When Chaim Landau steps onto the racquetball court, he wears an old-fashioned bicycle helmet and aviator-style goggles. But the 61-year-old retired Baltimore rabbi’s goofy-looking getup belies the skillfulness and speed with which he plays. Landau, who plays racquetball five times a week, is an area Senior Olympic champion with 25 years of competitive experience.
As he plays, the rubber ball whizzes by his helmet with blistering speed, rebounding off the court’s glass back wall. He hits the ball through his legs against the same back wall, freezing his opponent for another point.
The British-born Landau is rabbi emeritus at Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Synagogue, a modern Orthodox congregation in northwest Baltimore where he served as rabbi from 1986 to 2011. He’s given masterful orations, and has had his days at Baltimore’s beit din, or rabbinical court. But if you ask him, he’ll say that his court of choice is the racquetball court.
Landau is a fixture at the Jewish Community Center on Park Heights Avenue, the ‘Main Street’ of Orthodox Baltimore. But his unlikely sports story doesn’t end in the basement of the JCC.
Bennie Thompson, a retired NFL safety who played for the Baltimore Ravens and three other teams in his 10-year career, asked his Baltimore physical therapist if he knew where he could find a skilled racquetball partner. The physical therapist also treated Landau, and connected the retired football player with the retired rabbi.
When Thompson met Landau for a game at the JCC and saw the rabbi’s protective helmet and goggles, he remembered thinking to himself, “This will take 15 minutes max.”
A crowd gathered to watch the bigger, stronger ex-NFL player quickly learn just how well the wiry 61-year-old could play.
Soon after, Thompson invited Landau to play at the Under Armour Performance Center in Owings Mills, MD, the headquarters of the two-time Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. There Landau faced off against professional football players, winning over his opponents with courtesy and then beating them with his backhand.
“Everybody who played him at the Under Armour Performance Center thought he was going to be a pushover,” Thompson explained. “I would tell people, ‘This guy can really play.’ They’d see the helmet and the goggles. They’d be won over by his British accent and gentle demeanor. And then they’d lose.”
For Rabbi Landau, being invited to play at the Ravens training center was a dream.
“When you get a call from a former professional football player, there’s no way you could turn that down,” he said. “I mean, he even purchased a JCC membership so that we could play on a regular basis there.”
This was the beginning of a racquetball courtship that would lead the modest rabbi to a serious game of table tennis—another of his skills—against Joe Flacco, the Ravens’ quarterback and 2013 Super Bowl MVP.
But before he faced off against Flacco, Landau took on Eric DeCosta, the team’s president and an avid racquetball player.
“I beat Eric, and we’ve kept playing ever since,” Landau explained. “We’re well suited for each other.”
DeCosta described their first game: “I look on the court, and I see this older gentleman with a bike helmet wearing goggles like WWII pilots wore. I’m thinking, ‘This is going to be easy.’ It wasn’t.
“He’s a very competitive guy, but he’s also such a sweet person,” added DeCosta. “He never raises his voice.”
The rabbi’s unflappability around professional athletes was one of the first things DeCosta noticed. “The rabbi has a different life experience,” he said. “He even calls a football game a match.”
DeCosta added that he’s asked the rabbi more questions about Judaism than the rabbi has asked him about football. “He’s become my spiritual advisor,” DeCosta explained. “It’s been a great thing for me. It’s my hope that we have a friendship for a long time to come. Hopefully I can beat him more than I have.”
“With the goggles and helmet, we’ve named him Rabbi Red Baron,” said Kevin Byrne, the Ravens’ senior vice president of public and community relations, who has also taken on Landau (and lost). “He’s highly competitive and he’s gracious, and when you combine those attributes, it’s a joy to play a game of racquetball with him.”
“He plays with tremendous hustle.” Byrne added. “He does not like to give in. I had him one game, 14-7. I lost, 15-14.”
Byrne described the day that quarterback Joe Flacco took on the rabbi in a game of table tennis. Landau has a ping pong paddle in his athletic bag, tattered and worn thin.
“He said to Joe Flacco, ‘Good luck,’” Byrne remembered. “It was both charming and disarming.”
When the rabbi and the quarterback started playing, a crowd of Ravens players and front office personnel stopped to watch.
“I kept moving back on the defensive,” Landau explained. I would bump into one of these huge football players and I would apologize for doing so. Then I heard Eric DeCosta yelling, ‘Rabbi, you don’t have to apologize, they can’t even feel you.’”
When the game was over, a rather surprised Flacco was relieved to have won.
“Man, the rabbi really spins the ball,” Flacco said. “He puts as much spin on his ball as I’ve ever seen, and his defense was really good.” But the NFL quarterback smiled and added, “But I still beat him.”
The rabbi describes all of this with wonderment.
“For me, this is an entirely new world,” Landau said of the Ravens’ hospitality. “God is having a big laugh at me. Maybe this is some kind of reward for 30 years in the rabbinate. Everyone here has been so nice to me.”
Still, Landau knows his NFL opponents aren’t going easy on him. “Nobody is going to let me win because I’m an Orthodox rabbi,” he added. “But I’ve lived a magical life and this has certainly been a different experience.”
Phil Jacobs is the former executive editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times. He lives in Baltimore, MD.