When Game Day Falls on Shabbos


shabbos-tableThe Record reports: Amalya Knapp will be performing at a New Jersey State gymnastics competition today, finally getting to show off the skills she honed while training up to 12 hours a week over the last year.

But regardless of how well the 7-year-old Teaneck girl does on the floor, bars, beam or vault routines, her scores won’t count toward any individual titles or rankings.

The girls in her age group competed Saturday afternoon while Knapp and her family observed the Jewish Sabbath, a day of rest.

The back story

The intersection of the Sabbath and sports has often produced a quandary for Jewish athletes. Perhaps most famously, Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax refused to take the mound for Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.

Junior figure skater Dalia Rivkin of Teaneck, who won the title of U.S. juvenile ladies figure skating champion in December, does not compete on the Sabbath.

And the issue is not confined to athletes, of course. In 2005, in a story that drew national attention, a mock trial team from Teaneck’s Torah Academy of Bergen County was nearly prevented from competing for a national title because the competition was on Saturday, before organizers voted to change the schedule under pressure.

While religious observance requires sacrifices, it can also put parents and their children in a difficult position, balancing the demands of their faith with the vagaries of a team’s schedule.

Orthodox Jewish families, in particular, must navigate the restrictions of the Sabbath, which takes place from Friday at sundown to Saturday evening.

A second-grader at the Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, Amalya has weeknights packed with soccer practice, piano lessons, and figure skating classes, but she excels at gymnastics, spending three hours, three nights a week – and sometimes Sundays – at the United States Gymnastics Development Center in Leonia.

So when she found out the competition would conflict with the Sabbath, she came home “totally devastated,” her mother, Chavie Knapp, said.

“Her coaches tried really hard to at least have her compete on Sunday, but I really would have liked to see her be accommodated, if not this year, then ultimately next year,” Amalya’s mother said.

Coaches at the gym asked the New Jersey chapter of USA Gymnastics to make an exception for Amalya, who came in first in five of the nine competitions she participated in over the last year.

But the organization was willing only to let her perform in all four events Sunday, with no prospect of placing individually. If her scores are high enough, however, they’ll be added to the team’s overall score, and she could ultimately help them secure a win, said one of the coaches, Ana Nunes.

“We’ve faced this before, and sometimes the athletes can’t compete at all,” Nunes said. “It depends on everyone’s availability.”

The New Jersey chapter of USA Gymnastics did not return a call seeking comment, but Leslie King, a spokeswoman for the national organization, said organizers schedule events based on the most convenient times for athletes.

“We certainly understand how these conflicts can affect an athlete’s participation and do our best to provide alternate opportunities, when possible,” King said.

Teaneck resident Reshi Isaacs encountered the same problem as Knapp when her daughter, Olianna, couldn’t compete for a gymnastics medal in a state meet years ago.

“She was very disappointed when she didn’t get that award,” Isaacs said. “She was maybe 8. It’s sad.”

In some communities with sizable Orthodox Jewish populations, such as Teaneck and Englewood, leagues often make accommodations for religious reasons.

Teaneck has two baseball leagues, for instance. The Teaneck Southern Baseball League typically has games on Saturdays; the Teaneck Baseball Organization plays its games on Sunday.

“Other towns might have a Little League or youth sports league, but they play on Saturday,” said Sue Feuerstein, the TBO’s director of operations. “We’re all spoiled living in Teaneck.”

The league, which is largely made up of Orthodox Jewish players, also makes sure to ask whether any players go to church on Sundays. Those players are placed on teams that do not play games in the morning to accommodate their schedules as well.

“It’s difficult for our travel teams when we play other towns,” Feuerstein said. “Some are very accommodating, and some view Friday nights and Saturday as baseball time.”

The Teaneck Junior Soccer League also does not compete on Saturdays.

But sports that are less popular or involve individual competitions – ice hockey, gymnastics, tennis – can be more of a challenge.

Teaneck resident Steven Pudell and his 14-year-old son, Akiva, have had to search for teams in the New Jersey Youth Hockey League that play at least some of their games on Sundays and are willing to add a player who will miss a number of games.

This year, Akiva’s playing for a Newark team and will have missed about a third of the games by season’s end.

“Certain teams said, ‘We need a full commitment,’ ” his father said. “I would say that there are very few observant Jewish players in the hockey league.”

Last year, Pudell and his son drove to a hockey tournament in Delaware on Friday afternoon, stayed in the local Chabad house and rushed to the rink on Saturday night, arriving a few minutes late for the game.

For Amalya, the prospect of not winning an individual title is still hard to swallow, but after talking to her parents and coaches, she’s less upset than she was last week.

“At first, I was really upset because I felt like I worked really hard and I was the only one not going,” Amalya said Thursday. “But I feel better about it, and I’m gonna go out there and do my best on Sunday.”

Rabbi Chaim Poupko of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, the Orthodox synagogue the Knapps attend, said Amalya’s parents were teaching her an “extremely powerful lesson about her faith.”

“In competitive sports, there are times when we can’t compete,” he said. “Just as there is a commitment towards extracurricular activities, there is a commitment to God and his Torah. That said, we certainly encourage and support our children to get involved in whatever they can, and I think we need to continue to dialogue to find a way that observant Jews can compete … if we can continue the conversation, we’ll be met with more understanding.”



  1. Not downplaying shmiras Shabbos here, though ytiddishkeit is about “kedoshim tihu. I just think people sort of forget that when allowing their daughters to compete in public dressed as gymnasts dress.