The Jewish Sports Journalist – Mitch Albom’s Play About Ernie Harwell

I finally got around to seeing the play “Ernie” last week. The play focuses on the life of the late Detroit Tigers radio broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who in Detroit is just as legendary a figure as the greats who actually played the game like Greenberg and Kaline. The play was as good as the reviews, but as I exited the theater my mind focused less on the life of Ernie Harwell and more on the life of the writer of the play, Mitch Albom.

It has often been said that a Jewish boy has a better chance of owning a professional sports team than playing on one. And with the dearth of Jewish pro athletes and the disproportionate amount of Jewish owned teams, that might be true. But, lately I’ve been thinking about all the Jewish guys who at some point in their lives determined that they’d rather write and talk about their favorite sports than play them.

I first started reading Mitch Albom’s sports columns when he arrived in Detroit in 1985 to write for the Detroit Free Press. As a young boy I found his columns masterful. Albom didn’t just cover my beloved local Detroit sports teams and their athletes; his prose told the hidden stories of the athletes and what made watching these games such a magical experience.

Continue reading

Jewish History Through Baseball

I was recently asked to review Irwin Cohen’s new book, Jewish History in the Time of Baseball’s Jews: Life On Both Sides of the Ocean, for the Michigan Jewish Historical Society’s upcoming annual journal. Cohen, who writes for the Jewish Press, is a baseball maven and a history buff who has chronicled Detroit’s Jewish history and also worked for a time in the front office of the Detroit Tigers organization. I immediately agreed to write the review and an inscribed copy of the book arrived at my office a few days later.
Holocaust Memorial Center director Stephen Goldman addresses members of the Detroit Tigers organization

As I sat down to read Cohen’s book, which focuses on both baseball history and modern Jewish history with a special emphasis on the Holocaust, I thought back to this past winter when members of the Detroit Tigers coaching staff and front office were invited to the Holocaust Memorial Center here in Detroit, the country’s first free-standing Holocaust memorial museum. The HMC was included for a site visit on the Detroit Tigers Winter Caravan, a week-long publicity tour to get local fans in Michigan excited for the upcoming season. 
Continue reading

The Jewish Infatuation with Jewish Baseball Players

About a month ago, just before Opening Day of the 2013 Major League Baseball season, I received an email from a newspaper reporter who asked if I had time available to discuss Jewish baseball players. I had recently read a fascinating review of John Rosengren’s new Hank Greenberg book in the Wall Street Journal and the relationship between baseball and Judaism was very much on my mind. So naturally I agreed to talk with the reporter. In his email, Charley Honey (love that name!) of the Grand Rapids Press wrote:

I’m working on a column about Hank Greenberg, a boyhood hero of my late father, who grew up in Detroit. A new bio of Hank, by John Rosengren, deals a lot with the challenges he faced as the first Jewish baseball star in the Bigs. I would like to talk with you about your perspective on Greenberg’s impact on sports and culture, and how baseball has served as an entree into American life for racial and religious minorities.

Always being on the lookout for tie-ins between the greatest game and the world of faith, I thought Opening Day and this new bio seemed like a good opportunity. I realize rabbis like you are very busy this Passover week, but if you could carve out half an hour or so to talk to me within the next few days I’d love the chance. My column is due Tuesday morning. Of course, I will not be available after 4 p.m. Monday. 🙂

Charley and I had a great conversation that lasted well over an hour. I explained that there is a certain fetish we Jews have with Jewish baseball players. As Joseph Epstein wrote in his WSJ review of Rosengren’s book, it’s difficult for most baseball fans to come up with a list of Methodist, Baptist or Catholic Major League ballplayers, but for some reason we can all create our lineup of the best Jewish ballplayers who ever played the game. There’s a certain pride that we Jews feel for our heroes like Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.

Continue reading

Playing Golf with My Deceased Uncle

My Uncle Jerry passed away in February 2009 and I miss him every day. However, I seem to miss his presence more over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend which comes to a close today. Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday and we always spent it together. I recently wrote this tribute about him and how he influenced me to start playing golf. While we never played golf together, I feel like his spirit is with me each time I step onto a golf course in the same way that we believe the presence of the prophet Elijah is with us at each bris in the Jewish tradition. Here’s my tribute to my beloved uncle:

My Uncle Jerry began playing golf in his 40s. He really fell in love with the sport and encouraged me to take it up too. He regretted that he had waited so long to embrace golf and cautioned me to not wait until I was too old that I’d also regret not having started sooner. Unfortunately, he died of pancreatic cancer at the young age of 54 before we ever had the chance to play a round of golf together.

