Ex-NFL star now tackling challenges of Judaism

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — As a linebacker for the New England Patriots, Andre Tippett would often celebrate the sacking of an opposing quarterback — a task he accomplished 100 times during his 12-year career. Now, as a husband and a father, the Patriots' new assistant director of professional scouting celebrates the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays with his wife and 2-year-old daughter at their home in Sharon, Mass.

Born a Baptist, the Birmingham, Ala., native underwent a ritual conversion last fall under the supervision of Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Needham, Mass.

In a telephone interview from his office at Foxboro Stadium in mid-February, Tippett, 38, told the Advocate that he converted to Judaism because the religion interested him and because he and his wife, Rhonda, who is Jewish, wanted to raise their children in a Jewish household.

Tippett said his wife did not pressure him to convert. Rather, he said, celebrating the holidays with her for several years, getting married by a rabbi and studying the tradition led him to believe that "[Judaism] was something I would find interesting."

A martial arts expert — he holds black belts in three styles of karate and studies with an eighth-degree black belt from Japan — Tippett said he admired the "self-discipline" required by some Jewish practices, such as fasting on Yom Kippur. The sense of community also appealed to him, he added.

"The biggest thing that I liked was the customs," said Tippett, the all-time Patriots' sack leader, "what goes into each and every celebration and the holidays, especially the High Holy Days."

About a year after Tippett began to explore becoming Jewish, he enrolled in the "Introduction to Judaism" course offered by the local office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the umbrella organization of Reform synagogues.

Sonsino, who taught the course, said that, beyond the regular assignments, he required his students to attend Friday night services at his synagogue and to read additional materials, such as the book "A History of the Jewish Experience."

"He never indicated to the class who he was," Sonsino said. "He did not expect or receive any special treatment."

When the five-month course concluded, Tippett asked Sonsino to sponsor him for formal conversion to Judaism. To prepare for that event, they studied together three times outside of the class, Sonsino said. Tippett entered the mikvah, or ritual bath, last Sept. 16 during a ceremony witnessed by Patriots owner and Jewish philanthropist Robert Kraft.

Sonsino "made it very special for me," said Tippett, the Patriots' selection in the second round of the 1982 National Football League amateur draft. "He was very thorough in his teachings. He didn't make it easy for anybody in the class."

Tippett said several people, friends included, have been surprised to hear that he is Jewish. He recalled having once told someone that he belonged to the Blue Hill Country Club in Canton, Mass. The person remarked, "Isn't that a Jewish club?" Tippett said he replied, "Yeah, well, I'm Jewish."

"A lot of people have never met a black Jew before," he said.

At the same time, Tippett said he has become more aware of anti-Semitism. He said he speaks up when he hears remarks that he once would have let pass.

"I'm very conscious of certain conversations that take place," he said.

Tippett said he and his family try to attend Shabbat services once or twice a month and plan to join Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue in Sharon. He also expects to participate in the local Jewish community as time allows — though with his wife expecting the couple's second child and with his new duties for the Patriots, he has little spare time these days.

"Once I'm in, I'm in," Tippett said of the Jewish community.