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Searching for balance between religion, sports

Young Jewish girl’s gymnastics dream conflicts with faith’s banning of competition on Sabbath

- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2011

NEWARK, N.J. | When 7-year-old Amalya Knapp took the beam at the New Jersey state gymnastics finals last month, her excellent performance symbolized a far more complicated balancing act.

Although she would have ranked fifth in her age group, eligible for a medal, her individual scores were discounted. She was unable to compete on a Saturday because of her Orthodox Jewish family's observance of the Sabbath.

"I was upset," Amalya said, "but my mother told me there are decisions you have to make."

USA Gymnastics made an effort to accommodate her and let her compete the next day, Sunday, Feb. 13, and permitted her scores to factor into her team's overall rankings.

But the national governing body held that because she hadn't competed at the same time as girls of her skill level and age group, her scores — 9.7 on vault, 9.575 floor, 9.5 beam and 8.75 bars — would not count toward individual medals or rankings.

The news disappointed the second-grader, a member of the US Gym team of the United States Gymnastics Development Center in Leonia, N.J. She had placed first in the all-around category in five previous competitions.

"She tried so hard, and practiced for months, and really put in her all, but just couldn't get that final award for her efforts," said Chavie Knapp, Amalya's mother. Mrs. Knapp emphasized that her family appreciated USA Gymnastics' efforts to discuss the issue with them and to try to reach a compromise.

"I wasn't bitter and wasn't angry and worked with the organization and tried to work within the system," Mrs. Knapp said.

Mrs. Knapp said she and her husband encourage Amalya to engage in the sports and activities she loves, including ice skating lessons and playing for a Jewish youth soccer league that never practices or competes on Saturdays.

If she had to choose again between competing or observing the Sabbath, she said, "I would do the religion things."

She isn't the only young athlete faced with reconciling her passion for sports with religious obligation. Experts say the issue arises in all faiths, in nearly every sport, and at all levels of competition.

Last month, a standout Iowa high school wrestler, Joel Northrup, refused to compete against a girl in the first round of the state tournament, citing his Pentecostal religious beliefs against contact sports involving men and women. His position caused him to relinquish any championship hopes.

One of the most memorable instances of an athlete embracing religion over team duty was the refusal of Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series. Mr. Koufax was observing Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and atonement considered the holiest date of the Jewish calendar.

It was Mr. Koufax's story that Amalya's parents chose to explain to her that the Sabbath — for which observant Jews abstain from working from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday always would take precedence over the sport she loves.

Mrs. Knapp said Amalya, who attends school at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, was disappointed to miss her first state finals competition in a sport she had loved since she was a toddler. She practices up to 12 hours a week and dreams of competing in the Olympics one day.

"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."

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