I get the feeling that the Board members of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools—TAPPS—don’t meet a lot of people who are different then they are. Apparently, it’s impossible for those folks to understand that not everyone celebrates the Sabbath on a Sunday. Enter the Robert M. Beren Academy Boys’ Varsity Basketball—known as the Stars—to shake up the TAPPS Board’s world.
Perhaps it’s the first time that anyone at TAPPS has seen that serious athletes can also be observant Jews. Beren’s players tear up a court with their yamulkas pinned firmly in place. And for the first time in its 42-year history, this Modern Orthodox day school in Houston has made it to the play-offs in their division. Imagine the boys’ excitement when they realized they would be going to the semifinals in Dallas this weekend. Imagine their disappointment when they realized that their playoff game in Dallas was scheduled for 9PM on March 2, Friday night—erev Shabbat. Imagine their heartbreak when their appeal to TAPPS to move the game start time to earlier in the afternoon was unilaterally denied.
Yes, unilaterally denied. TAPPS acted alone when its Board decided to sideline Beren Academy. According to Beren Academy’s head of school, Rabbi Harry Sinoff, the heads of school of the opposing teams had no objection to accommodating the Stars. In fact, just the week before, Beren moved their quarterfinals game against a local Catholic high school to 2pm on a Friday afternoon. Our Lady of the Hills Catholic High School had no trouble understanding that playing basketball on Shabbat is not an option for the Beren Academy boys.
If there was ever a perfect case for the Anti-Defamation League to broker, this was it. The director of ADL’s Southwest’s regional office in Houston wrote a letter to Edd Burleson, TAPPS’ director, which read in part:
Many of the private and parochial schools that are TAPPS members are faith-based institutions where religion is their guiding principal. As such, it is incumbent upon TAPPS to ensure that its members do not have to choose between observing their religious holy days and competing in championship activities. By asking a member school to participate on their Sabbath day, TAPPS will send the message to the Beren Academy team and all other teams whose faith prohibits Sabbath activities, that their religious principles are not valued and that they are not equal members of the TAPPS family.
But the hard truth is that at best TAPPS is sending mixed signals about religious observance and sportsmanship. In 2010, the Association accommodated the Arlington Burton Adventist Academy whose students also observe the Sabbath from Friday sundown to Saturday sunset. The Seventh Day Adventist school had reached the soccer finals in its division and, with TAPPS’ approval, secured a location to play its soccer game after the Sabbath.
When I spoke to Burleson on the phone he said that the logistics for the Seventh Day Adventists’ participation in the soccer finals was simpler, involving only four schools. Logistics? This isn’t a military operation—it’s a high school basketball game. Burleson explained that, “In that case the one school that observed the Sabbath and their opponents were adamant that all of the qualifying teams play.” Okay, so where is Our Lady of the Hills this week? The Stars team has been forced to forfeit Friday night’s upcoming game and the Catholic high school will be taking Beren’s place.
Burleson went on to qualify the Arlington Burton decision. “The [TAPPS] Board made an exception when it allowed [Arlington Burton] to play. Afterwards the Board felt that they had made a mistake and they do not want to make the same mistake again.” Of course they don’t. Who wants to repeat an act of grace and empathy more than once?
This is not the first time that Sabbath observance has been an issue for a Jewish day school. In my backyard, the Modern Orthodox Maimonides School in Brookline faced a similar conflict in 2009 when the school’s mock trial club had reached the national championships in Atlanta. The competition’s organizers initially refused to change the Saturday date, but the school enlisted the help of the Justice Department and two days before the competition, the mock trial organization allowed Maimonides to schedule its appearance on Thursday.
“I’ve been bombarded with hate mail over this issue,” Burleson said. He sounded a bit incredulous. While it’s not right that Burleson has been the target of some folks’ frustration and venom over the incident, it’s not surprising that intolerance and ignorance lead to unpleasant things like hate mail.
Rabbi Sinoff wisely put the TAPPS fiasco in perspective. “Even though the start times for this weekend’s tournament in Dallas haven’t been changed, we’ll still celebrate Shabbat like we always have.”
Amen and Shabbat Shalom.