Jewish School Team Faces Replacement Over Championship on Sabbath

State senators have taken up the cause of a Jewish school's basketball teams whose playoff runs may be halted because its players can't play on their Sabbath.

Herzl/Rocky Mountain Hebrew Academy's boys team could be headed for a regional championship on Saturday, March 8, if it wins one more game Thursday. But the Denver school's religious beliefs prohibit students from playing on the Jewish Sabbath between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday.

Earlier this month, the Colorado High School Activities Association, which governs sports and other high school activities, rejected the team's request for a schedule change.

If Herzl/RMHA makes it to the regional championship and refuses to play a Saturday game, another school would be chosen to take its place, CHSAA Commissioner Bill Reader said.

Sen. Ken Gordon, D-Denver, said Wednesday the athletic association is sending the wrong message to schoolchildren, but he acknowledged there is little lawmakers can do to the privately funded organization.

Gordon, the Senate majority leader, said the association could leave itself open to a lawsuit because it passed a rule barring playoff games on Sundays. The association has said that was to give children and coaches a day off.

Reader said CHSAA can't accommodate everyone.

"We speak for 110,000 athletes and 340 member schools that all have different needs and desires. It's impossible for us to be all things for all people," he said.

"(Herzl/RMHA) joined in 2002 with the full understanding that sundown Friday to sundown Saturday is a prime time for high school athletics, and they voluntarily joined anyway."

Reader said the CHSAA board allowed the school to compete at the district level of playoffs if other schools agreed, which they did. He said late scheduling changes at the regional level would be more difficult, with teams having to travel to a rented facility in Sterling.

At the end of morning debate in the state Senate on Wednesday, Gordon had called on CHSAA to be more flexible.

Sen. Peter Groff, D-Denver, said Sandy Koufax was branded a hero when he refused to play the first game of the 1965 World Series on religious grounds.

He said the school team deserves the same respect.

"They should be given the opportunity to win the championship they have worked for and they deserve," Groff said.

School President and CEO Avi Halzel spoke to students Wednesday afternoon and reminded them about Koufax's stand.

"They're pretty upset that they might not get to play. They've worked very hard this year and would be disappointed if they didn't get to play," he said.

"Both boys and girls are in this position of qualifying for a tournament they may not be allowed to play in. I hope they get to play. I'm proud of them for sticking up for their religious beliefs," Halzel said.

Sen. Tom Wiens, R-Sedalia, said there must be a way for CHSAA to accommodate the team.

"It just seems like the bureaucracy has run amok here," Wiens said.

Bruce H. DeBoskey, mountain states regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, said the group was disappointed by CHSAA's decision.

Campion Academy, a Seventh-day Adventist Church school in Loveland, also does not play from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Instead of participating in CHSAA's Class 2A state tournament, the school went to an annual high school tournament at Union College in Lincoln, Neb. The boys team won, athletic director Troy Beans said.

In Michigan, a judge ruled this month that students at the Jean and Samuel Frankel Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit were penalized for their religious beliefs by the scheduling of Michigan High School Athletic Association postseason tournaments on the Jewish Sabbath. The association said it planned to appeal.