While I would have loved to have played 18 holes with him, he is very much a part of my own golf game today. I took up golf three years ago while I was still mourning my uncle’s death. I played my first few rounds wearing his FootJoy golf shoes and using his clubs. I could hear his voice before each shot I took. I heard his advice, his sarcasm, his laughter, and his disappointment when I didn’t follow his recommendation.

Golf Swing

Even though we never walked (or drove) a golf course together, my uncle dispensed influential words of wisdom to me about the game. On a few occasions when he visited me at my home we would go outside and he would take his driver out of the trunk. I’d take some swings and he would grab my waist or shoulders and correct my stance and swing. But more than offering a couple tips on the fundamentals of golf, my uncle taught me why he loves the game so much. Today, I remember his lessons as the Four C’s:

Calm – My uncle was a very competitive guy who could become very frustrated with his athletic performance if things weren’t working out for him, but the trick to golf he would say was a calming demeanor when the club is in your hands. I have found that to be sound advice since I certainly hit the ball much better when my body is calm.

Clarity – If calm is the physical trick to golf, then clarity is the key mental component of the game. My uncle was a family man and a business owner with a lot on his mind, but when he laced up his golf shoes he knew that he had to clear his thoughts and focus on the game at hand. Mental clarity is essential to a successful golf game I have learned.

Coordination – My uncle was always interested in the way the body worked. In order for a solid swing to occur, the different parts of your body have to be coordinated. It is imperative that a golfer understands how the muscles and joints are operating to ensure a coordinated strike of the ball.

Care – In addition to developing a successful golf game, my uncle appreciated the rules and traditions of the game. While he might have been lax in following some other rules in life, he took golf etiquette very seriously. He often explained how important it was to care for the golf course (replace divots, rake sand bunkers, and repair ball marks) so other players wouldn’t be negatively effected by your disregard. He also liked the centuries-old traditions of the game which include respect for other players, an integrity for score keeping, and adherence to the standards and values of the game.

It often pains me that I never had the opportunity and privilege to play a round of golf with my uncle, but his spirit has become a part of my golf game. In discovering my own love of the game, I feel that I am honoring him and our relationship. I’m grateful for the close friendship I had with my uncle and thankful that the sport of golf has kept us together in the years since he left us.

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

Rabbi Autographs on Sports Balls

While I was in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, I decided that I wanted a keepsake to remember the esteemed faculty. If it were high school, I suppose I could have asked my teachers to sign my yearbook. Since there were no year books around, I searched the house for something else to get autographed. A brand-new football caught my eye and with a white marker I began making my way around the Seminary in search of faculty members to put their John Hancock on my football. They were trilled to comply.

Prominent JTS faculty members like Chancellor Ismar Schorsch, Neil Gillman, Bill Lebeau, Burt Visotzky, Anne Lerner, Michael Greenbaum, Barry Holtz,  Aryeh Davidson, Stephen Geller, Robbie Harris, Raymond Scheindlin, Joe Lukinsky (of blessed memory), and Eduardo Rauch (of blessed memory). I placed the autographed football in a glass display case. When Purim rolled around I put it on display at the annual Purim Seudah with a note challenging, “Guess which professional team autographed this football.”

Little did I know that I didn’t have an original idea there. It turns out that a guy named Daniel Harris has been collecting autographs from famous rabbis for many decades. A recent article in Tablet, introduces us to Harris, who is the associate principal of Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago. Harris explains that over time he outgrew his childhood role models and “realized he had exchanged players of physical brilliance for legends of spiritual grandeur—and that those were the heroes he wanted to recognize.” He goes so far as to claim that he’d take a baseball signed by a great rabbinic leader over one autographed by the great Babe Ruth.

Harris’s collection of rabbinicly autographed baseballs has grown recently and now includes ten baseballs from the leading Orthodox rabbis of our time including Rav Gedaliah Schwartz and Rabbi Berel Wein. Harris traded his signed Kenny Holtzman baseball to Rabbi Wein for his signature.

