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Forcing Jewish school to forfeit or play on Sabbath is a small-minded decision: No basketball for you!

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Robert M. Beren kids
A younger generation of Robert M. Beren Academy kids practices basketball. Courtesy of Robert M. Beren Academy
Chris Cole
Robert M. Beren kids
Sandy Koufax
News_Chris Baldwin_managing editor_arms crossed

When Sandy Koufax refused to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series on Yom Kippur, he became a hero far beyond sports. And he still was able to win the World Series.

Forty seven years later when the Robert M. Beren Academy boys basketball team refuses to play on the Sabbath, it will not get anything but the premature end of a dream season.

And you thought sports and society have come a long way?

The Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools' decision to reject the small Houston Orthodox Jewish day school's appeal to reschedule its 2A state semifinal so it will not be played during the Sabbath reeks of small-minded, rigid thinking. By refusing to bend a little to accommodate the religious beliefs of one of its few Jewish schools, TAPPS is missing a great teachable moment and instead harming a bunch of kids who love hoops.

 Playing on the Sabbath is out of the question for this school and these kids. 

And happen to be devout.

"We're talking about kids who are from top to bottom, great kids," Michael Wadler, a Robert M. Beren parent tells CultureMap. "Not even good kids. Great kids.

"They wear their yarmulkes on the court."

Playing on the Sabbath is out of the question for this school and these kids. When Beren officials received word on Monday that their appeal to move a Friday night semifinal from 9 p.m. to back before sundown and the start of Sabbath was rejected, there was no hesitation. Beren wasn't going to play in the game.

As much as it loves this team, religion — the very principles of the school — comes first.

If anyone should understand this, it's TAPPS. This is a governing body that expressly forbids any games from being played on Sundays, the Christian day of worship that the overwhelming majority of its members observe, in its bylaws.

This is one aspect of a story that's quickly gone national — Robert M. Beren's story was in the New York Times before it made the Houston Chronicle — that has been largely unreported. TAPPS already makes an accommodation for religious observance under its bedrock rules. Why not show the same respect to another religion?

Would it be a pain to move the time of a semifinal and the final as well (the Sabbath runs from sundown Fridays to sundown Saturdays and the championship game is scheduled for Saturday afternoon)? Sure. But just think of the teaching moment it offers.

Just think of the impact of showing a bunch of high schoolers that doing the right thing, that going out of your way to help your fellow man, matters. Isn't this what school officials are supposed to do? To put what's right and fair first?

Instead TAPPs clings rigidly to its schedule, with association director Edd Burelson emailing Beren basketball coach Chris Cole that the Orthodox Jewish school was made to understand that state tournaments were held on Fridays and Saturdays when it entered the voluntary association. We told you this could happen.

Really? That's the stance of a bunch of professional educators?

The Dream

 Isn't this what school officials are supposed to do? To put what's right and fair first? 

These are the state semifinals. These kids are having a dream season, pretty much a Hoosiers season in yarmulkes. If you want to be honest, no one at Beren really thought this could ever happen. Outside of Cole, no one ever imagined them ever being this good.

Robert M. Beren Academy is near the bottom of 2A in terms of enrollment size. The academy has fewer than 300 students from Pre-K through 12th grade. It has 67 high school students. Larger 2A schools have 120 high school students.

But with a small group of kids who have been playing basketball together since grade school, everything's come together for Beren this season. Take its state quarterfinal. After jumping out to a big early lead over Our Lady of the Hills Catholic High School, Beren saw the game tied at 30 at the half.

So what did Cole's team do?

It stormed out of the locker room and scored the first 17 points of the second half, rolling to a 27-point win.

Beren's never seen a basketball team quite like this. It might never see one like it again.

"It's beyond their wildest dreams," Cole told the JTA about his players, earlier in the playoff run. "The community is very supportive."

How supportive? Wadler, the parent who reached out to CultureMap, doesn't even have a son on the team. He just has a kid in the school. No matter. Everyone involved with Beren loves these unexpected hoop heroes.

Except, apparently, the governing body they play under.

Where's the compassion? Where's the realization that this is a unique circumstance that deserves an exception? Where is the understanding and tolerance for another's beliefs?

If something doesn't change in the next few days, if the state semifinal is not moved to earlier in the day Friday and Beren cannot play in the game (the team its beat by 27 has already been informed it is taking Beren's place in the semifinal), Cole's players will be held up as examples of kids who stuck to their beliefs. Even though it cost them their Hoosiers season.

The national attention will only intensify. They'll be compared to Koufax (who wasn't nearly as devout as these players) and other icons who refused to forgo their beliefs even when it hurt.

That's not what they want though. They just want to play basketball.

Surely, there is a way to make this happen.

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