Sheldon Lehner: A Half-Century of Refereeing Kids’ Basketball Games and Teaching Them Life Lessons

Courtesy of Sheldon Lehner

Sure, it’s about the hoops, but it’s even more about the kids.

So says Sheldon Lehner, who was recently honored for 50 years of refereeing kids’ basketball games at a ceremony at the Jelleff Boys and Girls Club in Washington, D.C.

“For 50 years, I’ve tried to reach kids through basketball, and my efforts were recognized. It was very satisfying,” he said of the ceremony.

His love of basketball and lack of height propelled him into officiating.

“I was a good player in high school, but realized that at 5 feet 5 inches, refereeing would give me a better chance of staying around the game,” Lehner said. He once refereed a game in which Manute Bol — a member of the Washington Bullets [now Wizards] and, at 7 feet 7 inches, the tallest player in NBA history — played. That experience certainly reinforced his decision to leave playing and become a referee.

But even more important, the Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim Congregation member says that his officiating has been a tool for helping to guide young people in the right direction for life.

“I tried to be kind, humble and honest,” he said. “I also tried to show them the importance of gaining expertise in an area and of being firm but fair. I tried to teach them to be responsible for the decisions they would make in their everyday lives. Officiating allows you to showcase these values on the court, and I hope in that way I influenced the kids.”

His Judaism is very important to Lehner.

Those values that he has tried to instill in youngsters by being a role model have been greatly affected by his Jewish background.

“Being a Jew is being responsible. All my life, this was taught to me,” he said. He believes that kindness, the pursuit of peace, especially connected to Israel, and helping everyone to become what they are able to be are important Jewish values.

He has been a member of Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim for more than 55 years. “When my wife and I came to the area, one of the first things we did was check out Conservative synagogues. Har Tzeon was close, and I liked [then] Rabbi [Reuben] Landman very much.”

When his wife Arlene passed away in 2011, “the synagogue was there for me,” he said. “I said Kaddish for a full year for her, and I was especially impressed by the ‘minyanaires’ [the regulars at the morning and evening services].”

Although he doesn’t attend services “as often as I would like,” he said he does a lot of reading about Judaism. And he volunteers, especially for those events — like synagogue picnics — where his expertise in games and providing supervision have been of great help.

Courtesy of Sheldon Lehner

His estimated 5,000 officiated games include those at the Jelleff Boys and Girls Club, the Jewish Community Centers in the District and Rockville, church leagues, NIH, B’nai B’rith and the Metropolitan Police Department.

The resident of Silver Spring’s Kemp Mill neighborhood also was a licensed softball umpire and officiated for the U.S. Congressional Softball League.

Lehner, 75, was born in Newark but grew up in Easton, Pennsylvania.

After getting a bachelor’s in political science from Temple University and a master’s in governmental administration from the University of Pennsylvania, he worked for a year as a substitute teacher. In the classroom, he learned something interesting and important for his later career: As kids grew older, they became more conservative in their outlooks. “That means you have to get them when they’re young,” he said.

Leaving teaching, Lehner turned to the field of helping troubled youngsters at the local and state levels before coming to Washington, D.C., in 1978 to work in a similar program for the Justice Department.

Throughout adulthood, Lehner has tried to meld his love of basketball and the need to help kids. One example of successfully bringing together those two currents was a program called HIGH GAIN, which he piloted through the Job Corps Center in the District in 1984. It taught kids in their late teens and early 20s to become referees, a skill they could use to get a job.

One of the most interesting games Lehner officiated was an interfaith game organized by Niv Leibowitz, the son of Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim Torah reader Shamai Leibowitz. About five years ago, Niv brought together some 25 boys and girls from different faiths and backgrounds to play a basketball game at the JCC in Rockville.

When he heard about the upcoming game, Lehner volunteered his services as a referee.

After the game, the boys had pizza, a talk by a rabbi and a discussion session.

In 2015, Lehner retired from his job with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (today, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service).

Since then, he has created A Story Tellers Delight, a program in which he presents oral book reviews, discussions of classic TV comedies and other topics, augmented by a PowerPoint presentation. He presents a story every month to seniors at the Jewish Council for Aging.

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