Following a succession of victories in the early playoff rounds, the Stars of Robert M. Beren Academy have been eliminated from a state basketball tournament. The reason: Beren, a modern Orthodox day school in Houston, Texas, refused to allow students to play ball on Shabbat.
“The sacred mission will trump excellence in the secular world,” said Rabbi Harry Sinoff, Beren’s head of school, in a telephone interview with the New York Times.
The Stars achieved a stellar season record of 23-5, and was heading into the semifinal game of the Class 2A state tournament against the Covenant School of Dallas. After learning the match was scheduled for Friday evening, the school filed a request for rescheduling to the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS). Its request was denied Monday morning.
“When Beren’s joined years ago, we advised them that the Sabbath would present them with a problem with the finals,” explained Edd Burleson, TAPPS director. “In the past, TAPPS has held firmly to their rules because if schedules are changed for these schools, it’s hard for other schools… If we solve one problem, we create another problem.”
The school asked that the semifinal game be held Friday afternoon. In the event Beren was to advance to the next round, the championship match would take place Saturday evening. While schools have generally accommodated for Beren in past circumstances, tournament rules left this latest decision in the hands of TAPPS. Evidently, an arrangement could not be made.
Members of the Beren squad, which primarily consists of high school juniors and seniors, reflected on their season and its unrewarding conclusion.
“Our record has never been this good,” junior Zachary Yoshor said. “We’ve been able to win against teams that we’ve never beaten before. I’m appreciative that we’ve been able to play this far.”
Despite the biting desire to play, students remained proud of their religious identities.
“We can’t be angry at anyone,” said Albert Katz, a junior guard, according to the Houston Chronicle. “But it’s disappointing that no solution can be found.”
“It just teaches that you can’t always get what you want, that you have to deal with the consequences and live with what you are,” he added. “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.”
Isaac Mirwis, the Stars’ point guard, affirmed the team’s commitment to upholding their faith.
“It wasn’t even a question that we wouldn’t play on Shabbos,” he explained. “There was never the thought that ‘maybe we can get a game in.’”
Across the country, protestors have united in support of the Beren squad.
“Everyone has been really supportive, really positive,” Mirwis, who has family belonging to Brooklyn’s Sephardic community, said in a telephone interview with the Jewish Voice. “It is really amazing to see everyone come together.”
“We are proud to be the small Jewish school in Houston, Texas,” he added.
Chris Cole, the team’s coach, felt confident his players would recover from news the appeal was turned down. “We have a pretty mature group of guys,” he said. “They knew this could happen down the road.”
The father of team member Isaac, Mark Buchine, was similarly optimistic. “It’s disappointing,” he told the Times after learning of the decision. “I think the kids will be disappointed, too, but the team has this attitude of when there are bad calls, you just move on.”
Coach Cole was unhappy with the outcome of the appeal, but accepted it and hopes things might change. “It’s disappointing. I’ve been here 10 years and I’ve always known where our priorities lie,” he explained. “We were hopeful and optimistic going in that we could be able to do both — adhere to the religious beliefs here and play basketball.”
“We were hopeful that they would be able to work with us, but we respect their decision,” Cole stressed. “It’s never happened where we’ve played during Shabbat, and it will never happen. The kids know that, and the kids are fantastic at understanding.”
Still, the team has shown few signs of letting up. With an outpouring of local and national support, the school has continued to press for a decision change. Protestors note another basketball team whose religious preferences were recognized by TAPPS last year; the Arlington Burton Adventist Academy group was able to secure another spot to host what would have been a finals match on a Saturday evening. Seventh Day Adventists also observe the Sabbath, and this precedent has given Beren some hope.
The team held a light practice Monday. For the Beren Stars, history is on the line.
“One reason this is a big deal to many is no Orthodox Jewish team, from what we’ve heard, has ever won a state basketball championship,’’ Cole told ESPN.