We Are All Stars: Beren Academy and Jewish Pride by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The game was close. But the Robert M. Beren Academy Stars did us all proud Saturday night, even though the varsity basketball team lost the league championship, 46-42.

The fact that these boys from a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school in Houston actually played in the championships at all last weekend in Dallas was a human rights story crossed with a fairy tale.

The Beren Stars had been cultivating a championship team for the past four years. This year the players tore up the court and dribbled their way to the state championship tournament with their kippot firmly pinned to their heads.

Enter the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS), the governing body that oversees most private and parochial interscholastic sports in the state. Beren had made it to a game that was scheduled for last Friday evening – the victor of which was scheduled to play the following afternoon. The TAPPS Board had long ago decided that the only Sabbath to be celebrated in Texas was on Sunday: There would be no rescheduling Friday night games to Friday afternoon or Saturday afternoon games to Saturday night.

Beren Academy’s opponents were more than willing to accommodate the Beren team’s Shabbat. But TAPPS did not relent even when the mayor of Houston and a former coach for the Houston Rockets called upon the organization to review its decision. It wasn’t until TAPPS was forced to comply with a temporary restraining order that the association allowed the Beren Stars to reschedule. TAPPS’ tin-eared director, Edd Burleson, commented to the Houston Chronicle that “unlike many people, TAPPS does follow the law, and we will comply.” Many people? Which people? You people? My people?

And speaking of many people, where were the other schools in the league when Beren was initially disqualified from playing in the finals because its players observed the Jewish Shabbat? None of those teams stepped up and refused to play when it looked like Beren Academy would have to forfeit.

It’s easy for me to be outraged living here in Massachusetts, a place where a school like Maimonides doesn’t have to jump through hoops (yes, pun intended) to reschedule games that conflict with Shabbat. The school’s membership in the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association was never circumscribed as it was for Beren Academy, which was reportedly warned when it joined TAPPS that the league would not make exceptions for the Jewish Sabbath. Yet last year, the association accommodated a Seventh Day Adventist school that also observes the Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sunset on Saturday, enabling its soccer team to participate in the finals.

If it’s hard to be a Jewish school in TAPPS, it’s downright humiliating to be a Muslim one. According to The New York Times when Iman Academy SW, an Islamic school in Houston, requested membership in 2010, TAPPS sent an additional questionnaire that asked:

Historically, there is nothing in the Koran that fully embraces Christianity or Judaism in the way a Christian and/or a Jew understands his religion. Why, then, are you interested in joining an association whose basic beliefs your religion condemns?

It is our understanding that the Koran tells you not to mix with (and even eliminate) the infidels. Christians and Jews fall into that category. Why do you wish to join an organization whose membership is in disagreement with your religious beliefs?”

How does your school address certain Christian concepts (i.e. celebrating Christmas)?

Let me be very clear that this is not just demeaning to Muslims, but offensive to all people. As Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am only for myself, then what am I?”

After the Stars learned that the team had been given the all clear to play in Dallas, Beren Academy’s administration issued a press release thanking TAPPS for reversing its decision. The school’s statement was an example of grace and restraint. No hint of bitterness or pent-up hostility, so I’ll step in and do it for them.

Beren Academy shouldn’t have to thank TAPPS for anything. A judge – not the consciences of TAPPS’ administration or its board – forced the league to do the right thing.

And why is an association like TAPPS still playing by rules that not only smack of “separate but equal,” but also overtly discriminate against minorities in general? How many of TAPPS’ board members actually have read the Koran? Attended a synagogue service? Or let’s get more basic. How many of them truly understand that in the 21st century we live in a religiously diverse country?

Last Saturday night, the Beren Stars lost to the Abilene Christian Panthers by just two baskets. I watched the game on a live stream. With the exception of my own children’s sports teams, I’ve never wanted a team to win as much as I wanted the Stars to win. But when it was all over, Beren Academy achieved something even more lasting than a championship title. The school made me proud to be a Jew in a state and a country where I, more often than not, take my religious liberty for granted.

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