"In the League Together": Religious and Secular Children, Soccer and a Meeting of Identities

Yochai Sharon

Religious and secular children play soccer together. One might think this is obvious and natural. In reality, it is a far from ordinary sight in Israel, given an educational system that tracks religious and secular children into different schools.

Where did it all begin?

Soccer is Israel’s most popular sport. And, as any Israeli child will tell you, soccer is played on Shabbat; that’s just the way things are. This custom is such a given that it appears in songs, “Just wait for Shabbat day, for the moment the whistle is blown…” (“Another Shabbat of Soccer,” Herzl Kabilio), and even in popular comedy routines. Any attempt to move the games to a different day of the week is met with intense opposition, based both on economic factors related to television and radio broadcast times, and on fear that “giving in” on this issue could lead to further unwanted change in the status quo maintained between religious and secular Jews in Israel.


The question of whether games should be held on Shabbat usually arises in the context of discussions related to Shabbat observance. The issue of the sanctity of Shabbat is important, but in this article we will highlight a different important social problem—the exclusion of the religious public from sports. It turns out that religious youth are largely prevented from excelling in sports in Israel. This is the case not only in soccer, but in general: in judo, fencing and swimming, many of the major tournaments are also held on Shabbat, thereby excluding religious competitors. Basketball leagues are an exception to this rule, as games take place during the week, and in fact many religious youth participate.


This religious-secular dispute about playing on Shabbat poses a special challenge for Tzav Pius, an organization dedicated to bridging this divide in Israel. How can it be turned into an opportunity for turning the soccer field into a place of meeting and cooperation, one that would not only provide a solution for Shabbat observers, but would become a space where people can live and develop together beyond labels, stereotypes and separate educational systems?


About twelve years ago, religious journalist Shaul Meislish sought a solution for his son who wanted to play soccer without desecrating the Shabbat. Meislish’s idea was simple: to initiate the establishment of a children’s team that would not play on Shabbat. Meislish contacted Tsav Pius, who agreed to sponsor the initiative, and together they succeeded in convincing the Israel Soccer Association to allow one team to play on weekdays. Thus, the first “Tsav Pius team” was born in the Tubork Club in Netanya.


Today, in the Soccer Association’s children and youth leagues, more than eighty Tsav Pius teams do not play on Shabbat, thereby also making it possible for Shabbat-observing children to play soccer together with secular children.


Challenges Faced by Tsav Pius Soccer Teams

Beyond the challenges of the religious-secular status quo and the deeply engrained Israeli custom of Shabbat soccer games, we also faced an assortment of logistic challenges. These included transporting players on weekdays when parents were working, as opposed to the traditional Shabbat games to which parents drove their children. The burden of transportation fell upon the clubs, which were not always able to take it on. Another difficulty was that soccer fields were not sufficiently illuminated. While Shabbat games are held in daylight, our league’s games are held in the afternoon. Good lighting is a necessity in the winter when it gets dark early.


These challenges notwithstanding, increasing numbers of clubs are opening Tsav Pius teams that play on weekdays. This is a product, on the one hand, of pressure upon club managers to include religious children on their soccer teams, and on the other hand, of positive reactions from families of the secular children—whose Shabbat turns from a day of transporting children to and from soccer games to a day of calm family leisure.


Soccer and Israeli Society—Educational Activities

While playing soccer on Shabbat is a social issue in Israel, no less significant is the unfortunate prevalence of violence on the playing fields—in professional games and in youth soccer as well. We thought that our teams could provide an alternative with regard to this as well, and this was the motivation behind the idea of developing an educational program for members of the Tsav Pius soccer teams. The meeting of secular and religious children creates an opportunity to talk about how children are similar and how they differ, about identities in Israeli society, about friendship, and about values of tolerance and acceptance of the other. In the course of the program, the children learn to use dialogue to solve and manage conflicts, respect for the other (both in the team and on opposing teams), tolerance, and mutual responsibility.


