Lenny Silberman, the man who built a sustainable after-school basketball program, revitalized a Jewish summer camp and solidified the Maccabi Games as the marquee event for young Jewish athletes, is exploring the newest frontier.
For the past 20 months Silberman, who prior to becoming CEO of Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds in New York City served as continental director of the JCC Maccabi Games, director of Emma Kaufmann Camp and athletic director of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, has pursued the possibilities of esports.
Sometimes referred to as electronic sports, esports or competitive gaming, the growing global phenomenon pits video-game players against one another in often highly watched and monetized competitions.
ESL One New York, a September 2017 esports event at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, featured eight of the world’s top teams competing in “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,” a multiplayer “shooter” game, for $250,000 in prizes.
Silberman attended the Sept. 16-17 event and described the experience in a recently published article on ejewishphilanthropy.com.
While it is common for several thousand people to attend such competitions, the bulk of viewers tune in online. Esports Charts, an analytical service that follows esports, reported that ESL One New York, garnered 5,307,744 views and 5,874,067 total hours watched.
Although much attention has been given to the multitudinous marketing and economic opportunities afforded by esports, Silberman has an alternative angle. Given the booming interest in esports, “we have an opportunity on so many different levels to engage and then re-engage Jewish youth,” he said.
For nearly two years, Silberman, has researched and discussed the possibilities of integrating esports into Jewish life, and although there is online competition that is often centered around violent games, he is more interested in other electronic contests.
That people of all ages may be interested in gaming — be it scoring a digital touchdown or building a visual bridge — might be puzzling to some, statistics confirm that the reach of video games far exceeds teenage hands.
“Gamers age 18 or older represent 72 percent of the video-game-playing population, and the average gamer is 35 years old,” according to the 2017 report of the Entertainment Software Association.
“On one hand, it’s teenagers” who are gaming; “on the other, it’s children and teenagers and college students or students at Hillel. It’s endless,” said Silberman. “My thinking is that there’s an opportunity for discussion sake.”
Whether it is bringing Jewish youth together to play video games against one another at a local Jewish Community Center or to have youth groups or summer camps or day schools or regions compete, the “potential is endless,” said Silberman. “The idea is that you’re meeting kids where they’re at.”
Silberman has spent his career anticipating trends and creating supportive programming for youth advancement. Given the next generation’s proclivity to digital connections, esports is ripe for the picking, he explained.
“A lot of this is about Generation Z and the millennials and how they get their daily information and games.”
Research conducted by the Media Insight Project (an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research) revealed that in 2015, 88 percent of millennials reported that they get their news from Facebook “regularly.”
The ESA adds that “65 percent of American households are home to someone who plays video games regularly, and 67 percent of American households own a device used to play video games.”
“We know that people are connecting more through the internet and online communities; the challenge is how do you make it Jewish,” said Silberman.
The former Pittsburgher and Jewish professional, who, in 2016, after three decades of promoting sports, summer camps and Judaism, was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, hopes that others will join him in strategizing a path forward.
“I’m not good in science. I’m not really good in math,” he said. “God just gave me the ability to see things a little differently around kids and families and meaningful activities, and I think that’s what we’ve got going on here.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz