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In Israel, many religious athletes must still choose sports or spirituality

A new grassroots movement aims to push a predominantly secular Israeli society to thwart the ‘twisted’ exclusion of Shabbat-observant sportspeople

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Shachar Shpaier, a 16.5-year-old raising soccer star in Kfar Saba's highest youth league, is the sole religiously observant player on his team. (Courtesy Moshe Shpaier)
Shachar Shpaier, a 16.5-year-old raising soccer star in Kfar Saba's highest youth league, is the sole religiously observant player on his team. (Courtesy Moshe Shpaier)

While sports-minded American Jews fete baseball legend Sandy Koufax for putting religion above his career in his famous Yom Kippur sacrifice during the 1965 World Series, young athletes in Israel are faced with similar dilemmas every week.

Most Israeli soccer games, as well as the championships in most sports fields, take place on Shabbat. For many young religious athletes, this leads to a difficult decision: sports or spirituality.

But recently, a grassroots collective of concerned parents and athletes is teaming up to push back against what they label the “irreligious coercion” of Israel’s predominantly secular society. Calling themselves “Nivheret Hashabbat” (Shabbat Varsity), in the past few weeks they’ve launched a Facebook forum and are raising awareness of their cause across Israeli media.

According to Danielle Weiss, an attorney and one of the group’s founders, the collective is not asking for all competitions to be moved from Shabbat — only those which affect team members who are Shabbat-observant. And, in the case of a running or swimming championship that falls on Shabbat, why not allow the competitor to race against the clock before or after the Sabbath? The final results would then be calculated and announced — after sundown on Saturday night.

What the collective is essentially asking for, is for a predominantly secular Israeli society to be more creative and inclusive.

To that end, although the group is still in its infancy, Weiss says the next step is to reach the halls of the Knesset and the Supreme Court toward the creation of a law that would require equal opportunity for religious sportspeople.

Support from above

The issue of Shabbat and sports has gained steam in the past few years. An August 2015 court ruled that it is illegal for sportsmen to be forced to play on Shabbat. Israeli weekend soccer is immensely commercially popular, however, with tens of thousands tuning in to watch every week, raising concerns about the decision’s impact.

Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev seen at the weekly cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister's Office, Jerusalem July 10, 2016. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)
Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev seen at the weekly cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office, Jerusalem July 10, 2016. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

In March 2016, after months of debate during which matches continued, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev announced that a draft agreement between clubs, owners and the soccer federation had been reached. Regev claimed the number of Shabbat games would drop, and that players who choose to sit out on Shabbat will not be penalized.

This is not the case for most sporting arenas, and, say the founders of Nivcheret HaShabbat, definitely not for youth sports.

As they push for adaptations and equality for religious sportsmen, the founders of the grassroots movement are stepping forward and portraying how they, families of religious athletes, are currently “adapting” to what they see as a discriminatory sports system.

For the Shpaier family, it means shelling out a lot of money — and losing their son for most weekends. Father Moshe, an accountant, explains that his son Shachar, a 16.5-year-old raising soccer star in Kfar Saba’s highest youth league, is the sole religiously observant player on his team. As such, since most games are not walking distance from the family home, more weekends than not, he rents through Airbnb an apartment for Shachar for Shabbat at upwards of NIS 500 a pop.

Shachar travels to the apartment with food prepared by his family, which he heats on a hot plate that he brings with him and leaves on throughout Shabbat, according to religious practice. His father says the team is very supportive and his son prays before or after games, and somehow makes it work.

“We are not normal,” says Moshe about the level of his family’s investment in son Shachar’s athleticism.

Shachar, a 16.5-year-old raising star in Kfar Saba's highest youth league, is flanked by his very supportive parents. (Facebook)
Shachar, a 16.5-year-old raising star in Kfar Saba’s highest youth league, is flanked by his very supportive parents. (Facebook)

Increasingly, the family is not able to accompany Shachar on these weekends away, and so he often finds himself alone on what traditionally is a day devoted to family.

Looking forward to next year’s schedule, Moshe figures Shachar will be away from the family for some 40 weekends. “Not even when he serves in the army will Shachar be away for so many shabbatot,” laments Moshe.

Israeli government officials agree to the absurdity of the situation. When religiously observant sharpshooter Avishai Bart appealed to changed the championship from Shabbat last year, he lost his case, but gained support from Regev, and then Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan.

In a Facebook post published by online Hebrew news site NRG, Regev said, “It is unthinkable that an excellent Israeli sportsman will not participate in the Israeli Championship in sharpshooting only because it is taking place on Shabbat. It is an incorrect position, and against all of the society’s principles of equal opportunity.”

