Jews & Sports

from Big Mo's Sports Desk

"Rabbi Basketball"

by Rabbi Yisrael Haber


At the end of August 1972, we moved to Dallas where I had obtained the position of assistant principal at the "Akiba Academy" Hebrew Day School. I was interested in trying to make Akiba as competitive as possible with other private schools in the area. Not surprisingly, I learned that may Jewish parents in sports-minded Dallas did not have their youngsters attend the Jewish day school solely due to the lack of a sophisticated sports program. Our curriculum already included a fine physical education program along with an eight hour day, and a superior dual curriculum. But we certainly weren't one of those schools that offered a little bit of academics in between sports activities.

Nevertheless, if it was sports that would give a Jewish child a chance to learn about his sacred heritage, then sports it would be. I have been an avid sports fan all my life, so it was fine with me.

Having coached junior high school basketball, the first thing I decided to do was to enter our school into a local Dallas junior high school league. The schedule began January 14, 1973. It was no easy task establishing a cohesive unit with young boys who hadn't played basketball as a team before, or even been part of any organized sports league.

I also made it clear that it was mandatory for our players to wear yarmulkes at all times. One boy said he would feel ashamed to wear his in front of non-Jewish fans and threatened not to remain with the team. I told him how I appreciated that he was a pretty good player and that losing him would adversely affect our chances, but to compromise would lead to even worse consequences and there is no way I would do that. So he quit.

By the second game, he had already rejoined the team with his yarmulke securely in place. Was he influenced by my words of wisdom and principle? Perhaps. It's more likely that a swisher at the buzzer for an exciting one-point victory in the season opener with hundreds of people coming to watch Jewish boys wearing skullcaps while playing ball and then cheering their victory helped change his mind.

With the coaching assistance of another rabbi on the staff, we won seven out of nine games - seven games more than anybody thought we would win. The Texas Jewish Post featured stories and pictures after every game of the Akiba Academy team.

In the program distributed to guests at the league's awards night which featured Roger Staubach of the World Champion Dallas Cowboys as its guest speaker, it noted that

"...always an exciting league, it was doubly so that year with the addition of the Akiba Academy team and their rabid fans. The team was superbly coached by Rabbi Haber and Rabbi Lazarus. Rabbis are not often found near basketball courts and if in attendance they are usually watching, but Rabbis Haber and Lazarus did an outstanding job coaching its team to an outstanding season."

Soon after, I received a congratulatory note from the local athletic director, a former head coach of Rutgers University basketball team. It began with the salutation: To Rabbi Haber - Basketball mentor, Akiba Academy..."

All the favorable publicity accomplished the intended result Within two weeks, nine Jewish families came to check out Akiba for their children's schooling. During the next few months more people inquired about the academy for the coming year's registration than ever before. The success of the school's sports program led to many Jewish youngsters learning Chumash and Talmud, and about Jewish laws and holidays.


(Excerpted from, A Rabbi's Northern Adventures: from Alaska to the Golan Heights)

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