson of a survivor or that his great-grandparents perished in the Holocaust.

“At first I was pretty uncomfortable expressing that I was Jewish and speaking about my family’s background, but that was true even in America,” Kaufmann told JTA. “It’s not something in the hockey world that is really talked about. It’s not something I was comfortable sharing with most people. But I’ve found that the younger generation here in Germany is open to differences, and from my experience they’ve all been interested in knowing more about being Jewish, including the holidays and traditions.”

Kaufmann and his wife are expecting their first child, a son, in June and will be relocating from Dusseldorf to Nuremberg, where Kaufmann recently signed a three-year contract with the local team, one of 14 in the German hockey league. [The Nuremberg team’s arena is located on the same grounds as the Nazi Party’s rally grounds]

How did his parents react when he decided to play professional hockey in Germany?

“They were a little unsure initially just because of everything that happened [in Germany], but they knew it was my lifelong goal to be a professional hockey player and I committed so much time to it,” Kaufman said.

“It’s an issue not just for them but for a lot of American Jews in general. Germany is so different today than it was back then. I wish more people could come over here today so they wouldn’t have to carry that stereotype forever.”

Being chosen to play for the national team carried with it mixed emotions for Kaufmann.

“A lot of the time I was thinking whether my grandpa would be happy about this or sad or mad,” he said. “The more I thought about it, I know he had plans to come back to Germany before he died. He wasn’t able to, but that helped me get over those initial fears. I feel more pride with the association of feeling German than I ever thought I’d have.”

Observing Judaism has been a challenge for the young Kaufmanns as well.

“The first year we were in Dusseldorf, we went to a small Orthodox synagogue. We had a tough experience,” he recalled. “We were taking photos from the outside and we were questioned and had to show our passports because there was an incident there a few years prior. That spoiled it for us.”

The couple makes a point of trying to keep the Jewish traditions alive. They share holiday dinners together and observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the Passover seder. They had met at Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka, Minn., the Conservative synagogue where their families are members.

“They took notice of each other in our sanctuary when they were at High Holiday services a few years ago and started to date,” Rabbi Harold Kravitz recalls. “They married in our sanctuary a few years later.”

Since becoming more open about his Judaism and his family’s ties to the Holocaust, Kaufmann’s teammates have become more curious.

“They want to know what everything means for me compared to them, but ultimately they know who I am as a person,” he said. “Our friendships were established without religion, so it doesn’t change anything. I was always hesitant to talk about it, but now that I’m being more public about it, I’ve become more comfortable with the history. I think it’s a good story to express.”

While his teammates tell him that anti-Semitism still exists in certain regions in Germany, Kaufmann hasn’t experienced any firsthand.

“I don’t think it’s any different than in America or any other country,” he said. “There’s always going to be people who have their own beliefs. Personally, I’ve only had good experiences in Germany.”

Kaufmann knows that he has his detractors in the Jewish community who find it troubling that someone who lost members of his family in the Holocaust could be playing for the German national team.

“Initially there was a part of me that thought that way,” Kaufmann said. But, he added, “I’ve always been taught to give people a second chance.”

He adds, “Everything that happened was so long ago and in a country that was so different. Obviously I never want to forget what happened, and that’s why I tell my story. But to hold that against a whole country of people who had nothing to do with it would not be right.”

Kaufmann has considered that he could be competing against the United States in May at the world championships, but he’s not concerned.

“I’m focused on helping this team and playing my role within the squad to help us win hockey games, and I don’t think it matters who the opponent is,” he said.

In addition to fulfilling his dream of playing on the Olympic team in two years, Kaufmann also expressed his desire to get his son skating when he’s 3 years old, a year earlier than his own first time on the ice.

Update: The German National Team lost both of its games in this weekend’s tournament, but Evan Kaufmann was named player of the game in one of the losses. 

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Auschwitz Survivor’s Jewish Grandson Evan Kaufmann Plays For Germany’s National Hockey Team

One year ago today I waited in line to enter the Reichstag. The moment wasn’t lost on me. Almost seventy years prior, the Nazi government made every effort to wipe my people off the face of this earth. And there I was, with a dozen other American rabbis, about to walk into the historic Berlin building that is the seat of the current German government as Chancellor Angela Merkel was addressing Parliament. I smiled as I handed my passport to the German officer and placed my watch and wallet into the bin before walking through the metal detector. What an interesting world we live in.

Several people asked me how I was able to travel to Berlin and spend money in the same country in which the Holocaust was conceived and planned. I’m sure those same people are asking how American-born hockey player Evan Kaufmann can represent the German national team this weekend. Several of Evan Kaufmann’s relatives perished in the Nazi Holocaust. His grandfather Kurt survived Auschwitz before fleeing to the United States.

