Rabbi Gabriel Elias vividly remembers his frustration as a teenager not being able to participate in intramural sports because games fell on Shabbat.
As the spiritual leader of the Hillcrest-area Congregation Mogen David tells The Journal, "I swore to myself that I would give the children the opportunity they never had."
And for the past 15 years, Elias has. His annual basketball competition, Elias Elitzur Sports, has blossomed into a popular citywide outlet for Jewish youth (elitzur is Hebrew for "My God is a rock" and is the name of an organized Israeli sports program that also honors Shabbat).
"Fifteen years ago, nobody wanted to play in a fledgling team," says Elias.
That all changed about a decade ago when basketball, in the aftermath of the Lakers' back-to-back championships, became popular at yeshivas. Elias Elitzur Sports' numbers started to grow. Now the rabbi has trouble accommodating all the interest, as the number of b-ballers hovers at about 1,000 kids. Elias has only one stipulation for his young male participants: "All boys must wear a kippah."
A facetious Elias says that he would compare himself to the National Basketball Association's David Stern, except that "I've got more teams than him and I don't make his kind of money."
Elias is not kidding about the teams - he and his fellow coaches oversee 70-75 groups, averaging eight kids each. The teams are comprised of second to eighth graders, and the games - an hour each - take place simultaneously in indoor gyms located at Burroughs Junior High School, Bancroft High School and Fairfax High School. Children in the younger grades - second to fourth - play at the Westside Jewish Community Center, since that facility offers height-adjustable baskets. All the action will take place on Sun., Nov. 5, 9 a.m.-9 p.m., with run-off games from 5-8 p.m. on the night of Thurs., Nov. 9. Playoffs will be scheduled for January and February.
Each child participant does pay a nominal $130 fee to play. But given that Elias, who represents a nonprofit institution, has to cover the cost of renting gyms, team jerseys, liability insurance and the cost of trophies (every participating child receives a trophy), the Elias Elitzur Sports program breaks even with the $65,000 raised every year.
Elias has put together a team of his own just to execute these games. In addition to Mogen David staff members Sam Samson and Yancy Carter, Elias also has coaches from various Jewish schools: Maimonides Academy's Alan Rosen; Yavneh Hebrew Academy's David Rubin, the school's president, and Dr. Seymour Stoll; Hillel's Doug Honig; Sinai Akiba Academy's Michael Kappell, and on and on.
"Anybody can come watch the games as long as they're not parents," says Elias, who is not altogether joking. If there is one downside to the rapid growth of Elias Elitzur Sports over the years, Elias says it is the increasingly competitive attitude of parents attending the games, some of whom have taken to yelling at their kids and fostering some unhealthy competition.
"The parents are the problem because they're all living vicariously through their kids," says Elias, who has tried penalizing parents to the best of his ability. But their unruliness has grown worse. Even though the rabbi estimates that only 10 percent of the parents get out of hand, when 2,000 of them show up, that's 200 overzealous parents.
"Some of the parents are so into winning that they lose sight of what I'm trying to do," says Elias. "This is about friendly competition and children enjoying themselves, about extracurricular fun."
The migraines have extended even to team registration and organization, where parents have hectored Elias over team placement arrangements and car pooling issues.
Nightmare parents notwithstanding, Elias is proud of how huge his endeavor has grown. The games have come a long way from being merely an outlet for boys who couldn't shoot hoops on Shabbat.
"It has evolved into more than that," says Elias. "We've done more than most synagogues have been able to do in terms of bringing people - Reform, Conservative, Orthodox - together. This is probably the only sports program in this city that has crossed the bridge between denominations."
In addition, girls are playing. Elias says that about 300 of the total 800 players this year will be female."That's what this is all about," says Elias. "We don't want to turn anyone away."
Elias will never forget the day four years ago that a boy named Oren, representing Chabad of Long Beach, made the long drive to Los Angeles to participate in the games. Oren's parents were concerned that their son, who had polio, would be turned away. Elias let him join, and Oren played with the aid of his crutches. The boy's parents were so grateful, they were moved to tears.
"I turned to my wife," Elias said, "and I said, 'This is why I do it.'"
For more information on Elias Elitzur Sports and for information on Congregation Mogen David's adult basketball league, call Sam Samson at (818) 907-6642.