No matter how you look at it, the Robert Beren Academy in Houston had a winning season.
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 religious Jew.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 girls.”
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 was tweaked.
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 glory.”
The profile of the school sounds similar to that of Beren’s, proclaiming a dedication to religion and high-level educational achievement.
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.
Public 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 Café Aroma.
Lee Wunsch, president and chief executive of the Federation of Greater Houston, wrote a blog for the Houston Chronicle. “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.”
Through 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.
Then 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 Academy.
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 hearing.”
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.
The 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 School.
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 statement.
But readers’ comments on Wunsch’s blog and subsequent articles were not all so positive.
Not all 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.
Despite the 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 different day.
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 unsolvable.
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.
Not 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, too.The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.
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