Beren Academy Will Play After All

Beren Academy is not the first Jewish day school to find itself in a Shabbat-related predicament at the end of the season. Many Jewish day schools are part of sports leagues with other private schools that are willing to accommodate the Jewish school’s commitment to observing the Jewish Sabbath during the regular season and not scheduling competition during those 25 hours of rest. The problem often occurs during post-season tournament play when a lot of games need to be scheduled in a short period of time.

On Thursday, the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) backed down and agreed to allow Beren Academy’s semifinal basketball game to be rescheduled rather than face a legal battle. Several of the Orthodox players and their parents filed suit Thursday morning against the Mansfield Independent School District, the host of the state championship, and TAPPS in U.S. District Court alleging a violation of religious freedoms. Instead of contesting the matter in court, TAPPS gave in and amended the schedule to accommodate the yeshiva.

Coach Chris Cole and his Beren Academy players. (Photo: Samantha Steinberg/JTA)

Earlier this week at the Rabbis Without Borders alumni retreat, several of us discussed the Beren Academy case. There are certainly two sides to the case. While I believe in religious tolerance and am always grateful when institutions seek to accommodate individuals observing their religion, I also believe that there are consequences that must be accepted when upholding ones religious beliefs.

In the case of Beren Academy, the school was made aware that the yeshiva’s games would not be rescheduled in tournament play if they fell during Shabbat. This was articulated by the tournament organizers to the school before Beren Academy agreed to register. Furthermore, the Shomer Shabbos (Sabbath observant) boys should understand that when you keep the laws of Shabbat there will be opportunities that will be missed. One would imagine this would be something that their parents and teachers would explain to them. Those of us who observe Shabbat can list the many sporting events, concerts, parties, graduations and other events we have missed as a result of adhering to the sanctity of Shabbat.

I think that it is wonderful that TAPPS and the tournament host agreed to reschedule Beren Academy’s game, but had they held their ground this should have been something the players accepted. There is a common phrase in Yiddish — S’iz shver tzu zein a yid — that means it’s tough to be a Jew. We can’t expect the secular world to always accommodate us when our religious values come into conflict with regularly scheduled events. It is true that this wasn’t such a clear cut case in that there had been other accommodations for Seventh Day Adventists that amounted to precedent, but ultimately what makes being Shomer Shabbat so special is the knowledge that certain things are sacrificed to uphold the sacredness and sanctity of the Sabbath.

One of the truly amazing aspects of being part of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship (which is run by Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership) is the dialogue with colleagues from different denominations. I offered to include the viewpoints of my colleagues in this blog post and below are three opinions from members of my Rabbis Without Borders cohort.

Rabbi Jason Herman, an Orthodox rabbi in New York explains:

There is a Hasidic legend of a man who was offered a large sum of money by a king in exchange for a favor that would involve violating the Sabbath. The man declines but then presents the king with a gift thanking him for helping him realize that there was something in his life more valuable than the king’s treasure. The students of the Beren Academy in Houston faced the unfortunate circumstance where their request to have a high school basketball tournament postponed to avoid playing on the sabbath was denied. While these boys may be extremely disappointed and might even think the decision was unfair, they have the privilege of joining many generations of earlier American Jews who made tremendous sacrifices to observe the Sabbath. In doing so, we can hope that like the man in the story, they recognize that they have something in their lives that they value more than winning basketball tournaments. Yet, at the same time, while the league was in the right having told the school before they joined that they would face this issue, the league should reconsider its schedule for future years. The religious observance of student players is one that should be honored and for the sake of competition — the league and all schools involved should want to see the best team win.

Rabbi Hillel Norry, a Conservative rabbi in Atlanta, argues:

Would you change the date if it conflicted with Christmas? I think the obvious answer is, yes. The proof is that the tournament is not scheduled during church hours. The only arguments for not accommodating many different schedules and priorities is that the majority should dictate the results, and that if we accommodate shomer Shabbat Jews, then we will have to accommodate all scheduling needs. Unless you want a monolithic tournament that only includes the majority group and does not reflect the actual diversity of the community then the first argument fails on its face. And, yes I think we should accommodate many different needs – Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and many more. The basketball game is not more important than the creation of a large enough court to include all the players.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, a Reform rabbi in San Francisco, believes:

I am less concerned with what decision was made but with how the children will understand and interpret what they are seeing happen around them. It seems to me that the children who are going to play are learning that exclusion is more important than accommodation and full competition. To me this goes counter to the religious and athletic values being promoted by playing in this league in the first place. The children who are staying home are learning that the religious values that they are learning in school are worth sacrificing for.

