Robert Shimoff, Youth Athletic League co-founder, dies at 84

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“In 1952, a skinny teacher of the eighth graders at Emanu-El rounded up a few of the boys in his class and attempted to interest them in [intramural] sports, mainly basketball, and utilize the empty gym basement.”

That skinny teacher, written about in an old Emanu-El publication, was Robert Shimoff, who went on to co-found the Jewish Youth Athletic League.

Shimoff died Thursday, Nov. 10 in San Francisco. He was 84.

Shimoff was born July 27, 1921 in Social Circle, Ga., to a traditional Jewish family in the clothing business. He was the youngest of seven children.

Over the years, his older siblings slowly began migrating west, and when the Great Depression hit, his father lost all of his clothing stores and moved the rest of the family to San Francisco.

Shimoff attended George Washington High School, becoming a star athlete in football, basketball and boxing. A hall-of-famer at the school, Shimoff entered U.C. Berkeley at age 16.

During World War II, he served as a lieutenant colonel under Gen. MacArthur.

In 1948, he married Geri Frantz, and in 1949, he started an insurance business, Shimoff and Associates.

In 1950, he began teaching a confirmation class at his synagogue, San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El.

“He loved everything about being Jewish,” said his daughter, Kathi Silverman, of San Bruno. “He always wanted to give back, and he was a born teacher. He enjoyed being in front of people and telling them things. It was his nature.”

While he loved teaching, Shimoff also wanted to combine his love for Judaism with his love for athletics. Though he had been a star athlete in high school, he recognized that not all kids were as athletically inclined. Yet he still thought they should have the opportunity to benefit from the camaraderie that comes with playing sports.

In 1952, Shimoff put together a team of his students, who challenged their religious-school teachers. Even the rabbis got involved. In its early years, the Emanu-El team went on to compete against teams, from the Chinese League and the Catholic League.

In 1957, Shimoff got together with Irv Delman, and with help from the Bureau of Jewish Education, they set up the JYAL, which consisted of a youth league involving many Bay Area synagogues.

The league consisted entirely of youth who did not play on their own school teams — the point was to give those who couldn’t make their school team a chance to play.

Shimoff was involved with the league for about 25 years, and continued to coach the Emanu-El team, leading it to numerous championships.

For those who played in the league, its influence was huge.

“The league became a big part of our high school experience,” said Bill Black, who played in the ’60s and then later become a coach. “It gave us a chance to show our Jewish pride through athletics.”

Black, of San Francisco, came from a non-observant home, and the league served as his entrée into Judaism.

“What kept me involved with the temple and motivated me to go to religious school was the JYAL,” he said.

Stan Wiener, who coached for about 15 years, said the best thing about the league was the camaraderie.

“Most of us coaches knew each other because a lot of us grew up in the Richmond District,” he said. “If our best friends’ kids were playing on another team, you’d give them a hug after the game. It was very competitive when we played but when the game was over, it was like a family affair.”

The league lasted for several decades, until it died out in the early ’80s. It was revived later, but only for a short time.

Shimoff was also a cribbage champion, and a regular at the Concordia-Argonaut Club, “where he was prominent with his stogie and card-playing and merriment,” said Black. “He was just a happy-go-lucky kind of guy.”

In addition to his daughter, Shimoff is survived by son Roger, of Grass Valley, brother Marc of San Mateo, four grandchildren, and nieces and nephews. His wife, Geri, predeceased him last year.

Donations can be made to the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation, 2789-25th St., Suite 2028, S.F., CA 94110.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."