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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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Orthodox hoops team reaches Texas finals

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FORT WORTH, Texas — In Texas, they say, high school athletics are a religion. But the saying took on a new meaning earlier this month.

The Robert M. Beren Academy, a small modern Orthodox school in Houston, captured national headlines during the week. Its boys basketball team earned a berth in the state tournament 2A semifinals, but would have been forced to forfeit because the games coincided with Shabbat.

An 11th-hour legal challenge convinced the tournament organizer, the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, or TAPPS, to accommodate the team. And on Friday, March 2, hours before the Sabbath was to begin, Nolan Catholic High School was the place to be for Houston Jews who had made the four-hour trip to cheer on their boys.

Beren reached the finals on Saturday night but lost, 46-42, to Abilene Christian High School. But even after coming up short, the game’s larger significance didn’t appear lost on the players. For an hour after the final whistle, fans, friends and family lingered in the gym to support the players.

“I am proud to be here,” said Beren guard Isaac Mirwis. “It’s more than just basketball. It’s about being true to who you are.”

That would seem to be the lesson of the whole episode, which saw a little-known Jewish school in Texas cast into the national spotlight for standing firm on its refusal to violate its religious principles for the sake of a basketball game. After a refusal by TAPPS to accede to Beren’s request to reschedule the games, the New York Times, ESPN and other national news outlets picked up the story, which was also much discussed on social networks.

After a second request to TAPPS was denied, it looked like Beren was going to have to forfeit. Playing on Shabbat was never considered.

“Our priorities were never shaky,” said coach Chris Cole, who is not Jewish but has coached the Beren team for 10 years. “I learned very quickly that there is no compromise as far as upholding the religious faith.”

On the morning of March 1, several Beren players and parents filed a civil rights motion in federal court accusing TAPPS of religious discrimination and asking for a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction. Before a judge had time to rule on the matter, TAPPS acquiesced and said it would reschedule the games.

“The experience gave us the opportunity to show how much we care about religion,” said senior Isaac Buchine. “The way you make something special is to sacrifice something that is much greater for it.”

With the scheduling victory, it was time for basketball, and the atmosphere in the Nolan Catholic gym was electric for the Friday afternoon semifinal game. Beren students who had been allowed to leave school early, families with kids, elderly couples, local basketball fans and rabbis crowded the bleachers. One young fan held a sign that read, “Be a mensch.”

Beren also got some support from an unexpected source – members of the Burton Adventist Academy soccer team showed up to cheer them on. Burton had its own beef with TAPPS a few years before over a Saturday soccer game that TAPPS had declined to reschedule.

“The doors were blown wide off,” said Kevin Klein, the Burton coach, of Beren’s earning the right to compete. “Sabbath keepers across Texas don’t have to fear not being able to play.”

Dallas Covenant proved little challenge in the semifinals for the Stars. Led by junior Zach Yoshor, the Stars breezed to a 58-46 victory and a spot in the Saturday-night final.

“We kind of blocked everything out and focused on playing basketball,” Yoshor said.

After the game, the Stars returned to their hotel to prepare for the final and observe the Sabbath, with special services hosted by the Dallas Jewish community. The next night, with the game set for 8 p.m., not long after Shabbat ended, the team didn’t arrive until only minutes before tipoff.

In the locker room, Cole tried to fire up his players.

“Now there are no regrets,” he told them. “You are representing your school, your family and your faith. Make everybody proud.”

After a short prayer, the game began. It was a sloppy one for the Stars, with turnovers and easy shots missed. Beren seemed unable to cope with Abilene’s defence.

Despite trailing through much of the first half, Beren managed to forge a 19-19 tie shortly before halftime. But a quick rally to start the second half pushed Abilene ahead for good. After the game the Beren players were left in tears, but they had inspired a community. 

Robert Beren, the school’s namesake, recognized the point wasn’t the outcome of a basketball game.

“Win or lose,” Beren said, “this whole experience was a victory for everyone.”

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