Beyond the Boxscore

Inside Beren Academy: Jewish school urged parents not to sue to keep dream season alive, now worries in triumph

Inside Beren Academy: Jewish school urged parents not to sue to keep dream season alive, now worries in triumph

Robert M. Beren kids
The Robert M. Beren Academy has 35 boys in its high school. Twenty five of them are involved in the varsity or junior varsity basketball team. The love of hoops tends to catch on early in this small school community. Courtesy of Robert M. Beren Academy
Beren Academy chest bump
Many of the players on Beren's varsity team have been playing together since grade school. It's a tight-knit group. Courtesy of Robert M. Beren Academy
Beren Academy free throw
Robert M. Beren Academy has never looked at itself as a basketball school. Courtesy of Robert M. Beren Academy
Robert M. Beren kids
Beren Academy chest bump
Beren Academy free throw

The Robert M. Beren Academy is not easy to find and it's harder to get into. Two streets lead to this small Orthodox Jewish day school on the edge of Meyerland and both dead end at imposing chain-link gates. A sign informs you that you're under video surveillance.

To gain entrance, you'll need to be buzzed in.

Beren is not used to having the world at its door. It's certainly never held a press conference for its basketball team as it did Thursday afternoon. It never felt the need to have a "closed practice" either.

All that changed when this little school in Houston found itself caught up in a controversy that went national, and then international. And now, even when it seems like Beren's clearly won, with the stubbornly ignorant Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) finally having ceded to specter of a lawsuit after refusing to cede to common sense and religious tolerance, academy officials worry about what it all means.

About the lessons that are being imparted.

 "We don't want the kids to think basketball is more important than it is," Rick Guttman says. "This is a basketball game. It's not an NBA tournament." 

Sure, Beren's excellent high school basketball team gets the chance to finish its dream season, with TAPPS finally begrudgingly rescheduling the state semifinal to 2 p.m. Friday, outside of the Sabbath. Sure, coach Chris Cole's team no longer has to forfeit what his player worked so hard for in order to stay true to their faith.

But . . . What do you mean, but? What could be the but?

These high schoolers are heroes in many ways. They stood up for what's right, for what a board of educators at TAPPS somehow could not see. They stayed strong and united for the Sabbath, showed great grace and prevailed. Just imagine if they win the state championship now, if they overcome the craziness of this week, of having less than 24 hours to prepare for their semifinal once they're declared back in the game.

Every daytime talk show host in America will want to book the Beren Stars next week.

But . . .

"We don't want the kids to think basketball is more important than it is," Rick Guttman, vice president of facilities at the 271 total student (that's the complete Pre-K through high school enrollment) school, tells CultureMap. "This is a basketball game. It's not an NBA tournament.

"Basketball is a very small part of what we're about."

This is the extremely proud parent of one of the players talking. Guttman's son Ahrony plays on the team and Guttman's joy in this group of kids comes through when he talks about what a "team effort" this unexpected 23-5 season has been. No one (except maybe TAPPS) would begrudge these kids their rightful chance to play in the 2A final four.

Still, even as TAPPS refused to budge, Beren Academy officials urged the parents of the players not to sue to play at a time that didn't conflict with the Sabbath.

"The parents did pursue this on their own," says Guttman, who wasn't one of the parents involved in the lawsuit. "The school board recommended to not pursue legal action.

"Of course, parents have the right to do what they feel needs to be done for their children and what they feel comfortable with."

The parents involved in the lawsuit seemed to wait for the last possible moment to put it together. A copy wasn't sent over to the TAPPS offices until Thursday morning, a day before game day, after two appeals to reschedule were rejected by TAPPS.

 Even when the whole world seems like it wants to get in and celebrate with you — when SportsCenter and the New York Times are showing you equal mad love — you're not expected to get too crazy. 

Guttman still cannot quite seem to believe that more reasonable minds didn't prevail at TAPPS, an organization overwhelmingly made up of Christian schools (Beren is one of two Jewish schools out of 220 teams) that expressively forbids playing games on Sundays, the Christian day of worship, in its bylaws.

"TAPPS could have been held up around the country as a sports organization that does things right," Guttman says.

Yet, Beren officials still struggled with the idea of forcing TAPPS to do the right thing.

When the news that its semifinal would be rescheduled lasered around the school Thursday and several of the players took to the hallways screaming with pure joy, a few teachers came out and urged them to keep it down. That's Beren. It's a serious place of learning and faith.

Even when the whole world seems like it wants to get in and celebrate with you — even when SportsCenter and the New York Times are showing you equal mad love — you're not expected to get too crazy.

One glance in at Cole's closed practice showed the coach sitting on a chair talking as his players gathered around him in a semicircle. Cole looked as much like a professor as a basketball coach.

The Game

None of this means that Beren loves its basketball team any less. The school's gym may be nice but modest, with the separate silver building a short walk across the pavement chalk drawings of elementary schoolers from the school itself. Cole's team may share the gym with five or six other teams.

But make no mistake, it's very much the land of hoop dreams.

Guttman estimates that there are 35 high school boys at Beren and that 25 of them are involved with the basketball program, varsity or junior varsity. "It's one of the few extracurricular sports we have," Guttman says.

 Who'd have ever dreamed that there'd be a day when they'd need a media sign-up sheet in the tiny school office? 

When co-captain Isaac Buchine talks about trying to be a good example for the younger kids at Beren, about keeping to your religion even when it's hard, in the press conference, he's not blowing smoke. This school's fallen hard for this Jewish version of a Hoosiers story.

For Zachary Yoshor, a 6-foot-5 junior forward who's probably the star on the team, if any Stars would admit there's a star (Yoshor scored 40 points in the state quarterfinals win). For point guard Isaac Mirwis, who averages 18 points and seven assists. For Yair Miller, Albert Katz, Drayton Ratcliff and Ahrony Guttman.

Yet Rick Guttman can only laugh when asked if he has a roster for the team for a reporter to look at.

"You know I don't think we have anything like that," he says. "It's certainly not online on our website.

"Basketball's not all that important here."

They never expected so many to show up at those gates. Who'd have ever dreamed that there'd be a day when they'd need a media sign-up sheet in the tiny school office?

Beren officials are still not sure what to make of all the attention. No one grabbed at this. Not the parents who argued against suing. Not the ones who did. Their kids just wanted the chance to play the game.

"I still can't believe all this is happening," Guttman says. "I'm extremely proud of how the kids and the school have handled the extra responsibility."

The world is at Beren's gates. Everyone's watching now.