On the assumption that such activities would influence not only the players themselves, but also their family members and friends, thereby having an impact on the entire society, we developed an educational program for the practice sessions of the Tsav Pius teams. The program includes educational sessions on the field and a tournament between participating teams: The players learn lessons about Israeli social reality in its various aspects, they are exposed more deeply to different identities, and they talk about the problems and possible solutions. Another important subject is the common prejudice in the Israeli society in general and in soccer games in particular.


In clubs in which some of the players are Arab children and youth, the national dimension is also included. The educational program relates to both the religious and national dimensions, with an emphasis on Israeli society’s complexity and cultural diversity, and on the challenges of living together.


We realized from the beginning that the significant educational figure in practice is the soccer coach. The program has a professional facilitator on behalf of Tsav Pius, yet we decided that the active participation of the soccer coaches is critical:   When soccer coaches work with children they deal, as in other sports, with issues beyond the game itself, including especially discipline and team building. Therefore, the program was designed in a way that the coach would be involved with the program, while actively assisting the facilitator in its delivery.


What Do the Children and Parents Say?

We asked the children who participated in the program for feedback. It was not particularly surprising that the children noted that they would have preferred to spend their soccer practice—practicing soccer. Nonetheless, most of the children noted that they enjoyed the activities, and gave good grades to the facilitators. Among the parents, nearly all who responded noted that it was important or very important to use the soccer practice sessions to relate to the educational issues.


It was clear from preliminary findings that we needed to find a balance between our desire to create a meaningful program and the impatience of the children and coaches who mostly wanted to play soccer. The original design of more than ten sessions proved too onerous; we cut back to five sessions, once every three weeks. Each session lasts an hour, enabling the coach to use the last half hour for a brief soccer practice.


Learning Values through the Feet

We make use of sports language and tasks to connect the children to the program. Most of the activities include ball games and physical activity, through which educational messages are transmitted experientially. Thus, for example, when players need to decide if a certain value is “not important,” “a little important,” “important” or “very important,” they need to run around one of four cones spread out over the field, and then to kick the ball into the goal. The task is a soccer task, but players need to think about the question asked in order to choose the cone appropriate to them. After their run, players are asked to explain their choice—thereby reducing the chance that they will choose cones randomly. The team coach gives the signal for players to run, and he oversees their performance. He is primarily focused on each player’s success in scoring a goal.


Curriculum: I, You, We

The identity curriculum of the educational program is designed as ever-expanding circles: from personal identity, to group identity, on to national identity. During the first year, the program focuses of issues of personal and group identity, as well as on the issue of sports violence. A group anthem is used to spark a discussion of sport and social values. The anthem is an official song of a professional soccer team; in Israel every soccer team has its own anthem.


During the second year, the program expands to deal with contested issues in Israeli society, and to explore common denominators and shared goals that can be a basis for developing cooperation between different groups.


One program activity, for example, is “love and hate in soccer.” One of the most emotional issues in soccer in general, and particularly in Israel, is the behavior of team fans. Songs sung by fans frequently express their hatred for other teams. A harsh example of this is a song sung by fans of the Maccabi Haifa team: “Hapoel Haifa/ the country’s cancer, Israel’s virus…” and so on. This awful anthem is not, regretfully, out of the ordinary.


Our activity begins with a discussion of the issue of love and hate, while encouraging the children to tell which groups they love and which they hate. In the course of the discussion, it becomes clear that also in this area the group is diverse, with different children being fans of different adult teams.


In the next stage, the children receive examples of hate songs sung by fans, and they are asked to express their opinion of these songs, while relating to their good friends towards whom the hatred is addressed. This situation obviously evokes a shift in attitude toward the language and violence inherent in these songs. It should be noted that after the activity many children emphasize that the hatred in soccer is “not for real” and is limited only to the soccer field. The session concludes with a discussion about the boundaries for the expression of love and hate in sports.


In the third stage, children are presented with fan songs that deal not with hatred but with soccer teams’ different values. These are usually official team songs, whether of Israeli teams or international teams such as Real Madrid and Barcelona (both of which have many fans in Israel). These values relate to uniting around the soccer team, professionalism, decency, freedom, etc.


