By: Elliot Steinmetz, Varsity Basketball Coach, North Shore Hebrew Academy High School
Are We Holding Our Children Back Unnecessarily?
It has come up a few times in recent years both on the big stage and on smaller, less celebrated platforms. There have been articles in well-known papers and lesser knows publications. It comes up in different sports and different regions. There are well-known stories such as Tamir Goodman (twitter: @tamirgoodman), Naama Shafir (twitter: @nshafir), and Aaron Liberman . There are lesser knows stories such as Estee Ackerman , or my own son and the reason I give this topic so much thought, Jacob Steinmetz . There are team stories as well such as Beren Academy of Houston (twitter: @berenacademy) and Rocky Mountain Hebrew Academy . It even comes up in the movies (see: The Big Lebowski - "I don't roll on Shabbos"). There are hundreds of stories that we do not even know about. Most importantly, there are different decisions for different families, schools, teams and individuals. It is the question of sports and Shabbat.
This article is not being written to argue or support any particular decision, but rather to hopefully provoke thought and discussion with regard to the topic. I am not a rabbi or a community leader and I do not care to get into legal or halachic debates about different sports and halachic issues because that is outside the scope of this article (although if you are interested there is some in depth discussion here. To pre-summarize, my intention is simply to put forth the point that most people do not give a second thought to decisions of this nature and rather than challenging themselves to find a way, simply take the easy way out. It is not the decision itself I am trying to change, as I respect any decision logically reached, it is the decision-making process (or rather the lack thereof) that unnerves and disappoints me.
We are so quick to determine what is permissible and what is not based on fear of social stigma and sometimes old-fashioned traditional thought from our communities and Yeshivas that many people do not step back and even ask themselves the questions before they make a decision. This does not mean a different decision would be reached, but perhaps it means that when people do make a different decision than we are used to, that it would not be looked upon and judged, but rather supported and encouraged.
The arguments are always going to be there on both sides and they will likely always have merit. At what point though are we unnecessarily holding ourselves or our children back from chasing dreams? Someone told me when I was younger that thirteen is the age where an Orthodox Jewish boy realizes that he has a better chance of becoming an NBA owner than he does of becoming an NBA player. It always made sense to me growing up and perhaps if I was 6í8 instead of 6í2 (in sneakers) I would have questioned it more at the time.
But why not?
Why canít a Jewish kid growing up in the modern-Orthodox world, if he possesses the skill and the desire needed, chase a dream of becoming a pro-athlete. Why canít we have more kids like Tamir Goodman, Naama Shafir or Aaron Liberman. Kids who chase their dreams and work hard to accomplish their goals without sacrificing their beliefs? Tamir chose not to play on Shabbat. Aaron has made the decision to play on Shabbat without ever violating the Shabbat. Both have their values and made decisions that they feel are in-line with their beliefs and goals. Both are right. Tamir played professionally for years at high levels in Israel as well as in the United States. Aaron currently plays at Northwestern, a Big 10 Division I NCAA team. Naama played for Toledo, also a Division I NCAA team.
The question extends to kids and adults as well. Estee Ackerman, an Orthodox Jewish girl from West Hempstead, NY, is a very highly ranked ping pong player (ranked 4th for ages 8-11) with aspirations of competing on the United States Olympic team one day. Yet just recently she forfeited a match in a Las Vegas tournament because it took place on a Friday night. Fortunately for her this did not affect her ranking. However, if she does not compete on Shabbat, will she ever be able to realize this goal? It seems that talent and drive are not an issue, but is there a way she can make this work without violating the Shabbat? Again, that is a question for her and her family, but regardless of their decision, it should be supported and understood.
Most of us grow up playing ping pong in our basements on Friday nights with siblings and friends. Most of us enjoy the competition and maybe some of us (not me) even win a ping pong tournament in our schools. Estee regularly beats thirty year olds who play competitively. She is eleven. Does she play ping pong in her basement on Shabbat? Is that for fun or for practice? I donít know the answers and it does not matter. If she and/or her family one day decide that she will compete on Shabbat, is there something wrong with that? Can she do so without violating the Shabbat? What if she chooses not to travel or receive a check or break any of the laws of Shabbat? Do we really tell this talented young lady no because of the potential stigmas of the community or because of an antiquated view of what can and cannot be done? Again, I am not answering the questions, rather presenting them for thought and discussion.