‘This is a twisted situation, that here in the State of Israel, the country of the Jewish people, Shabbat-observant sportsmen aren’t able to compete’

Likewise Dahan, a former athlete himself, supported Bart’s cause.

“In my youth, I played soccer for Hapoel Beersheba, and many times on Shabbat. This is a twisted situation, that here in the State of Israel, the country of the Jewish people, Shabbat-observant sportsmen aren’t able to compete,” said Dahan to Hebrew news site YNet.

Bart lost his appeal to the High Court of Sports, but, encouragingly, the 2016 championship was immediately scheduled for a Friday.

‘If we break the stigma for them, then the society will change too’

This rescheduling in light of the Bart petition is just one of many adaptations and shifts in public awareness in recent years.

Noam Melchior is a religiously observant former Judo champion who now teaches in a successful — and rapidly growing — religious Judo league near Jerusalem. The son of former government minister Rabbi Michael Melchior (who often attends local competitions), the Judo sensei says that when he was at the height of his competitions 20 years ago, there weren’t any religious options open to him and he was forced to cut his career short.

Judo sensei Noam Melchior
Judo sensei Noam Melchior

“Today, things have changed, especially in Judo,” says Melchior. While he admits the highest championship competitions are still mostly held on Shabbat, “there are definitely enough competitions that religious children can participate at a competitive level.”

“When I was a boy, I couldn’t progress. Now I’d be able to,” says Melchior. He predicts that it is “just a matter of time until there’s equal opportunity, whether by law or the changing social acceptance” for religious boys and girls.

Far more detrimental to the field of sports, says Melchior, is the religious society’s stigma against athleticism in youth as they get older. Boys, he says, may go to boarding school and therefore won’t have the ability to continue their practices. As for girls, they hear from their religious schools that it is unseemly for women to participate in competitive sports, so they stop.

“If we break the stigma for them, then the society will change too,” says Melchior.

Lawyer Uri Regev, the head of religious freedom organization Hiddush, says his group often discusses the issue of religious sportsmen, but feels that a thorough study of the situation in Israel still needs to be done. And while he applauds the grassroots effort for its push for more sensitivity and inclusivity, Regev worries that due to Israel’s six-day workweek, moving all Shabbat competitions to another day would lead to the closure of whole fields of sports that cannot draw athletes during the workweek.

“When it is possible to find alternatives and to rebalance the desire to develop the sport alongside respect for the Shabbat-observant — I wholeheartedly support such a change,” says Regev.

The ‘miracle’ of a professional athlete who could observe Shabbat

American-born Orthodox basketball star Tamir Goodman brings a different perspective to the struggle of Israel’s religiously observant athletes.

“For my own personal career, I’m very very blessed and thankful I was able to live out my career as a Division One college player and as a professional player here and in America without playing on Shabbat,” says Goodman.

“I am very aware that was a miracle,” he says.

Former basketball star Tamir Goodman in Jerusalem's Old City. (Facebook)
Former basketball star Tamir Goodman in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Facebook)

However, before and during college, he was offered — and declined — many opportunities that would have advanced his career, but interfered with Shabbat. And while playing on scholarship at Towson University, he says he faced hardships to maintain his observance.

“College in America was accommodating — as much as possible. But it was very hard when playing in some random place, and I’d get very hungry, and there was no kosher food; when practicing on fast days; or not being able to ride the bus in winter and walking to games in the snow,” says Goodman.

After playing for Towson, Goodman immigrated to Israel where he played for a number of top ranked Israeli teams, including Maccabi Tel Aviv, before and after his required IDF service.

“Here [in Israel], it’s like a breath of fresh air. Even if something came up, they were very accommodating to me,” says Goodman, who after retirement wrote, “The Jewish Jordan’s Triple Threat,” which, among other themes, explores his faith on and off the court.

Lawyer Danielle Weiss, one of the founders of Nivcheret HaShabbat. (courtesy)
Lawyer Danielle Weiss, one of the founders of Nivcheret HaShabbat. (courtesy)

Undoubtedly, there are certain exceptional religious sportsmen who obtain certain provisions.

However, as Nivcheret HaShabbat’s Danielle Weiss said in Kipa, a Hebrew website geared to an Israeli Modern Orthodox population, “But what should we do about the sportsmen who aren’t number one, rather ranked fourth? It’s not worth adapting for them as well?”

“I know that there’s challenges along the way, there were many challenges for me along the way,” says Goodman, citing times he had to sit out on important games and practices, or had to leave games before their finish on Friday afternoons. “Every challenge brings you one step closer to reaching your potential.”

Goodman says he was told innumerable times that he, a religiously observant Jew, would never be able to have a career in professional basketball.

“For me it all worked out perfectly, although it was all deemed as ‘impossible,'” says Goodman.

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