On a recent afternoon at the Owings Mills Jewish Community Center, Sol Kleiner was hard at work teaching a group of young children some of basketball’s fundamental skills. He instructed them on dribbling and catching the ball, along with the correct way to pivot and shoot.

The kids worked furiously at each task, but eventually their attention ebbed. So Kleiner quickly marched to the front of the group and helped them refocus.

“Eyes on me,” he said. “Eyes on me.”

The children quickly turned to him, and Kleiner began instructing them once again on basketball skills. They worked for several more minutes, and many made progress. Laughs were everywhere in the gym.

“I like him,” Payton Taylor, who turns 6 later this month, said of Kleiner. “He’s funny. He makes jokes.”

Kleiner — or “Mr. Sol” to most of the children he works with — will be leaving the JCC of Greater Baltimore on Apr. 3 after 31 years of working there.

Now 51, Kleiner began volunteering at the JCC in 1980 while still a student at Franklin High School. He was eventually hired full-time later as a physical education sports coordinator.

He says he still loves his job, usually working with children from age 2 to those in kindergarten, but he’s ready to move on.

“Time has changed; it’s gotten to the point where my whole family has moved away [from Baltimore],” Kleiner said. “I’ve gotten to where I felt like I need a change. I still love what I’m doing – don’t get me wrong. I still love teaching, but it’s time for a change.”

Kleiner admits he’s not exactly sure what the future holds for him, but he’ll move next month to Jacksonville, Fla. He will work at the Jacksonsville Jewish Center where his brother, Gilbert Kleiner, former longtime executive director of Pikesville’s Beth El Congregation, serves as executive director.

Kleiner said he will likely work with children again in the future.

Always Like His First Day

Most people who have come to the JCC over the past three decades, or who have children that have been active at the center, know “Mr. Sol.” He’s particularly known for having a gift for connecting with young kids.

“It’s just amazing the popularity he’s achieved at the JCC, and what he’s been able to do,” said Jay Schreider, the JCC’s former assistant executive director. “He’s just very personable. He’s always got that enthusiasm, and it’s like it’s always his first day.”

Kleiner was once named “Baltimore’s Best Gym Teacher” by Baltimore magazine. All of this is even more impressive because of what Kleiner himself deals with every day.

Kleiner was born with cerebral palsy and lacks a perfect gait when walking. Plus, Kleiner uses a prosthetic after being born without a left arm following issues with medication during his mother’s pregnancy.

There’s a hook-like ending (with two metal fingers) on the prosthetic, but Kleiner always addresses this matter right away with his classes. He tells the children that everyone has some kind of disability.“Mine just shows,” he tells them.

Kleiner discusses how the prosthetic works and jokes about it. The prosthetic quickly becomes a non-issue. “Now, the kids don’t even realize I have it,” Kleiner said.

The youngsters will no doubt miss him, and Kleiner says he will certainly miss them. It’s easy to see the joy on his face while teaching the children how to dribble a basketball. There’s a true bond there.

“They know where I’m coming from,” Kleiner said. “Kids are innocent. We have to start somewhere.”

The question now is how the kids — and even parents — will handle Mr. Sol’s departure. Someone else will take over his classes, but truly replacing Sol Kleiner will be a different story.

“I’m very distressed out his leaving,” admitted D.A. Schwartz, Payton’s Taylor’s mother. “He’s able to work with very small children [along with] kids who are older.

“His leaving is going to leave a huge hole.”

Jeff Seidel is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.

Photos by Daniel Kucin Jr.

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