News & Politics

Forfeiting in the Name of God

Due to the league’s refusal to change the game time, a Jewish high school basketball team in Texas may be forced to miss a playoff match scheduled for the Sabbath.

Two days after the nation learned of Rick Santorum’s nausea at the idea of the separation of church and state, we find a community in Texas that has been left equally queasy by the separation of church and basketball—or more accurately, in this case, shul and basketball.

The Robert M. Beren Academy is a Modern Orthodox Jewish school in Houston. Its enrollment in grades 9 through 12 totals just 61 students. Yet last Friday, the Beren Stars romped to a 27-point playoff win over Our Lady of the Hills Catholic High School to propel themselves to the AA boys’ basketball state semifinals. Yes, the tiny Judaic academy is now just two wins from a state championship. But chances are they won’t take the court again this season.

In accordance with Orthodox Jewish tradition, the students at Beren refrain from a variety of activities during the Sabbath (from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). Those activities include working, cooking, using electronics, and taking part in competitive sports. And the state semifinals are scheduled for 9 this Friday night.

Beren plays in the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS), a league composed mostly of other schools that, like Beren, feature religion as a key component of their mission. All season long, schools playing Beren have been only too happy to change their Friday tipoff times to an earlier hour, allowing the Jewish players to compete in the games and still get home in time to observe Shabbat. But now that the playoffs have reached the final four stage, the league has taken over the scheduling, and for reasons that defy understanding, it has taken a hard line that the start time for Friday’s semifinal, despite Beren’s requests, will not be moved.

“It’s heartbreaking,” says Chris Cole, Beren’s head coach. Cole is not Jewish himself, but having coached at the school for ten years, he is intimately familiar with both the importance of the Sabbath to the Orthodox Jewish community and the complex politics of Texas high school athletics. “We [the school and TAPPS] just have different views of what we think is reasonable.”

Adding to Beren’s frustration is the fact that for all its rigidity in this case, TAPPS has a history of bending the rules for other religion-based scheduling conflicts. Beren officials cite an instance in 2010 in which the Friday start time of a boys’ soccer state semifinal was moved up to accommodate the religious needs of a Seventh-Day Adventist school. That faith observes the same Friday/Saturday Sabbath as Judaism. When asked why Beren won’t be offered a similar dispensation in this case, TAPPS director Edd Burleson says his organization has changed its bylaws since the 2010 incident, adding, “If we bend this rule, which is the next one we’ll bend? If you make exceptions, we no longer have rules.”

I spoke with Mr. Burleson for 30 minutes today. The following is a verbatim exchange from my phone call with him.

Haber: “Do you guys hold games on Sunday mornings?”

Burleson: “No.”

Haber: “Why not?”

Burleson: “Because that’s the rule of our association.”

Haber: “By playing on Friday nights, but not on Sunday mornings, does that give an unequal amount of respect to the Jewish Sabbath?”

Burleson: “There were no Jewish schools in TAPPS when it was established, and they came into the league knowing what our policy was.”

Haber: “So, now that you have Jewish schools in the league, why not change the policy?”

Burleson: “Why should we allow one or two or three schools to dictate what 120 other schools do?”

Haber: “Some would call that being inclusive.”

Burleson: “I don’t recall “inclusive” being in our constitution.”

Beren’s head of school, Rabbi Harry Sinoff, finds Burleson’s rhetoric to be disingenuous, and believes league officials are engaging in a dangerous double standard. “TAPPS doesn’t schedule games on Sundays in acknowledgement that Christians celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday,” he says. “We think acknowledgement of our Sabbath is also appropriate.”

The Anti-Defamation League agrees. The 99-year-old organization, which combats intolerance and discrimination toward Jews, sent a letter to Mr. Burleson urging him to change the start time for Beren’s semifinal game. “ADL recognizes that many of the private and parochial schools with TAPPS membership are faith-based institutions where religion is an extremely significant part of the education process,” wrote ADL Southwest regional director Martin Cominsky. “We are hopeful the leadership of TAPPS will keep that in mind when making a decision.”

That said, if TAPPS continues its refusal to budge, Rabbi Sinoff says he will be content to forfeit the game. He says doing so will not only maintain the immutable sanctity of the Sabbath, but will also turn the episode into a teaching moment for his students. The lesson: No personal or secular glory is worth the sacrifice of one’s ideals. “If my house caught fire during Shabbat, and no one was inside and no one was in danger, and it was simply a matter of property loss, if I were true to my beliefs, I would let the house burn down,” he says. “These kids are being asked to let their house burn down.”

Noble as that sounds, it shouldn’t be necessary. TAPPS officials have given a variety of reasons why they won’t switch the game time—none of them valid. One is that the gymnasium of the neutral-site school where the game is scheduled to be held outside of Dallas is not available earlier on Friday afternoon. Beren has proposed to solve that problem by changing the site of the game to the home court of their opponent—a move that would put the Stars at a distinct competitive disadvantage. Beren has further offered to cover the costs of the venue change, but TAPPS remains unmoved.

The underlying question is both obvious and unpleasant: Is TAPPS’s refusal to change the game time rooted in religious bias? That’s a tempting leap—especially sitting here on the East Coast watching a small Jewish school in Texas get pushed around by what appears to be the arbitrary ruling of an unsympathetic, mostly Christian league. But I’m not prepared to assign such sinister motive to Mr. Burleson and his colleagues. I am, however, perfectly willing to assign them these monikers: power-hungry, short-sighted, and spiteful. TAPPS’s leading justification for not changing the game time seems to be, “Because we said so.” Honestly, if NASCAR could move the start of the Daytona 500 by 30 hours without sending the sports world into a timeless wormhole, surely the folks in Texas can afford a six-hour shift in the start of a high school hoops game.