Evan Kauffman – DEG Metro Stars (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Kaufmann moved to Germany in 2008, but word is just getting out about this Jewish hockey player whose great-grandparents perished in the Holocaust playing for DEG Metro Stars of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga. The 28-year-old forward hopes to bring Germany a victory in the Belarus Cup in Minsk this weekend when he plays for the German national team. Kaufmann, who is married to Danielle (the couple is expecting their first child in June), received German citizenship in order to play for the national team and is among the top scorers in the German ice hockey league. Kaufmann admits that his teammates are very curious about him being Jewish and often ask him questions. Kaufmann told the UK’s Daily Mail, “I didn’t have to think hard about it. It is a great honour but it will also be a very emotional moment for me when I hear the national anthem played.”

Evan Kaufmann’s bio on the DEG Metro Stars website explains:

Evan Kaufmann joined the team in the summer of 2008. He was the great unknown to the team of DEG Metro Stars. A college player with had no experience in professional hockey made​​, received a German passport has in a very short time captured the hearts of the audience. His technical finesse and his speed made ​​him a major player in the third line of attack in Dusseldorf. So it was no surprise that his contract was extended for a few months ahead of schedule for two more years. It should be worth it. In the 2010-11 season Kauffman became the second-leading scorer behind Patrick Reimer. Together with Tyler Beechey and James Connor, he made a splendid swirling storm formation, which has established itself as the second offensive series and was instrumental in moving into the playoff semi-final. Kaufmann, whose grandfather came from Germany, began his career in the American Junior League for the River City Lancers. After a very strong year Kaufmann moved to the University of Minnesota to study and play Hockey. After his four years at the University of Minnesota, he devoted himself entirely to hockey.

While Evan Kaufmann isn’t the first Jewish individual to compete for Germany in the post-Holocaust era (a Jewish man swam for Germany in the 1952 Olympics and a Jewish woman swam for Germany in the 2004 Olympics), he is the most notable. It is certainly an interesting story that seven decades after his great-grandparents and other relatives were murdered by the Nazis, Kaufmann is proud to represent Germany on the ice. This is just one more way in which the Jewish community will come to view Germany differently. Never forgetting the massive tragedy of the Holocaust, we understand that this is a new Germany… A Germany we can cheer for proudly in this weekend’s Belarus Cup. Good luck to Evan Kaufmann and his DEG Metro Stars.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Jewish Hockey Player Claims Anti-Semitism, Now a Senator

There would probably be more anti-Semitism in the National Hockey League if there were only more Jewish players. TMZ reports that the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks are being accused of abusing Jewish Player Jason Bailey. The 23-year-old was a 3rd round draft pick in 2005 and he “claims from the moment the Ducks assigned him to play for an affiliate team called the Bakersfield Condors … his coaches unleashed a ‘barrage of anti-Semitic, offensive and degrading verbal attacks.'”

Bailey says the coaches also forced him to travel apart from the team and he was “rarely given any ice time” in games because he’s Jewish.

According to the documents, filed by Bailey’s powerhouse lawyer Keith Fink, Bailey complained to the Ducks about the hostile work environment — and the team reacted by instructing the coaches to pen apology letters to Bailey in which they both admitted to using hurtful language.

Bailey was eventually traded to the Ottawa Senators in 2009 — and insists the Ducks were “happy to be rid of him.”

I’m curious to hear how NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who is Jewish and an Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity brother, will deal with these allegations against the Anaheim Ducks. Hopefully, Jason Bailey will be treated better in Ottawa.

(Hat tip to Mark Eaton)

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Florida Panthers Fans Angry with Kippah Giveaway at Hockey Game

I saw this one coming. I originally blogged last week about the decision by the NHL’s Florida Panthers to give out yarmulkes (kippahs) to the fans at its Hanukkah game this past Tuesday night. One of the team’s representatives left a comment on my blog explaining that not every fan in attendance at the game would be receiving the free blue leather kippah embroidered with the Florida Panthers’ logo. Rather, only those who had purchased the Hanukkah game package would get the kippah. I suppose that’s still a better idea than “the first 5,000 Jews who enter the arena.”

Something told me that the majority of the fans at the game did not know that they had to buy the Hanukkah package to get the kippah. Before the game, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (a brother of the Jewish AEPi fraternity by the way!) even referred to the giveaway, saying “If there’s a hat trick tonight the fans will throw yarmulkes like they’re Frisbees.”

Frank Reinstein, a local Detroit-area CPA who went to elementary and middle school with me, thought everyone at the game (man, woman and child) would be receiving a kippah and it was Frank’s boss who was the one who came up with the Hanukkah promotion.

