In Tompkins, a ‘Rolling Rabbi’ Against Men With Sticks

Sitting on their couch one Saturday night while in college, Roni Jesselson and his roommate Mike Dabah started talking about how much they missed hockey. They had played in Jewish youth leagues, and discussion soon turned to how they could re-connect with the game they loved. They decided to organize a casual pick-up hockey league at Tompkins Square Park.

“We were like, ‘We have to do this’,” said Mr. Jesselson, 26, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Greenwich Village. “And from there it bloomed.”

At first, they used garbage cans instead of a net and goalie. Mr. Jesselson and Mr. Dabah would call friends late into the night trying to scrap together enough players for a game of three-on-three. But gradually, the scrimmages increased in organization, and in popularity. Today, five years later, the league’s mailing list boasts 45 people from as far as Queens or New Jersey.

The players are an “eclectic mix” of Jews (both religious and non-practicing, Mr. Jesselson said) and the game takes on a uniquely Jewish twist. A number of the participants wear yarmulkes. On Fridays, devout Jews have been known to leave games early to perform the mikvah, or the ritual bath in preparation for Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.

And then there are the rabbis.

“At one point we had three rabbis playing in the game,” Mr. Jesselson said. “A friend of ours, Rabbi Erlich, he was actually playing goalie.”

Rabbi Dov Yonah Korn, the Chabad rabbi at New York University, has a bushy beard and a reputation for gritty play. Players said that what Rabbi Korn lacks in natural talent he makes up for in enthusiasm and determination.

“He adds a certain level of passion to street hockey that you don’t see very often,” said Mr. Dabah, who is now a law student. “He’s very loud and very aggressive, but he’s also the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.”

“He’s just one of the guys,” said Mr. Jesselson of Rabbi Korn, whom he calls the Rolling Rabbi. “He used to be a little out of shape and he might not be as good as some of the young guys but he has funny sound effects when he misses a shot. He’ll be like, ‘Oh God!’ But he’s an integral part of the game.”

For a schoolyard contest, the games are highly structured: three teams of four players each, in round robin fashion. Whoever is the first to score two goals within ten minutes is the winner. If a game is tied after regulation, there’s a penalty shootout.

The games are known to attract big crowds, but not everyone finds the league entertaining. On a recent Friday afternoon, teens with skateboards at their feet could be spotted unhappily watching the action from a bench.

“Sometimes there’s a bit of a turf war,” said Andrew Kluger, a 25-year-old law student who plays in the hockey league. “There have been battles where we had to assert ourselves. But nothing physical.”

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 15, 2012

An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of one of the league’s founders. It is Dabah, not Tabah.