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

From the Hardwood to Halacha

By Elana Sztokman

Published April 06, 2011.
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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


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