Estee is a unique situation, but the question extends to regular athletes as well, adult and child. Should an Orthodox coach of any sport only be limited to coaching at schools where the games will not be on Shabbat? Should a child who wants to participate in higher level competition in a particular sport be forbidden from such activity because he or she may have to eventually compete on the Shabbat?
In the interest of full disclosure, I am happy to share what our decision has been with our son. As mentioned above, the reason this topic is on my mind is because my son, who is nine years old, plays on a travel baseball team. His team is comprised of top players from around Long Island and competes in high level leagues and tournaments. This coming spring they will be competing at the 10U level. Last season, at the 9U level, his team won the Long Island division championship of the NJBL. The issue of Shabbat games came up a few times during the season, but most importantly with the championship series. The first two games of the best of three series were played on Shabbat. His team and coaches are extremely accommodating. His coach goes out of his way to schedule games on Sundays and weeknights. However, the championship and some tournaments are not under his control. Truth be told, as his team starts to move up in age, if he decides to keep pursuing this sport, the regular scheduling will become more difficult as well.
I do not in any way believe that it is his teamís responsibility to take our observances into their scheduling considerations and do not expect it. We allowed our son to play in his tournament as well as championship games. For the tournament, he and I stayed by friends who live close to the field and walked about a mile and half to be there for the games. For the championship games, his coach secured as our home field for the games a park just under two miles from our home so once again we were able to walk to the games.
I am sure many people in our community disagree with that decision. I am sure many agree with it but would never support it publicly. I chose to have my son understand the background of the decision and what he could and could not do, embrace his religion and at the same time find a way to still achieve his goal rather than have him sit at home and feel disappointed and let down by his observances when a compromise could be made. Again, that was our decision and the right one for us. It does not mean it is the right decision for everyone.
At a certain point our kids will grow up. My son will perhaps continue to love and play baseball at a high level or perhaps will find other sports and interests to explore. Estee Ackerman will hopefully win a gold medal in ping pong for the United States and Aaron Liberman will perhaps chase a dream to play professional basketball in some venue after college. There are many others out there at all different ages who contemplate and dream about the same. I do not know what decisions others will make. I do not even know what decision my own child will make. I do know that I am comfortable and happy with the decisions we have made so far. I do know that if and when my son ever has to make a tough decision that he will be able to process all of the information, think it through and come to a conclusion (with his parentsí support) as to how he wants to proceed rather than just following the masses and basing his life choices on the sometimes outdated philosophies of the community. I like to believe there is a happy medium where our children can understand and value their background and religious observances and at the same time challenge themselves to find a way to achieve their dreams. This does not mean they will succeed, but we wonít know if they can until they try.
When I was interviewed recently by Paul Lukas of ESPN.com (twitter: @uniwatch) for his article about Yarmulkes on the sports field , he asked me if our kids dream of one day being in the NBA or MLB or NFL. My answer was as follows. I believe they do. I believe, however, that our kids are focused on school and careers other than just sports because there is a certain realization that the chances of achieving those goals (for anyone) are so difficult. After we hung up, I wondered if this was in fact true. I hope it is. I hope that our children do not push aside their dreams because of religion. This does not mean there are not obstacles, hurdles or sometimes even immovable barricades. And, it is true that many may not reach their goals. However, I do hope that our children at least pursue these goals and try to figure out a way. Why canít there one day be an Orthodox NBA player? We have now had numerous Division I college players. Why canít more of our children aspire to be Olympic athletes and represent their country on the greatest stage? The answer is that they can. But they will have to work and push and fight because it will not come easy. Players like Tamir Goodman, Naama Shafir, Aaron Liberman and others have begun to blaze that trail. Others will follow, but will we give them the support they need to do it? I hope so.