Finally, the children are asked to make a list of values they would like to express, and together they write an anthem for their own team—which is usually set to a popular Israeli song. It deserves mention that in a number of groups the children claimed that controversial values, such as supremacy or victory over the opposing team, could be expressed. When this happened, we permitted writing about these values, while ensuring the observance of the boundaries of expression discussed in the group during the previous activity.


Sample Anthem: Binyamina’s Champion (to the tune of “Derekh Hashalom”)

Binyamina’s champion

With Tsav Pius hand in hand

Here and now will take the title.

Binyamina’s champion

Will rip its opponents to shreds

Will get the victory in the mail.

There’s only one place,

All together, not alone,

Playing soccer here.

There’s a place, not far away,

In tears and in laughter

Honor’s inscribed in the flag.


Discoveries and Insights

Along the way we discovered a number of things that we had not at first considered. We discovered that the religious-secular dimension, to which the program originally related, was only one of multiple dimensions along which the children differed. Facilitators in the field reported that in the course of the activities the children themselves brought up additional issues relevant to their own lives.


For example, on the Binyamina team there was a significant difference between children from different neighborhoods. Binyamina is a relatively small moshava, originally a community of private farmers founded in 1923, divided in half by a north-south train track. Over the years, new residents have moved into the moshava, some of these from low socioeconomic backgrounds. In the course of the program it became clear that there were significant social and economic differences between children “on opposite sides of the tracks.” The soccer coaches in the local club were familiar with these differences, and they were constantly trying to bridge the gaps between these children. According to the coach, even though the Tsav Pius program was built around the specific religious-secular difference, it nonetheless was very suited to the messages that he sought to transmit to his players.


Children from the Arab village Jisr al Zarqa also participated in Binyamina soccer, and there are large language and cultural gaps between them and the Jewish children. Unfortunately, even though the program also related to the Jewish-Arab issue, which is indeed a charged issue in Israeli soccer, we were unsuccessful in reaching the Arab children on the team. This challenge remains ahead of us.

Our main lesson from the program is that gaps and differing perceptions exist in almost every group, and not only groups that include both religious and secular children. At the same time, since Tsav Pius focuses specifically on the religious-secular split, most of the activities revolve around this issue. Looking ahead to the next season, we intend to make some changes in the program so that it will be more flexible, enabling facilitators to identify the conflicts that occupy the children in each group and to adapt the program to address these conflicts.


In the coming year we plan to expand the program to additional teams from 6th to 9th grade, and to continue expanding the program in the following years. In light of the understanding that the program can also suit teams that are not necessarily “Tsav Pius,” mixed religious-secular, we are considering whether to offer the program to all youth teams in Israel.


To Emphasize Differences or Commonalities?

One last interesting point for discussion relates to whether it makes sense to deal with differences of identity among players if they themselves do not seem to regard these differences as a problem. One could claim that we are insisting on awakening gaps that do not in fact exist in the daily lives of the children, thereby actually causing superficial differentiation that had not existed before the activity.


This question is valid not only for soccer, but for nearly everything that Tsav Pius does. We believe that the gaps do in fact exist, and that they are revealed among the children in times of crisis, as well as afterwards when the children become adults. People tend to prefer blurring identity differences, which they see negatively. They place an emphasis on unifying factors, while asking children to “give in to” or “accommodate” the other in order to facilitate cooperation.


In Tsav Pius we believe that differences are legitimate and positive, and they should not be blurred in order to promote cooperation. In order to emphasize this message, the last session is devoted primarily to outdoor activities in which the children are challenged to work together—despite the differences they discussed in previous sessions.


While many challenges still lay ahead, we can say that the Tsav Pius soccer program presents an alternative that proves that soccer can be played differently, and that the playing field can be an opportunity for educational activity and a meeting place for diverse identities and ways of life. Credit for success of the program goes also to the soccer clubs, the coaches, the parents and of course, the children, for whom the challenge of religious and secular children playing together is simpler than it might seem to us adults.

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HaYidion Athletics Winter 2015
Winter 2015