Autographed baseballs by prominent rabbis from Daniel Harris’s collection

Harris explained why he uses baseballs to collect these esteemed rabbis’ autographs. “Both baseball and, in a greater sense, Talmud, are full of nuance and great detail. Every time you enjoy learning a piece of Talmud you can come away with something new, as in baseball, where there is always some new play or game situation that you have never seen.”

I’m not looking to begin a collection of autographed baseballs from respected Seminary luminaries and well-known Conservative rabbis any time soon. However, I might just begin to collect personalized autographed baseballs from rock stars. Here’s my first in the collection from Vincent Damon Furnier, better known as Alice Cooper:

Alice Cooper autographed baseball


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

D’var Torah: Prince Fielder, Inheritance & Fatherhood

I was emotionally moved as I watched Detroit Tigers’ slugger Prince Fielder accept the 2012 Home Run Derby award on Monday night in Kansas City with his two adorable sons proudly standing next to him. But it also struck me as sad that Prince’s father Cecil Fielder wasn’t in that photo op as well.

I still remember back in 1990 when Cecil Fielder (a Detroit Tigers All-Star 1st baseman like his son is today) was the favorite to win the All-Star Game Home Run Derby. Competing against the likes of Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey, Jr., Cecil failed to hit even one homer in the contest that night. This week, Prince Fielder became the first player ever to win the Home Run Derby in both leagues (he won in 2009 as a Milwaukee Brewer too).

There’s no question that Prince Fielder inherited the gift of hitting the long ball from his father. This week’s Torah Portion, Parshat Pinchas, is all about inheritance and succession. Moses was an impressive leader of the Jewish people in the desert as they made their journey to Israel. This week, however, we learn that Moses will not lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. Although he has worked tirelessly to be a great leader and inspirational figure, his career will end before the reward of entering the land with his people.

Cecil Fielder led the Detroit Tigers in the early 1990s, but didn’t succeed in taking his team all the way to the “Promised Land” of Major League Baseball — the World Series. Cecil Fielder’s numbers with the Tigers are impressive. On the last day of the Tigers’ season in 1990, Cecil hit his 50th and 51st home runs to become the 11th player in ML history to hit 50 homers in a season. But baseball is a team sport and while individual achievement is recorded into the annals of baseball history and celebrated, the ultimate reward is winning the World Series.

And that’s where inheritance and succession factor in. Moses wasn’t permitted the merit of taking his team, the Israelites, into the Promised Land. However, his inheritance was bequeathed to Joshua who would succeed Moses as the leader of the people. Joshua understood his role and he gave honor and respect to his predecessor. Without Moses there is no Joshua. That is how inheritance and succession work. Moses laid the groundwork and Joshua was able to complete the task.

I thought of the Moses-Joshua relationship and the Torah’s concept of inheritance and succession as I watched Prince Fielder hoist his Home Run Derby trophy high above his head. His sons flanked him on either side. His father was no where in sight. It is from his father that Prince has acquired the awesome ability to use a wooden bat and hit a small ball to distances surpassing 450 feet. Cecil wasn’t able to take his team into the Promised Land, but his progeny might be the leader to do it. Prince has that inheritance. He succeeds his father as the home run slugging first baseman who can lead his people to victory.

With Prince Fielder at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Phoenix in 2007.

Seeing Cecil Fielder proudly standing next to his son and two grandsons Tuesday night would have made that photo even better. But there’s a fractured relationship between the father and the son. No one knows for certain why Prince and Cecil don’t talk, but the dynamics of a father-son relationship can be complicated. Perhaps the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship are better documented, but they are no more challenging.

For Prince, it might have been difficult growing up as the son of the local baseball hero. For Cecil, it might be difficult watching his son succeed where he came up short in his own career. The strained relationship between Prince Fielder and his dad is rumored to be about money. After Cecil declared bankruptcy following a failed marriage, gambling debts, and poor real estate investment deals, there’s word that he took part of his son’s signing bonus with the Milwaukee Brewers. Whatever the case, life is too short to harp on such things. Reports indicate that Cecil might have taken $200,000 of his son’s $2.4 million signing bonus back in 2002. Prince Fielder’s current contract with the Detroit Tigers is for nine-years and a total of $214 million. That $200,000 a decade ago is meaningless today.