The controversy seems to have been averted and Beren Academy will now be able to compete in the tournament. I wish them luck in their game and hope they emerge champions of the tournament. They won their case and managed to keep the Sabbath and keep their spot in the tournament. But I hope the lesson isn’t lost on them. In life, we often have to give something up to really appreciate the value that we hold dear. Shabbat it is a special gift that we Jewish people have, but sometimes it comes with a cost.

UPDATE: Beren Academy won their game today 58-46.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Tamir Goodman’s Sports Tzitzit

Tamir Goodman, known as “The Jewish Jordan,” made national headlines in the late 1990s when he decided not to play for the University of Maryland because they wouldn’t adjust their schedule to meet his Sabbath observance. Sports Illustrated even reported on Tamir’s decision to play for Towson State in 1999. However, a few years later SI reported:

In retrospect, maybe we went a little too far with the whole ‘Jewish Jordan’ thing. Three years ago (SI, Feb. 1, 1999) this magazine put that label on Tamir Goodman, described his game as ‘enthralling’ and reported breathlessly how he played ‘a foot over the rim when rebounding or dunking.’ The Orthodox Jew who starred for Talmudical Academy in suburban Baltimore was, we wrote, ‘built for basketball.’
Only, as it turned out, Goodman wasn’t built for college basketball. In September 1999 he reneged on an oral commitment to Maryland when he felt the school was lukewarm about his playing ability. He ended up at Towson, where any doubts the Terps might have had about him were borne out As a freshman Goodman scored 6.0 points a game, and last year he played in just seven games, averaging 1.9 points and 2.3 turnovers. His playing days at Towson ended after he accused his coach, Michael Hunt, of brandishing a chair at him in the locker room.

After staging a return to the spotlight in 2007 to capitalize on his high school and college fame, Tamir Goodman has been running basketball camps, putting on clinics, and doing speaking engagements. Now he is turning into a businessman as well.

As any Orthodox Jewish basketball player will tell you, it’s not easy running up and down the court with four woven sets of strings dangling from the four corners of your undergarment. The photos of Tamir hooping it up with a yarmulke on his head and his tzitzit flying through the air as he leaped for a layup became famous and were sources of pride in the observant Jewish community. However, it was not comfortable for ballers like Tamir to wear mesh tzitzit under his jersey.

Now Tamir Goodman is releasing his own brand of sports shirts that come with tzitzit attached. ColLive.com reported on Tamir’s invention which he unveiled at the recent OK Kosher conference:

At OK Kosher Certification’s 13th annual international Mashgiach Conference held Monday, Tamir introduced the “Sport Strings Tzitzit.”
He described it as revolutionary tzitzis garment that features hi-performance properties and a compression fit – offering the wearer ultimate comfort and style for sports and everyday wear.
Tamir was joined at the conference in Chovevei Torah in Crown Heights by a friend who also embodies the notion that being religious does not interfere with his career: boxing champion Dmitriy Salita.
While Salita did not say if he wears the “Sport String Tzitzit” himself, Tamir made it clear that anyone would enjoy wearing them for their UV protection, moisture wicking and anti-odor features.

Goodman’s tzitzit are certified kosher by the OK Kosher certification agency. No word yet on whether NBA star Amare Stoudemire will be wearing the Sport Strings Tzitzit.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Farmar in Israel, LeBron and Kobe at the JCC, and Hebrew with Amare Stoudem

NBA basketball players got a much longer summer vacation than they expected because of the lockout. It feels odd to have gone through the entire month of November without any professional basketball games to watch.

