Bnai Brith Magazine - Winter 2011

Mitzvah On Ice

David Elfin 0000-00-00 00:00:00

Jeff Halpern grew up in Potomac, Md., a well-to-do suburb of the nation’s capital. The nice Jewish boy and “A” student went on to St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire and then to Princeton University, where he majored in economics. Many of his classmates went off to graduate school, Wall Street or government, but Halpern opted to follow a different path: onto the ice. “My family and friends are the most important things in my life, but hockey has always been my passion, the thing that has always driven me,” says the 35-year-old Halpern, who returned this season to the Washington Capitals, with whom he began his National Hockey League career in 1999. Halpern’s story is special not just because he’s the first player from the Washington area to play in the NHL, but because as a Jew, he’s also a rarity on the ice—there were only a handful of Jews skating in the NHL last season. Despite growing up in a largely secular home and the private tone he adopts when discussing his religion, his Judaism is not something he takes lightly. “The first thing I do when the schedule comes out is figure out if there’s a conflict with Yom Kippur,” says Halpern. In his first year as team captain of the Capitals, he chose to sit out a 2005 game against the Carolina Hurricanes to observe the holiday. “I don’t think there’s any question what I should do,” Halpern told The Washington Post at the time. “I wish we didn’t have a game. But, it’s too important to me, my family and the community that has supported me, not to participate” in observing the Jewish Day of Atonement. More recently, Halpern added in an interview for this article: “Religion for me is real personal.I don’t like to push my beliefs on anyone, but my dad told me what (baseball Hall of Famers) Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax had to go through to sit games out. Yom Kippur is so important to so many people. My not playing is a way for me to reach out to them. I try to cherish every moment in the NHL. So, to miss a game, it has to really mean something deep in your roots or deep in your heart. ... “My beliefs are based a lot on what people before me believed in and traditions passed on.A big part of that is Judaism. I believe in what I believe in. It’s definitely the Jewish religion, but I tend to keep these thoughts to myself. I never try to beat it into anybody or preach anything.” Halpern also takes inspiration—and pride in his Jewish roots—from his great-grandmother. “She was a Holocaust survivor who never lost her love of life,” he says. In his hockey career, Halpern says, he has never encountered blatant anti-Semitism, only occasional locker room jokes relating to religion or culture but “nothing over the top. There may have been moments when I felt people had taken it too far. I’ve always been good at being able to Defuse or snuff it out right away or let people know it’s not acceptable.” While he says he has encountered little overt anti-Semitism, Halpern says one of his favorite movies is “School Ties,” a 1992 film about a Jewish public school student in the 1950s who goes to a New England prep school on an athletic scholarship. There he excels at team sports but faces prejudice when his schoolmates learn he is Jewish. Halpern says he’s “always loved” the movie because it showed “a Jewish high school athlete persevering through anti-Semitism.I didn’t experience anything like that at [St.Paul’s] school, but I definitely felt in the minority there.” The school is affiliated with the Episcopal Church but welcomes students of all religions and backgrounds, according to its website. Halpern’s wife, Kelly Cornwell, is a former Washington Redskins cheerleader whom he met in 2003. Two years before the couple married last June, Cornwell decided to convert to Judaism.Despite the joyful occasion, there was still sadness at their wedding. Halpern’s mother, Gloria, was killed with his aunt and uncle in a fiery car wreck in 2005. Halpern says that he thinks about his mother every day but has kept his thoughts on her death private since he gave her eulogy at B’nai Israel, the Conservative synagogue in Rockville, Md., where years before he had his bar mitzvah.“A lot of my beliefs in life are informed by her,” he says of his mother, who had been an accountant and taught at a local community College. The 2005 game Halpern chose to sit out was on the first Yom Kippur after his mother had passed away. Halpern started skating at the age of 3 with his father, Mel, a lawyer, and older sister, Jenny (who would also graduate from Princeton, where she was a softball standout). He began playing hockey at the age of 4 and was instantly hooked. Aggressive enough to tackle visitors to the family home when he was half their height and athletic enough to leap to catch line drives on the baseball field at 5 years old, the young Halpern was enthralled with hockey at a time when few kids in the Washington area knew much about the sport other than that the NHL’s still-fledgling Capitals weren’t very good.While he also excelled in soccer and baseball, hockey was always Halpern’s best and favorite sport. To continue to pursue his dreams of playing in college and the NHL,Halpern was forced to leave the Washington area in order to find a high school with a hockey squad.Which is how he landed at St. Paul’s. “As a kid, I looked up to a guy named Matt Mallgrave, who was six years older and had gone off to St. Paul’s and then to Harvard,” he says.