Sure enough, not everything went as planned as the Sun Sentinel’s blog “The Business of Sports” explained. Blogger Sarah Talalay writes:

The news release sent out last Tuesday said the yarmulkes would be “given to all ticket-buyers.” What the release apparently didn’t make clear was that should have said “Panthers yarmulke given to those who buy a special ticket pack.” That’s how the Panthers amended the news item on floridapanthers.com, but only after the news release had been sent to the media. The media did not receive a corrected release.

Fans found out the hard way when they arrived at the game expecting the sweet dark blue yarmulke with the Panthers logo. “Two friends and I decided to check out the game because one of them loves to collect the crazy giveaways that hockey teams tend to promo,” Panthers fan Caity Kauffman said. Kauffman tweeted about her experience trying to get to the bottom of “yarmulke-gate” during last night’s game.

When Kauffman and her friends didn’t see arena employees handing out yarmulkes at the arena’s entrance, they asked around. They were told it was a group sales item and were unaware of the release that said “all ticket buyers.” Kauffman saw yarmulkes being given out a few seats away, but again was told they were for group sales.

With curiosity in full swing, Kauffman went to client services, where she gave her name and phone number, after being told the team would send out some yarmulkes. She ran into at least one other fan, who was irate, and they were far from the only ones.

“All in all, we just wanted to check out the yarmulke giveaway because it was a pretty unique promo,” Kauffman said. “We only pursued it because no one at the BAC [BankAtlantic Center] seemed like they knew what was going on, and couldn’t get solid answers. I’m not offended, just annoyed. It was just a promo that was falsely advertised, poorly carried out and then they didn’t own up to the poor execution.”

Panthers spokesman Matt Sacco said about 1,500 yarmulkes were given to group ticket buyers, who were pleased with the promotion.

“It was for people who bought the tickets for Jewish Heritage Night group night,” Sacco said. He said he could understand the confusion, but the team quickly changed the item on the team’s website.

Panthers President Michael Yormark issued this statement: “Based on the success of the biggest Hanukkah Party in South Florida last night during the Panthers-Avalanche game at the BankAtlantic Center, we are definitely considering expanding the program in years to come. Also, any fans that were at the game but did not get a Panthers yarmulke, I’d urge you to call our ticket sales department and speak to one of our sales representatives.”

Sounds to me like what was a well intentioned gimmick is now worthy of the penalty box!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Florida Panthers Hanukkah Hockey Night

As I blogged about last Thursday, the Florida Panthers hockey team hosted its first Hanukkah Night tonight at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida. It turns out that the black Panthers yarmulkes will be given out to the fans who pre-purchased the Hanukkah package, but the team will not discriminate between men and women.

Sunrise Sports & Entertainment listed all the special offerings for the celebration and encouraged fans to “join the biggest Hanukkah party in South Florida.”

On the list of what’s in store for the special Hanukkah game, I couldn’t figure out the last one’s connection to Hanukkah. Here’s the list:

  • A giant menorah lighting on the JetBlue Tarmac at 6:45 p.m.
  • Jewish music provided by Avimagic Entertainment
  • Kosher food available throughout the game in select locations
  • Panthers yarmulke given to all ticket-buyers
  • Postgame on-ice slap shots
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

High Shticking: Florida Panthers Give Out Kippahs to Fans for Hanukkah

It’s become expected that there will be some sort of a giveaway at sports events. Fans leave the stadium or arena with everything from posters of the star player to bobble-heads and t-shirts. Every once in a while, a team gets a little more creative.

And that’s exactly what happened in Florida. According to Greg Wyshynski in a Yahoo! News article, the Florida Panthers are scheduled to have their Hanukkah celebration during next Tuesday’s home game against the Colorado Avalanche. The Panthers are publicizing the game as “the biggest Hanukkah party in South Florida.”

So, what does it mean to have a Hanukkah party at a pro hockey game? Using jelly donuts for the pucks would pose some obvious logistical problems. I’m sure they’ll be lighting a menorah at some point in the game, but what is sure to make news is the Florida Panthers’ choice for a Hanukkah giveaway at Tuesday’s game.

The official Florida Panthers yarmulke, or kippah, will be handed out to all ticket holders before the game. No word on whether the NHL team is egalitarian in this regard and will be giving the kippahs out to the ladies as well.

I know from experience that these round, black leather kippahs will fly like a frisbee when thrown. And that’s exactly what the home team will do if a Panthers player scores three goals for a Hat Trick. Although, on this night it would be a Kippah Trick of course.

Who knows if the fans will even wait for a Hat Trick to throw the yarmulkes on the ice? I suppose it’s better than throwing a live octopus on the ice like Detroit Red Wings fans throw come playoff time. I mean those things aren’t even kosher!

While “Hanukkah Night” at the hockey game sounds like fun, the Florida Panthers deserve to go to the penalty box for the kippah giveaway, which just sounds to me like a High Shtick!

Hat Tip to Dave Alberts of Seattle

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller