An Orthodox Jew Leads Toledo to a Women's National Basketball Title

From the Hardwood to Halacha

By Elana Sztokman

Published April 06, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Naama Shafir, a junior guard, poured in a career-high 40 points to lead the University of Toledo to victory in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament championship. She was crowned the basketball tournament’s MVP. And then she walked about two miles home.

Shafir, an Orthodox Jew from Israel, did not want to break the Sabbath.

The University of Toledo’s 76–68 triumph over the University of Southern California on April 2 marked a historic moment for Toledo — its first postseason championship in school history. The win also marked the climax of a historic season for Shafir, the first female Orthodox Jew to earn an NCAA scholarship and to play American women’s Division I basketball.

Nothing But Net: Naama Shafir led her team with 40 points to win the Women’s NIT crown.
Courtesy of University of Toledo
Nothing But Net: Naama Shafir led her team with 40 points to win the Women’s NIT crown.

Indeed, Shafir is arguably the only Orthodox woman athlete prominent in the public eye right now. But to get to this point, she had to overcome unique barriers of language, religion and gender.

“The game was one of the most incredible moments of my life,” Shafir told the Forward. “There were over 7,000 people there, and during those seconds when the game was over and the whole crowd ran to the court, I experienced an unbelievable high.”

The 21-year-old star is the fourth of nine children born to a family in the town of Hoshaya in Emek Israel in the Galilee. Like Shafir, almost all of Hoshaya’s residents are traditionally observant. Shafir began playing basketball in the Emek Israel girls’ basketball league when she was in fourth grade, and her talent became readily apparent. Outside the league, she often played with the boys where, her father recalled, she also excelled.

“Naama was always a very special girl, and she has grown into a wonderful young woman,” gushed her coach from Emek Israel, Liran Barel. “She is a natural leader, and she is very creative in her game, very courageous and very humble.”

The Emek Israel league, a mixed club of religious Jews, secular Jews and Arabs from around the Galilee, is considered one of the best in Israel. The league’s makeup has imbued it with a commitment to pluralism and accommodation that respectfully nurtured Shafir’s talents. Out of consideration for its observant members, the league refrains from practice on the Sabbath.

“To coach someone with this kind of talent and ambition is a gift that most coaches don’t get in their lives,” Barel said. “It’s a privilege.”

It was late on a Saturday night in Israel when the Toledo Rockets faced off against USC in the championship game. In Hoshaya, the Shafir house was packed with people, and after the game, celebrations continued long into the night. The family had to wait until 4:30 a.m., when the Sabbath was over in Toledo, to call Shafir and congratulate her personally.

In Toledo, the entire basketball program adapted its practices to accommodate Shafir’s religious needs. There are no practices on the Sabbath, and whenever there is an away game, the team travels together on a Friday, before sundown. To mitigate religious concern regarding modesty, Shafir also wears a T-shirt under her sleeveless jersey. The team stocks a storage freezer in a nearby eatery with kosher meals. The Rockets are also planning a trip to Israel this year.

“The college has been incredibly supportive,” said Itzik Shafir, Naama’s father, who visited different colleges with his daughter before she settled on Toledo. She had been offered several scholarships, but he wanted to ensure that the one she chose would respect her lifestyle.

Shafir, who is 5-foot-7 and led the Rockets with an average 15.3 points and 5 assists per game this season, is not the first Orthodox Jew to play American basketball. Tamir Goodman, an Orthodox Jew from Baltimore once ranked among the top 25 U.S. high school players, and he received public attention for refusing to play on the Sabbath. But he has since moved to Israel and retired from basketball.

More than Orthodox men, women face additional challenges, such as religious demands to wear loose clothing that covers knees and elbows, and in some circles, an expectation not to play in front of men, as Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a prominent Orthodox Zionist religious leader, has ruled.

Shafir received rabbinic approval to pursue her dream from Chaim Burgansky, rabbi of Hoshaya. “The halachic rationale is based on the fact that although the Halacha says that it’s forbidden to jump and run on Shabbat, someone who derives pleasure from it can do it. But exercise is forbidden,” he told the Forward in an e-mail. “Practice is in the category of ‘exercise’ and therefore forbidden, but the game itself is fun for the player. Who wants to sit on the bench?”

This would not be possible in Israel, Burgansky hastened to explain, since holding a mass-spectator sport there on the Sabbath would involve Jews in desecrating the holy day. “But outside of Israel, it’s non-Jews, so it’s not a problem,” he said.

Burgansky stressed that his ruling was a personal one for Shafir, addressing the specific situation confronting her. “I would under no circumstance give permission to hold a basketball tournament on Shabbat from the outset,” he said.

Few Orthodox women have made such strides in sports. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, although Jewish women and girls have participated in sports throughout American history — in fact, Senda Berenson was known as the “Mother of Women’s Basketball” in the 1890s — there is little if any history of Orthodox women with advanced athletic careers.

“Religious girls are not exactly encouraged in sports,” said Shira Amsel, founder of a basketball league in Israel for observant Orthodox women and girls. “Sports are not considered ‘feminine’ or ‘religious.’ We’re taught to be quiet and modest and to get married, which is nice, but it’s also important for girls to have a positive body image.” Shafir is a “great role model for girls in general, and especially religious girls,” Amsel said.

Shafir’s athletic achievements in America stem from a decision she made at 18 that required considerable courage: to leave her small community, where everyone knows her and follows her career closely, for Toledo, where she knew no one. At a time when many of her classmates were entering the Israeli army or going to Sherut Leumi, the voluntary national service, Shafir headed for a town in the American heartland with only a small Jewish community and few who are traditionally observant.

“Coming here was the most important decision of my life,” Shafir said.

“She barely knew English,” her father recalled. “The first few weeks there were very difficult. It took her months before she was able to sit in class and understand a lecture.”

Three years later, her English is excellent, her studies are going well and she is majoring in business. And in the process she has taught people a bit about Israel.

“She is Israel’s best ambassador,” her father said.

Like the University of Toledo, Israel has adapted its practices for Shafir. After she left for America, Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz expanded the regulation that said women could serve in Sherut Leumi only until the age of 20, allowing them to serve until age 24. This was done explicitly to accommodate Shafir, who felt that she could not pass up the opportunity Toledo offered her but wanted to return after college to serve.

After Sherut Leumi, though, Shafir doesn’t know what she will do. “Anything is possible,” she said.

Meanwhile, her advice for athletic Orthodox girls is this: “If you have a dream, it’s not a question of ‘either-or.’ You can do both. You can be religious and fulfill your dreams.”

Contact Elana Sztokman at feedback@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.