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Shabbat conflict sends Beren Academy hoops squad to the sidelines

Chris Cole, coach of the boys basketball team at the Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston, offering up some strategy for his squad. (Samantha Steinberg)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Chris Cole, the coach of the boys’ basketball team at the Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston, says his squad is peaking coming off its 27-point victory in the state tournament quarterfinals.

Apparently the Stars, who with a record of 24-5 are having the best season in school history, won’t be able to show off their game in the rest of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools 2A tournament.

The semifinals are being held on Friday night and the finals on Saturday afternoon, conflicting with the Jewish Sabbath, and Beren’s appeal to change the starting times  was rejected Monday by the association. Beren thus is forced to forfeit.

Beren, an Orthodox Jewish day school with 67 students in its upper school, had asked the association to adjust the start time of Friday’s game to earlier in the afternoon and, if necessary, begin the championship game on Saturday evening.

The quarterfinals game against Our Lady of the Hills Catholic High School of Kerrville on Feb. 24 had been played earlier than scheduled to accommodate Beren, and the other three semifinalists in the 2A category — schools with enrollments of 55 to 120 students — reportedly were willing to follow suit.

“Just as TAPPS doesn’t schedule games on Sunday in deference to Christian teams, we expected that as a Jewish team, there would be grounds for a scheduling change,” Beren’s head of school, Rabbi Harry Sinoff, told JTA.

But TAPPS would not acquiesce, prompting Beren to withdraw from the competition. On Monday, TAPPS changed the tournament bracket on its website, crediting the Kerrville team with the victory and advancing Our Lady of the Hills Catholic to the semifinals against Dallas Covenant on Friday.

TAPPS director Edd Burleson, who declined to respond to inquiries from JTA, told The New York Times that changing the scheduling for Beren would create problems for other teams.

“When Beren’s joined years ago, we advised them that the Sabbath would present them with a problem with the finals,” Burleson said. “In the past, TAPPS has held firmly to their rules because if schedules are changed for these schools, it’s hard for other schools.”

Conflicts surrounding high school sports or academic competitions and Sabbath observance that have cropped up periodically over the years often have been resolved to the satisfaction of Jewish teams.

Earlier this month, the wrestling team from the Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago, like Beren’s a Modern Orthodox day school, captured a regional wrestling title by winning a match originally scheduled for a Saturday afternoon. Ida Crown’s coach had successfully petitioned the Illinois High School Association to have the match delayed until after sunset.

In 2009, a mock trial club from the Modern Orthodox Maimonides School in suburban Boston reached the national championships in Atlanta only to discover the competition was scheduled for a Saturday. The organizers initially balked at a request to change the schedule, but the school enlisted a prominent Washington attorney and persuaded the Justice Department to write a letter on its behalf.

Two days before the competition, the mock trial group reversed its position, permitting Maimonides to schedule part of the competition on Thursday.

For its part, Beren has managed to bring considerable outside pressure to bear on TAPPS.

Articles about the Sabbath conflict were published this week in The New York Times and the Houston Chronicle, as well as on the ESPN website. The local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League weighed in, sending a letter to TAPPS urging the association to accommodate Beren.

“Many of the private and parochial schools with TAPPS membership are faith-based institutions where religious values are a significant part of the education process and the lives of students who attend,” Martin Cominsky, ADL’s Southwest Regional director, said in a statement Monday. “We hope TAPPS officials and board members will keep that in mind when looking at future game schedules, and adjust policies to be flexible when a school’s games conflict with students’ religious obligations.”

But things don’t always work out: In 2010, a yeshiva in Washington State forfeited a girls’ basketball game in the state tournament that fell on a Jewish fast day after officials declined a request to reschedule the game.

Beren continues to hold out hope that TAPPS will reconsider and permit the team to play. Sinoff said an informal community task force has been working behind the scenes to reach an accord.

And the basketball team, which had never before competed in a state championship, launched a Facebook page and a Twitter campaign to rally support.

“We’ve had a really good year,” Cole said. “We’re always hopeful, obviously, but we’re really playing our best basketball.”