So what have these NBA stars been doing with their newly found free time? NBA player Jordan Farmar has been playing in Israel for Maccabi Tel Aviv. Farmar, whose mother is Jewish and step-father is a Jewish Israeli, has spent the NBA lockout playing in front of sellout crowds at Yad Eliyahu Arena. He is the first Jewish player in the NBA since Danny Schayes, son of NBA Hall-of-Famer Dolph Schayes, retired in 1999.

A number of other NBA stars have been hooping it up at local Jewish Community Centers. TMZ.com reported that LeBron James was a last minute fill-in for a team at the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Cleveland, Ohio. The second he stepped on the court LeBron “instantly became the best player to ever compete in the Herbert S. Diamond league.” Apparently, the former Cleveland Cavaliers player got a call from some of his friends who had a 7:30 PM game at the JCC and King James was happy to oblige. He led his squad to a ten point victory.

The NBA Lockout led superstars like Kobe Bryant and Lebron James
to play at their local Jewish Community Center (JCC)

After the game, LeBron James tweeted “Just got done hooping in the JCC league. So funny but good run @RichPaul4 had a few 3’s #basketballneverstops.” Here’s a video clip of LeBron playing at the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Cleveland:


While LeBron was playing in the gym of the Cleveland JCC, his nemesis Kobe Bryant was having a private training session at a Jewish Community Center in Irvine, California. Once again it was TMZ.com that broke the story (that means some 12-year-old kid at the JCC called it in). JTA reports, “the Los Angeles Lakers’ star guard, according to the TMZ website, brought a trainer to the Southern California JCC to work on shooting drills and cardio training as spectators watched.

Here’s the video of Kobe Bryant at the JCC in Irvine:

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And if Kobe and LeBron are becoming regulars at the JCC that means that the New York Knicks’ Amar’e Stoudemire has to do something even more Jewish than that after discovering there was Jewish heritage on his mother’s side last year. Don’t worry, the 6-foot-10 superstar who visited Israel for the first time last year now says he’s interested in opening a Hebrew school, according to the New York Daily News. “An unnamed source told the newspaper that Stoudemire has discussed opening a school that would focus on teaching the Hebrew language and Jewish history, though no school is actually in the works.”

But who will teach at the Hebrew School Amar’e Stoudemire opens? He will of course. Here’s Stoudemire’s first Hebrew lesson:

Well, that was Tov Meod!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Omri Casspi May Return to Maccabi Tel Aviv

There have been several former NBA players who have gone on to play for Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club. However, I can’t think of any players to do so while in the middle of an NBA contract. Sacramento Kings player Omri Casspi has announced that he may return to his former team in Israel should the NBA impose a player lockout next season.

Casspi’s the first Israeli to play in the NBA (New Jersey Nets player Jordan Farmar has an Israeli step-father, Yehuda Kolani from Tel Aviv). JTA reports that Casspi told Israel’s Army Radio Thursday that he would consider rejoining Maccabi Tel Aviv if the league and the players’ union do not come to a new compromise by June 30, the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement.

According to the Jerusalem Post, Casspi would be allowed to play abroad in the event of a lockout. While Casspi’s playing time with the Kings has been limited lately, he did make news earlier this month with his “Sheket B’vakasha” slam dunk.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Omri Casspi Says Sheket B’vakasha

Urban Dictionary defines “Boomshakalaka” as “An onomatopoeic ‘in your face.’ Originally the sound of a slam-dunk in basketball — the “boom” being the dunk, and the “shakalaka” being the rattling of the backboard.”

In the early years of ESPN, it was common to hear an ESPN personality throw out an energetic “boomshakalaka” when showing the highlight footage of a monster dunk. Today, announcers will often exclaim variations of “Goodnight!” “Sit Down!” or “Shut Up!” when one basketball player posterizes another with a ferocious slam dunk.