“When I skate in the off seasons, college players will be there and they’ll tell me that I was kind of an inspiration for them the way Matt was for me. That makes me feel good. I’m really happy that there are so many more opportunities for youth hockey players in the area now.” Indeed, youth hockey has boomed in the Washington area during the last decade, fueled in part by Halpern’s example but mostly by the Caps’ rise to becoming a serious contender the past four years. “It’s exciting being back, but it doesn’t feel like the same team,” says Halpern, who played six seasons for the Caps, the last as their captain, before skating for the Dallas Stars, Tampa Bay Lightning, Los Angeles Kings and Montreal Canadiens, his last team before returning to the Washington Capitals this season. “There’s a different practice rink, different uniforms and a different effect the team has on the city. It feels not so much like I’m returning, but like I’m coming to the new Caps.” General Manager George McPhee, who signed Halpern out of Princeton 12 years ago, brought him back as a free agent this summer while also adding a handful of other wellrespected players. “He’s a good leader,” McPhee says. “He’s a really good penalty killer,” preventing opposing teams from scoring when his team is short a player due to a penalty, “and he can generate some offense.” With an understanding of the multifaceted nature of the game, as well as a quiet but dryly humorous nature, came respect and admiration from his teammates. Halpern was elected captain of his prep school and college teams as well The Caps and the 2008 U.S. National Team.Those honors meant a lot to Halpern and to his father, who spent countless hours helping coach his son’s youth teams, traveling to tournaments as far away as Canada. Halpern is also a member of the Greater Washington Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. “I have always liked Jeff ’s sense of the game,” says Mel Halpern, who was the best man at his son’s wedding. “His intelligence, his passing skills remain even as his role has changed. He was more offensive in the beginning, then more of a two-way player, and recently, he’s been more defensive oriented.” “You want to be able to contribute, do things on the ice as well as being that good guy, that good leader,” Halpern says.“Games played and seasons played are such an honor for me because it further imprints me in the storybook of the NHL.” In Washington, Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin is easily recognized, but Halpern can usually go about his business without being noticed unless he’s near the arena or in his suburban neighborhood. However, he plans to handle his second tour of duty at home differently. “It’s nice to have a second chance to play back home, especially now that Kelly and I are married and with my dad living 15 minutes from us,” Halpern says. “I want to enjoy it more this time, do things I didn’t do the first time, like run youth hockey clinics. I want to play as long as I can, but after I’m done, I would like to coach, probably on the professional level. It goes by so fast that I haven’t ever really taken the time to sit back and enjoy my career.” After 13 years in the NHL and another in Switzerland during the 2004–2005 lockout, Halpern hasn’t lost any of his love for the game. Not only does he want to celebrate a championship someday, he’s still looking to enjoy his first playoff series triumph. Montreal lost a hard-fought, seven-game series with archrival Boston in the first round last season—with Halpern being knocked unconscious during the final contest but perhaps unwisely returning to the ice shortly after wards—only to see the Boston Bruins go on to capture the Stanley Cup, the professional hockey trophy awarded to the winner of the annual championship series. One of Halpern’s hockey heroes is the late Roger Neilson, a legendary NHL coach who, after several visits to Israel as a Christian pilgrim,Established a youth hockey camp there in 1997, with a skating facility in the northern town of Metulla. “I have never been to Israel, although I would like to go,” Halpern says. “I’ve always had tremendous respect and admiration for the pride the State of Israel and its Mossad [intelligence] agency have shown in protecting its livelihood and people,” he says.“Events surrounding the capture of [German Nazi] Adolph Eichmann and the retaliation to those involved with Black September,” the Palestinian terrorist group responsible for the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, “have always intrigued me and given me a great sense of appreciation for the passion of Israel to protect its people.” That’s Jeff Halpern, a professional hockey player who happens to be Jewish. But, on the ice, it’s all hockey, all the time—except on Yom Kippur.

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