Earlier this year Cecil had some critical words to say about his son. “As a father, of course you’re proud of what your son’s been able to accomplish on the field, but as a father also you worry about how he is growing as a man, how — I want to say this correctly –how he is communicating with everybody that had something to do with how he got to where he is. And that part of my son, I think we’re all a little disappointed.”

After Prince signed with the Tigers this year, both Cecil and Prince have been quoted as saying the relationship has gotten a little better. And that’s good. As Mitch Albom wrote after Opening Day this past April:

Cecil Fielder always will be a part of Detroit sports history, just as his son now will make his own name in it. It does seem sad that the father watched the game alone in Atlanta, while the son played in Detroit. But that is between them. “I’ll get up there to see a game,” Cecil said before hanging up. “It’ll all work out. Just needs time.”

Indeed, it is between them. The father and the son. The succession of leadership and the inheritance of that big swing. I remain hopeful that both men will let bygones be bygones and move forward. Cecil’s pride should come from watching his son do what he was not able to in a Tigers’ uniform. And Prince’s respect and admiration for his father should come from an appreciation for the legacy that Cecil left as a Detroit Tiger and for the talent his father has bequeathed to him as his inheritance.

At the end of a McDonald’s commercial (below) featuring Cecil and Prince Fielder that aired in Detroit back in the 1990s, Prince looks up at his dad and apologizes for striking him out. Cecil looks down at his son with pride and says, “Oh, that’s okay son.” Maybe the two men will exchange similar words in the near future. So, while I wish Cecil was part of that awesome photo op on Tuesday night at the Home Run Derby, I’m willing to hold out to see the father celebrate with his son at a future trophy presentation. They deserve each other.

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

Jewish Athletes with Italian Roots

This is one of my favorite scenes from the classic 1980 movie “Airplane” (and a I have a lot of favorite scenes):

Elaine Dickinson: Would you like something to read?
Hanging Lady: Do you have anything light?
Elaine Dickinson: How about this leaflet, “Famous Jewish Sports Legends?”

Okay, so maybe there aren’t many Jewish sports legends, but this week has been a great one for professional Jewish athletes with Italian roots.

Italy will be playing in the Euro 12 soccer championship game this week and they got there being led by Mario Balotelli, who grew up as the foster son of a Jewish mother.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that “Balotelli dedicated the two goals he scored in Italy’s 2-1 semifinals victory over Germany on June 28 to his foster mother, Silvia, who raised him in northern Italy. Newspapers and websites ran a dramatic photo of Balotelli tearfully embracing his mother after the match.”

Moked, the website of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, called the Balotelli’s emotional embrace with his mother “an emotion for all Italians and a special emotion for Italian Jews.”

Balotelli revealed the fact that his adoptive mother was Jewish in early June, when like other teams, the Italian national squad visited Auschwitz ahead of the start of the games.

Also, this week came the revelation that Jewish Italian tennis player Camila Giorgi will be moving to Israel after Wimbledon. Giorgi has reached the second week of Wimbledon competition. She was born to Italian parents of Argentinian descent and currently lives in France. The European Jewish Press reports that the Israeli Tennis Association (ITA) will offer Giorgi a $100,000 grant in return for a 30% cut of her prize money over the next few years.

I certainly hope Italy keeps churning out impressive Jewish athletes in the years to come. In the mean time I’ll be cheering for Balotelli in soccer competition and following Giorgi’s international tennis success. Buona fortuna!

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

Muhammad Ali Attends Grandson’s Bar Mitzvah

Jacob Wertheimer becoming a bar mitzvah this past April at Philly’s Congregation Rodeph Shalom synagogue doesn’t sound like a newsworthy story. It does make news when the proud grandfather is The Champ.

Muhammad Ali’s grandson Jacob Wertheimer was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah at a small service of only about 150 people. Jacob is the son of Ali’s daughter Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer and Spencer Wertheimer, an attorney. Ali was in the congregation watching with pride according to the Sweet Science boxing website in an article written by Muhammad Ali’s personal biographer Thomas Hauser, as reported by JTA. There was no mention of whether the bar mitzvah boy floated like a butterfly or stung like a bee on the bimah.

