Human Spirit: A Winning Season
March 8, 2012
Sofer , THE JERUSALEM POST
kippa-wearing athletes can make it to the championship in Texas, they
should be able to do it in Israel, too.
matter how you look at it, the Robert Beren Academy in Houston had a
The small Jewish high school in Houston, Texas
has found itself the focus of national media. This is the headline
that ran in the Houston Chronicle when I arrived in Houston last
week: “Houston’s Beren Academy sacrifices game, not the
Sabbath.” Now there’s a headline to be proud of as a
For the first time since joining the Texas
Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS), a league they’d
been competing in for three years, the Beren’s boys’
basketball team reached the semifinals. The TAPPS constitution
proclaims its purpose as “to organize, to stimulate, to
encourage and to promote the academic, athletic and finearts programs
in an effort to foster a spirit of fair play, good fellowship, true
sportsmanship and wholesome competition for boys and
Nonetheless, the TAPPS semifinals and finals
were scheduled for Friday night and Saturday, which would avoid
Sunday play, but left the Jewish teams with a problem. If they ever
reached the semifinals, they couldn’t compete unless the timing
That would mean the semifinal could be played a
little earlier, to be finished before Shabbat, and the finals, if
they made it, could begin Saturday evening after Shabbat was out.
Seems simple enough.
But TAPPS refused, responding petulantly
that Beren should have known better than to join the league. Beren
Academy was dropped from the roster. Rules were rules –
established in the 1970s – TAPPS argued. Except that everyone
knew that TAPPS had rescheduled a game once for Burton Adventist
Academy from Arlington – Seventh-Day Adventists who also don’t
play on the seventh day.
The Beren basketball team members
were mostly third- and fourth-year high school students, and they’d
been playing together for years. “Some of them knew each other
since they were babies, and they had great team spirit,” a
physical education teacher at Beren told me. One of the players was
sixfoot six-inches tall. They were suddenly very good, and finished a
28-game season with 23 wins. They found themselves in the Final Four,
pitted against Dallas Covenant, a Christian school with 157 students
in its upper school whose motto comes from the Hebrew Psalms (115)
“Not to us O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give
The profile of the school sounds similar to that
of Beren’s, proclaiming a dedication to religion and high-level
Covenant immediately expressed its
willingness to adjust the playing times, as did the other Christian
schools. But TAPPS stubbornly said no.
The pressure began to
build. First, a social media campaign on Facebook and Twitter began
canvassing support. Traditional media got wind of the story as it ran
in the Houston Chronicle, on the news services and The
New York Times.
personalities weighed in. Houston Mayor Annise Parker expressed her
disappointment in TAPPS. Senators Rodney Ellis and John Comyn began
bipartisan efforts to persuade TAPPS to allow the religious Jews to
play. Houston Rockets Basketball Coach Jeff Van Gundy also threw his
weight behind the schedule change. According to at least once source,
a call came from the White House wishing the team good luck and
congratulating them on standing firm.
HOUSTON HAS a
45,000-strong Jewish community and was recently in the news when the
Orthodox community invited northerners to move south. Houston offers
a good job market, reasonably priced housing, and Jewish
infrastructure of a strong federation, many synagogues and good
Jewish schools, There’s even a Tex-Mex kosher restaurant and
Lee Wunsch, president and chief executive
of the Federation of Greater Houston, wrote a blog for the Houston
“In a country that is now defined by its openness, multiethnic/
religious sensitivity and genuine desire to be respectful of all
faiths, it is hard to believe that this is even happening. Yet it is.
And, despite gargantuan efforts and appeals, the association stood
firm in its decision when it revisited the issue yet again.”
all of this, TAPPS remained firm.
The schedule would not
change. The board was reconvened and issued a unanimous vote to
strengthen its early decision: no time change for Beren.
the parents turned to the law. This time TAPPS gave in. Said the
website the day before the game, “This morning, an attorney
sent TAPPS a copy of a Temporary Restraining Order, and other
documents, on behalf of persons who had an interest in Beren
He stated that he was prepared to file these
documents with the appropriate district judge. The TRO was not filed,
since TAPPS agreed to allow Beren Academy to compete in the state
tournament, rather than have the tournament delayed by a court
The attorneys representing both parties agreed
that the TRO would not be filed as long as Beren Academy could
participate in the tournament, while honoring their Sabbath.
2A Boys semifinal game between Beren Academy and Dallas Covenant was
played at 2 p.m. on Friday March 2, at Fort Worth Nolan Catholic High
Beren won. It played the winner of the Abilene
Christian-Logos Prep semifinal at Nolan Catholic High School at 8
p.m. Saturday March 3. The Covenant School responded immediately that
it was pleased that the time was rescheduled. “We admire their
patience and sportsmanship through this process,” it said in a
But readers’ comments on Wunsch’s blog
and subsequent articles were not all so positive.
lauded the principled Jews. Some did indeed applaud the devotion to
faith of the students, but a round of anti-Semitic comments mocking
the students and calling them whiners followed. One suggested that
Jews wouldn’t be open if asked to make such a change. Another
blasted Orthodox Jews for their intolerant behavior in Israel, still
another the democracy of the Jewish state.
backlash and pressure, despite the importance of a championship game
to a teen who has worked so hard all season, throughout the crisis
there was never a suggestion from the Beren students that they might
bend their stance. And no, never a whine.
We need to applaud
the students, and the community’s confidence and faith in the
process of making change. Not so long ago I was in Connecticut, when
a significant reunion of my Connecticut high school was taking place.
It didn’t occur to me to request that the reunion be moved to a
The America I grew up in was less multi-ethnic/
religious sensitive, to use Lee Wunsch’s term. Except for
taking my college boards on Sunday so many decades ago, I just
accepted that certain religious conflicts were inevitable and
After the team won the Friday semifinal, the
results were announced in the Houston synagogue where my husband and
I spent Shabbat Zachor. They lost in the finals Saturday night to
Abilene Christian, 46-42.
But long after the score is
forgotten, we need to remember the lesson of Beren Academy: that
religious freedom isn’t always a giveaway. Sometimes you need a
good offence and defense. Sometimes it isn’t popular.
only for Americans.
In Israel, religious athletes also run
into scheduling problems. If kippa-wearing athletes can make it to
the championship in Texas, they should be able to do it in Israel,