Ever since Israeli basketball sensation Omri Casspi of the Sacramento Kings entered the NBA, I’ve been hoping to hear an announcer exclaim something Jewish or Hebrew when he slam dunks. Last week, Casspi’s alley-oop slam dunk on the fast break from teammate Marcus Thronton elicited a “Sheket B’vakasha!!” from the announcer — Hebrew for “Quiet Please!” but with more of a “Sit Down and Shut Up” quality to it. The play was #9 in ESPN’s countdown of the day’s top ten highlights.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

ESPN Joins the Who Is a Jew Debate

Since commenting here about how the assassination attempt of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has brought the “Who Is a Jew” debate back into the spotlight, I have had some really intriguing conversations with colleagues about how we define Jewish status. A number of colleagues, including Rabbi Irwin Kula, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Rabbi Alana Suskin, and Rabbi Sue Fendrick, posted comments and contributed to the discussion on this blog. A Reform colleague and I have had an ongoing private discussion about patrilineal descent. She told me that some Reform rabbis are questioning whether Gabby Giffords would even be considered Jewish according to the Reform movement’s definition (there’s been no mention of her Jewish education or upbringing which would be required by the Reform movement’s policy on Patrilineal Descent).

My rabbinical school classmate, Rabbi Micah Kelber, noticed that the “Who Is a Jew” debate has even made its way into the sports world. Watching ESPN’s “First Take,” Kelber caught commentator Skip Bayless putting his foot in his mouth while referencing how Judaism defines Jewish status through lineage. He blogged about at Jewcy.com:

Today Skip Bayless of ESPN’s First Take made a tiny, but amusing mistake while debating whether it is appropriate to call Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers the first great white star because while his father is black, his mother is white. To support his argument, he appealed to the Jews for help in determining someone’s identity.

His slip of the tongue: “I would just like to point out that in some cultures, like in the Jewish culture, if the mom is white, you’re Jewish.”

I don’t think that’s what he meant or else there’d be a whole lot more Jewish people in the world. I never thought the question of Jewish status would be taken up on ESPN. Maybe it’s better if it didn’t. In fact, maybe it’s better if we all moved on to other subjects now.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Theology of LeBron James

Just because LeBron James started meeting with a rabbi this summer doesn’t mean he’s ready to be dispensing theological statements.

I’ve been thinking a lot about LeBron’s statement via his Twitter feed last week about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ huge upset to the Lakers. In what has become known as the “Karma Tweet,” LeBron tweeted the following during the final minutes of his former team’s 55-point loss to the Los Angeles Lakers: “Crazy. Karma is a b****.. Gets you every time. Its not good to wish bad on anybody. God sees everything.”

There are many unknowns when it comes to theology. Aside from dealing with the conundrums of evil and suffering in the world, we really don’t know whether God is omniscient. Apparently, LeBron James is certain of God’s omniscience (“God sees everything”). Not only that, but it seems that LeBron’s God metes out justice on those who “wish bad on anybody.” Now, I’m not going to judge LeBron for his theological certainty or even for his brashness in tweeting these words. I am, however, going to call him out for the senselessness of tweeting about divine karma this way.

That tweet couldn’t possibly have been received well no matter what happened. LeBron handled his separation from the Cavaliers in the worst way imaginable, so criticizing owner Dan Gilbert or the Cavaliers for wishing ill on him is ridiculous at best. Second, LeBron’s “Karma Tweet” sets him up for ridicule should the karma now fly the other way, which is exactly what has happened. Since LeBron decided to wax theological on Twitter, his team — the Miami Heat — has lost three consecutive games on the road and has seen the three superstars all get injured (twisted ankles for LeBron and Chris Bosh, and a hurt knee for Dwayne Wade).

This only proves that if you believe in the divine karma LeBron believes in, well, it can cut both ways. And if you ever sense that, thanks to karma, bad things are being levied on those who wished ill on you, be smart about it and keep your mouth shut. And in this day and age, that means stay away from Twitter!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

My All Time Jewish Basketball Team

I’m surprised this hasn’t gotten more attention, but on the Tablet Magazine website (a project of Nextbook) basketball fans are able to create their own starting lineup among the best Jewish-American Basketball players of all time. Tablet teamed up with FreeDarko, “the amazing five-year-old collective of basketball writers known for its wit, one-of-a-kind drawings, and revealing focus on unorthodox statistics, to let you select your top all-time Jewish-American starting five, plus a Jewish coach.”