Jacob Wertheimer, Muhammad Ali’s grandson on vacation with his parents

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay and raised as a Baptist, but famously converted to Islam in the 60s. Ali’s daughter Khaliah was raised as a Muslim. According to her, the young Jacob was given a choice and without pressure from his parents, “he chose this on his own because he felt a kinship with Judaism and Jewish culture.” It sounds like Judaism won by a decision!

Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer also mentioned that it “meant a lot to Jacob” that his grandfather Muhammad Ali was in attendance. According to JTA, the theme of the bar mitzvah party was diversity and inclusiveness.

On the occasion of The Champ’s 70th birthday, JTA’s archivist Adam Soclof compiled a list of articles chronicling Ali’s bouts and bonding moments with the Jewish community dating back to 1970. Ali has made some critical comments about Israel over the years, but is still widely respected in the Jewish community. Perhaps Ali’s Jewish grandson will travel to Israel and change his grandfather’s sentiments.

While Billy Crystal has always amused me with his dead-on impersonation of Muhammad Ali, this scene from Eddie Murphy’s “Coming to America” is a personal favorite:

Mazel Tov to Muhammad Ali and his entire family on Jacob’s bar mitzvah!

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

Could Miguel Cotto Be Sued By Orthodox Union Over Kosher Tattoo?

Boxer Miguel Cotto lost to Floyd Mayweather Jr. last night in a unanimous decision in the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. As I’ve written about before on this blog, Miguel Cotto sports a tattoo on his right collarbone that represents the kosher symbol used by the Orthodox Union (a circle containing the letter “U”). Cotto got the well-known and internationally recognized symbol tattooed on him as a gesture for a Jewish friend. Seeing Cotto’s tattoo again last night during his fight made me wonder if there might be any legal ramifications to Cotto sporting a trademarked image in such a public way.

The Union of Orthodox Congregations of American is the largest kosher certification agency in the world with its hekhsher (kosher certification symbol) on over 500,000 products worldwide. The OU, as it is commonly called, has been unrelenting in its protection of its famous trademark. As the most recognized kosher symbol, many food manufacturing businesses (especially in the Far East) think that the OU symbol is a generic kosher code and place it on their product without permission.  As Sue Fishkoff reported in her book Kosher Nation, the OU employs a large legal department whose mission is to locate violations of usage of the OU symbol anywhere in the world, issue a cease and desist order, and file a suit if there’s no compliance.

In the past week I’ve read two articles about ongoing lawsuits filed by the Orthodox Union against companies using the OU symbol. Watching Miguel Cotto dance around the ring last night with his OU tattoo in full sight, I considered if this might be a trademark violation on the radar screen of the OU’s legal department.

The Orthodox Union recently sued a Maine organic dairy for trademark infringement. The OU claims that Maine’s Own Organic Milk Company L3C used the OU trademark without authorization. The Orthodox Union said it initially contacted the dairy about its unauthorized use of the hekhsher in June 2010 and the dairy, known as MOOMilk, applied for certification that month and received an initial inspection, but the dairy never paid the fees and continued to use the kosher symbol on its cartons without authorization. The Orthodox union said it’s harmed by the unauthorized use of the mark, and that kosher consumers are likely to be confused and misled when they see it on MOOMilk’s products.

That’s the most common example of violation against a kosher symbol. But the OU also has to deal with companies using the OU symbol as an innocent mistake. Also this week it was reported that a coffee roastery in New Zealand, Christchurch’s Underground Coffee, is being sued for using a logo that is similar to the OU’s registered trademark. Underground Coffee has been using that logo since 1998, but it only became known to the Orthodox Union recently when Starbucks stores in New Zealand began selling the product.

The OU claims that the coffee’s logo is “likely to deceive or cause confusion” to consumers. Apparently many travellers to New Zealand asked local rabbis if Underground was kosher and others had reported it to the union as an infringement.

There’s no confusion as to Miguel Cotto’s kosher status and it’s entirely possible that the Orthodox Union appreciates the free publicity. But who knows what the OU legal department will think of Cotto’s tattoo, which could be considered an unauthorized use of a registered trademark.

Legal experts: What do you think?

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

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