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Friday, July 21, 2006

Former NFL lineman to share Jewish faith

By Doris Yon
THE NEWS-TIMES

During his seven-year NFL career, Alan Veingrad devoted his time and energy to molding his body into the ideal offensive lineman.

These days, Veingrad uses that same devotion on another focus — the Jewish faith.

Veingrad will give a series of lectures, talking about his experiences as the only Jewish player on a NFL team and becoming immersed in the religion, in Litchfield and Southbury this weekend.

"The difficulty is when you're different and you're by yourself in a roomful of people — when you're the only Jew on a football team — it makes it somewhat challenging," Veingrad said. "Everybody's talking about various holidays that you don't celebrate; no one talks about the holiday you're going to celebrate. These discussions don't come up that are near and dear to you."

Veingrad's speech, which takes place tonight and Saturday in Litchfield and in Southbury on Sunday, is part of a monthly program sponsored by the Chabad Lubavitch of The Northwest Corner, a Jewish organization serving northwest Connecticut.

With Veingrad as the guest speaker this weekend, Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach said the interest level in attending the organization's month lectures has jumped about 20 percent.

"We're getting a tremendous response and it's beyond our imagination," Eisenbach said. "You're not getting a holy rabbi, you're getting a football player and I think it's something where everyone can relate to."

Veingrad has given speeches around the country for the past two years. He said he became inspired to become a guest lecturer after years of learning about the Jewish religion.

"I always felt like there was something I could give back to the Jewish community in some way shape or form," said Veingrad, who spent the past week speaking at various functions in New York. "I actually did have some speaking engagements way, way back in the early '90s, but I wasn't sure of my message, my message being Jewish in the NFL and what does it mean."

Veingrad said he was the only Jewish player on the Green Bay Packers (1986-1990) and the Dallas Cowboys (1991-92) during his stints with the teams. He said there were no other Jewish players when he played for East Texas State — now Texas A&M-Commerce — so he became accustomed to being the only Jewish player on the roster by the time he reached the NFL.

While Veingrad said he did feel different from his teammates, he never felt isolated or disconnected from them because of his religion.

"I wasn't an observant (Jew) during my playing years," said Veingrad, who was cut by two NFL teams before signing with the Packers as a free agent prior to the 1986 season. "I was secular as any other Jew would be. I didn't know half the time that it was a Jewish holiday."

But when Veingrad retired following the 1992 season, during which he helped the Cowboys win the Super Bowl, he started getting connected with his Jewish heritage.

"My cousin invited me to his house for Shabbat dinner and he opened my eyes up and suggested that I go to a class to learn (about the Jewish religion)," Veingrad said. "I told him that I would go to one."

After attending that first class, Veingrad said he became engrossed with learning more about the religion.

He said he was affected deeply about the messages sent out by the rabbi teaching the class and immediately asked for books that he could take home to read. Veingrad also began attending classes on a regular basis.

"I was shocked (by the effects of the first class)," Veingrad said. "When I look at myself in the mirror on occasion, I smile. I look at myself and (say), 'Look what happened to you.'"

Studying Judaism helped Veingrad in his transition from the NFL, but he relied on his faith even more the past three years.

Veingrad dealt with a number of personal issues, including his father's death, and he said he was able to cope with the difficult moments because of his faith.

"I had to deal with some challenges the last three years," Veingrad said. "Before those challenges, I decided to build a relationship with God and I was pretty much able to walk through these challenges because of the faith that I have."

While Veingrad will continue to speak around the country about his story, he hopes he can share his message in another form. Veingrad is compiling a book of his experiences and he hopes it can be published next year.

NOTES: Tonight's Shabbat Dinner lecture is held at the Liorah Greenberg JCC in Litchfield at 6 p.m. Saturday's service and lunch, also at the Liorah Greenberg JCC, starts at 9 a.m. A brunch will be held Sunday at the Dolce Heritage Resort in Southbury at 10 a.m. Donations of $25 for adults, $20 for seniors and $14 for children ages 5 to 12 (children under 5 are free) are asked. There also is a family rate of $65 and a sponsor rate of $360. Reservations for each event should be made today by 1 p.m. Visit www.chabadnw.org/nfl for more information.

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