More Than Just a Game
Typically as educators we focus upon what we can teach our students, but occasionally it is our students who end up teaching us the biggest lessons of all. The Beren Stars shone bright that day in 2012 when we proudly declared that we would not play in the TAPPS basketball semifinal championship game that would fall on Shabbat.
Our school, the Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston, embodies an Orthodox outlook that adheres to standards of academic excellence and exemplary moral conduct as it prepares its students to become self-confident, compassionate, practicing Jews as well as committed citizens and lifelong learners. It is our goal to be as welcoming and inclusive to our community, and we pride ourselves for catering to a diverse population of Jewish families who align with our mission and commitment to Jewish education.
In 2012, our school was admittedly small, with roughly 262 students from 18 months through to 12th grade. Our high school had a mere 61 students, but we managed to form a basketball program that was a source of camaraderie and inspiration. The Beren Stars were, and continue to be, a vessel for students and their families to feel our strong and unique sense of community. We gather on the bleachers on a regular basis to cheer on numerous teams that have achieved remarkable results considering the small student body.
2012 was to be a special season for our Beren Stars for many reasons. The varsity boys basketball team had a stellar season, winning seven of their eight regular season TAPPS 2A basketball games. TAPPS, The Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, is a league comprised mostly of faith-based schools like RMBA. The Stars began their playoff march towards the TAPPS state championship and were scheduled to play against Hill Country Christian School for the district title on a Saturday. The opposing team graciously agreed to change the time of the game to accommodate our Shabbat observance. The Stars triumphed and were set to play Kerrville Our Lady of the Hills the following Friday evening and again, our opponents readily agreed to reschedule. We had a great game and were victorious and were now headed to the state championship semifinals, our greatest season to date!
The original semifinal game was scheduled for a Friday evening. Our opponents, Dallas Covenant Christian School agreed to play the game on Friday afternoon. RMBA submitted the paperwork to TAPPS to request the game time to be moved, a procedure perceived as a mere formality. However, on the Monday prior to the game, we were informed that the game could not be moved and we would therefore forfeit the game if we did not play. Following a deluge of support for RMBA after the story broke nationally on major media outlets such as CNN and the New York Times, the TAPPS governing body was still firm on their decision not to alter the game time.
For us, the story could have ended here. Our administration, players and families had accepted the fact that their playoff dreams were no longer alive. When then head of school Rabbi Harry Sinoff was asked at a press interview what we would be doing instead of playing basketball that Friday night, the answer was simple, “Celebrating Shabbat!” At that moment our pride in the team for its athletic accomplishment had been eclipsed by our pride for its commitment to Torah. The team coach Chris Cole, an exemplary leader who is not Jewish, shared, “When I watched how happy those boys were not to play, how dedicated they were to something greater than themselves, … it made me want to be more religious; it made me want to give my kids something they could hold onto as well.”
We were proudly sharing with the world that our commitment to our religious beliefs was and still is unwavering. Naturally, we were disappointed with the outcome. But if some had seen this as a test of our faith, then they were grossly mistaken as there was simply no question where we stood. As player Isaac Buchine eloquently put it, “If we give up this opportunity for our religion, it just shows how much we deeply care for it.” This is a powerful message and illustrates the passion our students have for Judaism, a goal that we the administration at RMBA strive to achieve for on a daily basis.
After much scrutiny by the media and the threat of a potential lawsuit, the TAPPS governing body relented and agreed to move the game time. Charged by the support of the community and in some ways the world, our team went on to win a thrilling game and were headed to the championship finals, a game that was then quickly rescheduled so as not to be played on Shabbat. People across the globe had caught on to this remarkable story of the little engine that could and with all eyes upon us, we entered the final game as underdogs yet again. Although we played admirably and left it all on the court, we narrowly lost. But our players had already been declared winners days before when they proudly stood together and declared their commitment to their Jewish faith to be more important than just a game. Aaron Hakakian, another player on the team, stated, “Our trophy is in our heads and in our hearts.”
Despite not returning with the state title in hand, the legacy of what the Beren Stars achieved that year lives on. It is Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name that drives our school and its remarkable students. It is important to always remember what you believe in and stand for in the face of adversity.
As North American Jewish day school leaders, we naturally want to grow our student enrollment, increase our revenue and thereby successfully impacting the bottom line. We may face challenges unique to our markets that will continue to impact and test our vitality. But in the face of this adversity I encourage you to remain firm and true to your core values and ideals. Know who you are as a school and what you aim to achieve, and believe in this passionately.
I can tell you with conviction that Robert M. Beren Academy provides an integrated Orthodox Jewish and college preparatory education in an atmosphere of excellence. We are committed to Torah and its ethical and moral precepts and to the Jewish people. We are devoted to the development of a spiritual bond with the Land and State of Israel. We are dedicated to our American heritage and achievement in contemporary society. We welcome with open arms students and families who believe in our mission. I am proud to stand with each of you, as fellow leaders and partners to provide excellent Jewish day school education while we ensure Jewish continuity for generations to come.