Rounding home: continuing a softball legacy

 If there’s one cliché in Judaism, it’s bubbie’s matzoh ball soup. Whether it’s for Shabbat or the common cold, this staple is omnipresent in a Jewish household.
For Ottawa’s Hayley Bennett and a member of the Women’s Open Softball team, Jewish Penicillin was once more than comfort food, but a fond memory and perhaps her strongest connection to her grandmother.

Or so she thought.

Growing up half Jewish, Bennett’s upbringing was a mishmash of cultures and traditions. While she celebrated Christmas and Chanukah, Easter and Passover, her Jewish roots lived with Grandma Fleming, her father’s mother.

“She was the true spirit of our family, the one who hosted everyone for the holidays and Passover Seders,” said Hayley. “My favourite memories of my Grandma were, of course, her delicious matzoh ball soup and melt-in-your mouth meatballs, as well as, riding the bus with her to the mall and skipping with her in her apartment – when she was 83!”

Yet, it was not until after Grandma Fleming passed away and Hayley traded the skipping rope for the softball glove, did she realize how deep their connection truly was.

Through her father’s stories, Hayley discovered that not only was Grandma Fleming the Jewish matriarch of the family, but the softball one as well.

“My dad would tell me stories about my grandma and she was a ball player too,” recalled Hayley. “I remember hearing about her old glove, just a tiny piece of leather that the ball wouldn’t even fit into. I’d feel inspired when he told me how much I was like her, or how proud she would be of the ball player I had become.”

These stories propelled Hayley to further pursue her sport as well as maintain a connection to Judaism. In her youth she played for Orleans Rebels Fastpitch (midget, junior and senior) and continued to play Varsity Fastball for both Western University and University of Toronto.  Today, Hayley is playing with the Ottawa ExPros in the Ottawa Valley Fastpitch League – two time reigning champions.  As such, when the opportunity presented itself to join Team Canada for the Maccabiah Games, she saw this as a chance to realize a number of lifelong dreams.

“When I was a little girl, my dream was always to make it to the Olympics,” she said. “I can tell you that this chance to compete internationally is truly special. It’s going to be incredible to don a Team Canada jersey and to hear both the Canadian and Israeli national anthems being played.”

“Even more so, I can honestly say that I never expected to visit Israel in my lifetime and I look forward to further exploring my heritage and what it means to be Jewish,” added Hayley.

While exploring the wonders of Israel might very well be on the itinerary; competition is also at the forefront of Hayley’s trip. With her teammates and nearly 600 other Canadians by her side, she is set to join 10,000 Jewish athletes from 80 countries at the third largest sporting event in the world.

Once the fireworks of the Opening Ceremony disappear into the Jerusalem sky, Hayley’s on-field talent will take centre stage. Despite being a rookie on the team, her talent will immediately be called upon for a Team Canada program looking to avenge a gold medal loss to the United States at the 2013 Maccabiah Games.

With only weeks to go until the torch lights up Teddy Stadium, Hayley’s two goals are coming into focus: bring home the elusive gold medal for her country and use this opportunity as the next step in continuing her family’s legacy.

As a mother of three: Gordon, Ross and Erica, this Maccabiah experience is set to become equal parts competition and a trip of self-discovery.

“I hope to inspire my children and to develop a greater understanding of Judaism so that my kids will also grow up feeling proud of their heritage,” she said. “I know my Grandma Fleming would be so proud of me competing at the 20th Maccabiah games in Israel.”