Sports? At This Time of Year?

When he played football for Council Rock High School North several years ago, Noah Gross had a difficult decision to make once the High Holidays rolled around. Even though school was closed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, his team still had practice. But being an observant Jew, he decided that it was best to skip the drills and go to services.

On his way to Lubavitch of Bucks County, he passed by the field, and saw helmets bobbing up and down as team members prepared for an upcoming game.

"I was sitting in synagogue, and I was wondering what part of practice they were in — special teams or offense," recalled Noah, now a 17-year-old senior, thinking back to his sophomore year.

After attending private Jewish schools his entire life, the 6-foot-2-inch, 230-pounder seemed a natural fit for football at his first public school, but missing High Holiday services was out of the question, so his team practiced on without him.

From little leagues to the major leagues, Jewish athletes may be forced to make a similar choice during this year's holiday season. The question they ponder: Is it worth skipping a game or practice to attend synagogue, or is it best to honor a sports commitment?

A Balancing Act
Miles Herman knows this type of decision well. The president of Adath Israel in Merion Station, he has two children who play competitive soccer. Twelve-year-old son Zach has an unfortunate holiday schedule ahead of him with a game on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, as well as a game on Yom Kippur. He plans to sit out both.

"They find it really difficult to balance their Jewish identity and values for their commitments to these teams," said Herman. "Not only for Jewish kids, but Christian kids have conflicts with their holidays. Sports has become so agnostic, so Jewish and Christian kids have to make decisions on what events they're going to participate in and what events they're not going to go to."

Though Zach Herman doesn't see the situation as ideal, he said that he understands that religion comes before sports.

"I think it would be more important to go to services," said Zach, a mid-fielder playing for a team at FC Delco Soccer Club in Downingtown. "It doesn't feel that great. I would love to play soccer. My coach is very hard-core. She doesn't like us to miss games, but I think she understands because it's an important holiday."

Back when Gross played for the Council Rock North football team — which scheduled games on Friday nights — the commitment became too much of an interference with his religious practices, so he eventually quit the team.

"It wasn't worth it in the end. I wasn't going to give up Shabbat dinner with my family," said Gross, who now throws a shot put for track because the schedule's more conducive to his religious lifestyle.

At Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, education director Rabbi Nogah Sherman tries to relay to her Hebrew-school students the importance of breaking other commitments to attend holiday services and family parties.

"Since we live in a secular society, we're going to face these issues," said Sherman. "I try to provide them with a foundation to allow them to feel comfortable to say it's okay not to play a sport on a major Jewish holiday."

Since it can be tough for school-aged competitors to make that kind of decision, she noted that she feels it should be done as a family.

"I think it shows a lot of strength, commitment and shows your values by standing up for what you believe in," she said.

Living With the Situation
Like most students in the Philadelphia area, 17-year-old C.J. Scatena has Sept. 13 and Sept. 14 off for Rosh Hashanah — however, his Upper Dublin High School soccer team still has practice on that Friday, the 14th.

Although Scatena said that his coach has given him and other Jewish players permission to attend the practice late to allow them to attend services, Scatena isn't taking any chances.

"If we don't show up to practice, there's going to be a big problem," said the defenseman. "[My coach] doesn't say it out loud, but we all know he holds a little bit of a grudge. We know other people can beat us out."

Scatena said that he believes if he does not go to practice on the 14th, then he won't start the game on the 15th — Jewish holiday or not.

The Upper Dublin School District has a policy of making practices on off-days optional.

"We don't expect our Jewish kids to be there," explained Hope Donnell, athletic director at the Upper Dublin School District. "Frequently, some coaches have a policy that if a player misses a practice the day before a game, they won't start that game. But in a case where a kid is observing a religious holiday, that rule is not in effect."

Upper Dublin soccer coach Richard Schmidt did not return calls for comment.

But Scatena said that he isn't worried about the scheduling conflict.

"I'm not going to complain about it," he said. "It comes with it when you sign up."