HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
A League Not of One's Own: Competing With Public Schools
When New Jersey realigned its athletic conference in the northern part of the state, The Golda Och Academy (GOA) athletic department saw a new opportunity for an independent school which had primarily been playing other private institutions throughout the state.
Following meetings with the principal and head of school, as well as a parents’ focus group, the decision was made to join the Super Essex Conference in its inaugural year. Since joining the other 30 public and private high schools in the Conference in 2009, GOA has seen a tremendous increase in the balance of play throughout its 12 high school sports teams (boys and girls varsity soccer, volleyball, tennis, cross-country, basketball teams, a coed swim team, boys baseball and girls softball).
While this wasn’t the first time GOA reevaluated its athletic program’s options, this one made perfect sense. Reexamining your athletic program is a necessary exercise for every school. Evaluate your options. Do the positives outweigh the negatives? Are the travel times you currently have too far for students? Is the level of play fair and balanced, or are your teams consistently losing or winning by a huge margin each season?
One of the major benefits we have experienced being part of a countywide conference has been shorter travel times for games. Like other day schools with a longer day, GOA has a 4:00 pm dismissal, requiring our games to have a later start time. Prior to joining the SEC, we had bus rides lasting upwards of 90 minutes each way. It was not unusual to arrive back at school at 9 PM with students still having to travel home (some 45 minutes away) and complete their schoolwork for the day. Today, our bus rides are limited to 30 minutes.
Having a level playing field has also revitalized our school's athletics programs and given our student-athletes more confidence. Prior to joining the SEC, our only team to enjoy championship success was our boys varsity basketball team. The days of winning or losing a basketball game by 50 points, a soccer game by seven or a baseball game by 15 are mostly in the past. Every two years the SEC examines the divisions and realigns them if necessary. This allows the players not to get too discouraged after a tough season or two because they know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Previously, when we played the same teams year after year, knowing which games we were going to win and which ones we would lose became predictable. With divisions changing every two years, each season begins with a sense of excitement and enthusiasm.
Although we are the only Jewish day school that participates in a New Jersey state-sanctioned conference, competing against much larger schools as well as schools that are able to draw from a larger pool of student-athletes, we are performing just as well as our opponents. At the end of each season, when coaches meet to choose their all-division teams, Golda Och athletes have always been represented fairly and sometimes have even dominated these lists.
Some of our top athletes have even had the opportunity to gain individual recognition throughout the entire county. Since becoming a part of the conference, our school has produced four collegiate athletes. We have had a two-time state-scoring champion in girls basketball, a nationally-ranked boys tennis player, a Division 1 boys basketball player and an Olympic-hopeful swimmer. Their individual achievements and accomplishments are featured in the media outlets covering the SEC, which in turn, gives our school more exposure and highlights the fact that a Jewish day school can indeed attract top athletes and field competitive teams.
We nevertheless continue to face the challenge of being a Jewish school in a non-Jewish league. Though we still need to reschedule games that fall on holidays or Shabbat, over time we have gone from rescheduling 15 games per team to 15 games across all the sports teams for the season. The athletic directors know when they hear our voice on the other end of the line why we are calling, and all willingly accommodate our needs.
It has also allowed our students to network with the community at large, a community they will be more immersed in post-graduation. For some athletes, competing against the diverse public schools in Essex County can be cause for a slight culture shock at times, especially given the varying demographics of our county. Yet as our student-athletes continue to compete against the same teams, they see the same players on the opposition year after year and gain familiarity with them. Prior to the games, it’s typical for players to walk over to the opposing team and converse for a few moments, recognizing one another by name.
Playing such teams also exposes our students to other cultures and religions, which can give rise to teachable moments outside of the classroom. When one of our teams walked into the gym of a Catholic school for a game that coincidently fell on Ash Wednesday, questions began to flow when our student-athletes noticed the ashes on the opposing players’ foreheads. What is it? Why do they have it on their foreheads? This opened up a conversation on other religious beliefs and practices.
The conversations have also turned painful life lessons on being a minority in the United States today. On select occasions, when we have held games in public parks, our athletes have faced anti-Semitic remarks, mainly from spectators unaffiliated with the opposing teams. It’s an issue we handle delicately. Our athletes are taught not to respond to the comment, and our coaches always discuss the incident after the game.
No athletic conference has the perfect formula for a day school. Your school may find it easier to participate in a yeshiva league where there aren’t mass scheduling conflicts or the prospect of negative slurs. You may find it easier for your athletes to form friendships with other Jewish day schools. But here at Golda Och Academy, we have discovered that joining a county-wide conference has provided us with tremendous benefits. We face head-on the challenges of being a religious minority, and at the same time prepare our student-athletes for the world they will face once they graduate these halls as Jewish citizens living in a multicultural society.
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This issue presents a wealth of guidance and examples for day schools to stay on top of their game. Articles discuss how schools ensure that athletics stay informed by a school's mission, by embodying Jewish values and embracing inclusivity; how they can use sports as a vehicle for teaching about and fostering love for Israel; how a wide range of sports can bring out the best in students and faculty; and how schools can more broadly employ movement and teach healthy living.
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