For Ping-Pong Star, Shabbat Comes First

For Ping-Pong Star, Shabbat Comes First

Estee Ackerman, a sixth-grader at Hebrew Academy of Nassau County and a rising star in competitive Ping-Pong, looked at the schedule of the recent U.S. National Table Tennis Championships in Las Vegas and figured she’d be done in plenty of time for Shabbat.

More than 100 players her age were competing late last month; probably, she thought, she’d finish by Friday afternoon. But she kept winning, qualifying for a final-16 match. Which was set for 7:30 p.m. on Friday, a few hours after Shabbat started.
Ackerman, 11, forfeited the match and her chance to advance.

“It was my choice — my religion comes first,” she says. She did not consider walking to her match on Shabbat and participating, which would have conflicted with the spirit but not the letter of Shabbat observance. “We all agreed. I didn’t have a second thought.”

“We” was her father Glenn, a veteran table-tennis (aficionados don’t call it Ping-Pong) player who introduced her to the sport, and her 14-year-old brother Akiva, a highly ranked age-group player who wears his kipa during competition. The Ackermans, members of Congregation Anshei Shalom in West Hempstead, say they’re the only Orthodox players in the top echelons of competitive table tennis.

The family spent the Las Vegas Shabbat at the home of an Orthodox family.

Like the controversy last year over Houston’s Beren Academy, an Orthodox day school whose boys basketball team reached the semifinals of its parochial school league and was nearly disqualified because it would not play on Shabbat (the Stars lost the rescheduled championship game), Ackerman’s decision earned wide publicity — including coverage on CNN and the Christian Post website.

But unlike the authorities in Beren’s Texas athletic conference, who were forced to change their scheduling policy by a groundswell of national publicity, the leaders of the table tennis tournament were accommodating, the Ackermans say; but there were simply too many players and too many matches to make a last-minute switch possible.

“I was disappointed” by the lost chance to improve her national ranking (now fourth in the 8-11 age bracket), Estee Ackerman says. Once she made her decision, she says, “I put it out of my mind.”

“Estee’s actions have certainly created lively discussions in our classrooms,” says Rabbi Yaakov Sadigh, principal of HANC. “It is incredible to see a young lady so disciplined at this age. Estee has demonstrated that keeping mitzvot is top priority in her life.”

Back home, Estee is back to her regimen of six-days-a-week practice. Her long-range goal is the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Closer on the horizon is a tournament next month at the Westchester Table Tennis Club in Pleasantville.

That competition, she says, will present no theological challenges. “It’s on Sunday.”

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