How Competition on the Field Led to Understanding Around the Table

Harry Pell

When Schechter Westchester’s high school was founded in 2001, it was decided that our varsity and junior varsity sports teams would compete in the local New York State public school league. The decision was driven primarily by the high level of competition available playing public schools, coupled with an understanding that at times, scheduling might be a challenge. Regional and state championships are often on Shabbat, and if our teams made it that far and we couldn’t get the games moved, entire shabbatonim would have to be built around the championship games to enable our participation. But that seemed a worthwhile effort if it meant our athletes could compete in many different sports at such a high level.


In the fourteen years since, our teams have done well in many sports. Several times, we have transplanted our Shabbat community of athletes, parents and fans to upstate New York for post-season soccer or baseball. We have yet to win a state championship, although we have come close, and as we could have predicted, our students have had many special Shabbat experiences as a result.


What we didn’t anticipate were some of the other blessings and challenges inherent in competing beyond our day school community. Very positively, it has enabled our student athletes to get out of the day school bubble and interact with peers from a wide range of different backgrounds. More challenging have been the isolated but serious incidents of verbal anti-Semitism that our teams have been subject to over the years. Fortunately, even with these incidents, there have been positive outcomes.


Most recently, a few years ago as our varsity baseball team was competing against a local, inner-city school, two unmistakable words were heard on the ballfield. Heil Hitler. Had an opposing player really just said that?  Was that possible? As the words were repeated, there could be no doubt. Heil Hitler. Heil Hitler. The words echoed.


The game was called, and the opposing coach apologized as he forfeited and pulled his athletes from the field. If his players would say such things, particularly against a Jewish team, then even in his opinion they didn’t deserve to complete the game. It was a painful and confusing moment for our student athletes, and the incident could have ended there, but thankfully, it didn’t.


About a week later, following a series of apologies and coordination calls, a visit was arranged. The opposing team, made up almost entirely of African-American and Hispanic students, would visit Schechter Westchester for a joint discussion, as well as a history lesson about the Holocaust. The meeting was an eye-opener for our students. The opposing players knew little about the Holocaust and even less about who Adolf Hitler was. What they did know was the feeling of being victims of hate speech.


As our Jewish students listened to African-American students talk about the pain of being called “nigger,” and as all of the students together committed to honoring one another through their speech, a bridge of understanding was built. I can’t say for certain whether any lifelong friendships were born that day, but I am not sure that matters. What I am certain about is that not a single student walked out of there without having been moved deeply by the interaction.

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HaYidion Athletics Winter 2015
Winter 2015