Searching for balance between religion, sports
“We had to try to help her understand how we really feel strongly that she can be a great gymnast and still be a committed Orthodox Jew,” Mrs. Knapp said. “We want her to be able to combine the love that she has for both of those things into an appreciation for both and not a resentment of either.”
A spokeswoman for USA Gymnastics, Leslie King, said the organization does its best to provide reasonable alternatives to athletes who face scheduling conflicts for religious or other reasons, when possible.
“USA Gymnastics is sensitive to these issues and will continue in its efforts to provide reasonable options to athletes under appropriate circumstances,” Miss King said in an e-mail.
Assemblyman Gary Schaer, a Democrat and the only Orthodox Jewish member of New Jersey’s Legislature, wrote to USA Gymnastics that its policies don’t go far enough to accommodate athletes from all religious and racial backgrounds.
“I am sure you would agree about the critical importance in a child’s life of both religious observance and athletic competition and that one should not come at the detriment of the other,” he wrote.
Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner of Wyncote, Pa., who competed for Arizona State University in the 1960s and held a national title in archery, is a Conservative Jew who observes the Sabbath.
College-level competition is rare for a Sabbath-observant Jew, he said.
“In a nutshell, you can participate in sports, you can enjoy it, you can excel, but the way the world runs, you’re not going to be in any competitions,” he said. “You can’t be in any sport that has competitions on the Sabbath, and not just games, but also workouts and practices on the Sabbath or holidays; that means you’re not eligible for a football scholarship.”
He said he encourages young observant Jews to engage in sports for the training and self-discipline it teaches, but knowing they may not reach competition levels. He teaches sports and other activities at Jewish summer camps, where children play games on Saturday, but scores aren’t kept, to observe Sabbath rules against competing.
Jeffrey S. Gurock, a professor at New York’s Yeshiva University and author of the book “Judaism’s Encounter With American Sports,” said Orthodox Jewish athletes or religiously observant athletes of other faiths can only reach a certain competitive level before running into conflicts.
“Can you be fully observant Jew and compete and also observe the Sabbath? The answer is no,” Mr. Gurock said. “America is making it easier, but in the end, if you’re an Orthodox Jew, your religion will trump the sport, and if you want to be fully observant, you’re only going to rise so far unless you can devote 365 days to your sport.”
Other major sporting events have been postponed, however, for religious considerations, Mr. Gurock said. It is the reason major sporting events are rarely broadcast on Christmas Eve or that ESPN and Major League Baseball agreed, after complaints from die-hard Jewish baseball fans, to switch the starting time of a Yankees-Red Sox game on Sept. 27, 2009, so it wouldn’t conflict with the beginning of Yom Kippur.
“Sports is the metaphor, but the real story is how do you live and integrate into American culture and maintain your own tradition?” Mr. Gurock said. “It’s a Jewish story, a Muslim story, a Mormon story.”