With Houston’s Beren Academy Stars back in the playoffs, Rabbi Ari Segal, head of school at Shalhevet high school in Los Angeles, is breathing a sigh of relief, and kvelling a little.
Segal was head of school for seven years at The Robert M. Beren Academy, a K-12 Jewish day school, before he came to Shalhevet in September. Beren made international news this week when its basketball team nearly had to forfeit a spot in its league’s state semi-finals because the game was schedule on Shabbat.
Segal said he has been in close touch with former colleagues and students this week.
“I am beyond proud,” Segal said. “These kids are not only great basketball players – they are great young men as well. They are kind, funny, sweet and smart – and I am just happy the world is getting to see that.”
The Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools’ Class 2A (TAPPS) had denied two appeals from the school, but today, after three students filed a lawsuit, the league backed down and agreed to adjust the schedule so the students could play at 2 p.m. on Friday rather than at 6 p.m., after the start of Shabbat.
Segal said the decision not to play on Shabbat was non-negotiable, but what has truly made him proud is the student’s balanced response. For example, team member Albert Katz, 16, said:
“It just teaches that you can’t always get what you want. We are Jews, and we don’t do anything on the seventh day and that’s how it is. There are bigger things in life than basketball,” Katz told the Houston Chronicle.
“They understand that, as Modern Orthodox Jews, we want to have our cake and eat it too. But sometimes that is not possible and sometimes values are mutually exclusive – and they have demonstrated that they have internalized the message that, at the end of the day, their Jewish identity is primary and they sometimes need to make sacrifices to stay true to themselves and the values of their families,” Segal said.
TAPPS had insisted that Beren entered the league knowing the schedule could not be altered. TAPPS does not schedule games on Sunday, an irony not lost on Houston Mayor Annise D. Parker, who came to the support of the Beren team, along with former Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy.
“It is also my understanding that TAPPS teams are not allowed to play any sports on Sundays,” Parker told the Houston Chronicle, “which I presume is out of respect for the Christian Sabbath.”
Segal believes the media attention has taught the kids the impact they can have by sticking to their principles.
“I think the national outpouring of support – from people of all faiths – has crystallized for the students that every action they take as outwardly observant Jews has the potential to bring tremendous honor and pride to the Jewish people.”
In fact, the episode prompted Segal to present to Shalhevet students and parents an issue he had been thinking about for some time. Currently, Shalhevet encourages but does not mandate that boys wear kippot during games. Segal would like to see that rule changed.
“Look at the pride of the boys on the Beren team for their Judaism. This isn’t just about not playing on Shabbat in this one tournament. It is about a culture of placing Judaism first in a Modern Orthodox school – and a large part of that is the kippot the boys wear to play,” Segal wrote in a letter asking for student and parent feedback.
“We teach our children that Judaism is something to be proud of. It is something to wear on our sleeves. It is something to wear on our heads and demonstrate that not only can we be great ball players, we can do it while not giving up an inch of our religious identity,” he wrote.
The Beren Stars and the Shalhevet Firehawks will be among dozens of teams that face off in the Yeshiva University Sarachek National Basketball Tournament in New York at the end of March.
The Firehawks and Stars faced each other last November at a yeshiva tournament hosted by the Beren Academy. Shalhevet lost to Beren in the first round, 76-62, but came back to beat them in the final game, 42-36.
Segal says he’ll be rooting for Shalhevet at the next tournament without caveats, but retains pride in the Stars, who went 23-5 this season.
“Their success is the confluence of really hard work, great teamwork and an unusually high concentration of athleticism for a school with less than 70 high schoolers,” Segal said. “These guys have been playing together for years and they have been working hard on the fundamentals – that pays off in the end when you pair that with a blazingly fast point guard, a multi-talented 6-6 swingman and a whole bunch of other very talented players who know their role, understand it and stick to it.”
And he admits this week has left him a little bit nostalgic for his Texas days.
“I will be honest – while I am beyond thrilled that our family moved out to L.A. and Shalhevet, I am a bit wistful that I left right before this all happened. It is a dream come true for any school community and I guess I am living a bit vicariously through the phone calls and text messages,” he said.