I’m glad I didn’t have to choose a Jewish American team owner because that would be a difficult choice with so many to choose from (Bill Davidson of blessed memory left a legacy of philanthropy here in Detroit, the Cavaliers’ Dan Gilbert’s a great guy and a smart businessman, the late Wizards’ owner Abe Polin was a mensch; and then there’s also Bruce Ratner of the Nets, Jerry Reinsdorf of the Bulls, and even Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz owned the Supersonics at one time).

My selections are listed below, but I’ll offer some background on my choices (note that there are only three options for each position). I chose Red Auerbach as coach. He was definitely the greatest of all time. It’s interesting that of the three Jewish American coaches listed, two are named “Red.” Being from Detroit, I might have picked Larry Brown or Ron Rothstein, but they weren’t listed in this category. Larry Brown was an option for Point Guard, but I went with current player Jordan Farmar.

For Shooting Guard, I went with Max Zaslofsky simply because you can’t even make up a more Jewish name than that (and I never heard of the other guys). At the Small Forward spot I didn’t recognize any of the players so I went with Jack Molinas since I know a rabbi with a name that sounds similar (Rabbi Jack Moline). I almost went with Art Heyman because my high school English teacher was Art Heymoss freshman year.

At Center I went with Neal Walk because of the mustache. I would love to go with Nate Huffman (pictured with me) who Wikipedia lists as a Jewish player, but I learned a few months ago that he isn’t actually Jewish. Since the Michigan Jewish Sports Foundation wasn’t able to induct him in the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, it presented him with the Tree of Life Award. I think any award with the word “tree” in it is a fitting tribute to a guy who is 7’1″. Huffman’s from Michigan and played for Maccabi Tel Aviv. He signed as a free agent with the LA Clippers but never played with them.

Finally, for Power Forward I was going with Dolph Schayes, but I couldn’t resist selecting Amare Stoudemire since his questionable Jewishness has been so widely discussed lately. By the way, if Dolph Schayes’ son Danny was an option at Center, I might have gone with him. And former Detroit Pistons Center Earl Cureton probably could have been included even though he’s not Jewish since he works out at the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit more than any Jewish person I know.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Miami Heat Look to 613

In Judaism the number 613 is a lucky number associated with the number of positive and negative commandments that can be found in the Written Torah (Bible). So, when LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade line up to display their new Miami Heat jerseys, many Jews in the know can’t help but smile at the symbolic number.

Taryag is the acronym made up of the gematria (numerology) numbers that stand for 613. So, instead of the “Taryag Mitzvot,” here are the Taryag Heat. Now let’s see if these guys can play by the rules and win a championship.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

LeBron’s Rabbi

I was interviewed by a reporter yesterday about this blog. He asked me how I decide what to write about. I explained that if it’s about a subject I’m interested in –like sports– and I can find a Jewish angle on the story, then I write about it. With some stories the Jewish angle is easier to find than with others, but when a pro basketball player hires a rabbi for spiritual guidance, well… not much skill is involved.

Perhaps I’m gaining a reputation for writing about Jewish connections to professional sports and athletes because in the past 24-hours when I didn’t have the opportunity to blog about LeBron James hiring Rabbi Yishayahu Yosef Pinto to consult him, I received no less than a dozen messages asking what I had to say on the matter.

TMZ, the Web’s main source for celebrity gossip, obtained the exclusive photo of LeBron James in a business meeting yesterday with Rabbi Pinto, who’s known as the “Rabbi to the Business Stars.”

LeBron has apparently hired Rabbi Pinto, at an alleged 6-figure salary, for spiritual guidance for a “big merchandising meeting” that took place on a private yacht somewhere off the coast of NY.

The best part of the story is that the 37-year-old Pinto only speaks Hebrew, which means King James may want a translator. Perhaps he’ll ask either Amar’e Stoudemire (who’s reportedly still in Israel leaning Hebrew) or Shaq (who wished a Shanah Tovah last week).

As for me, maybe someone like Larry Bird is hoping to stage an NBA comeback and wants to retain me as his Jewish spiritual guru. You just never know!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller