Philadelphia — Aviva Koloski, a junior at Stern Hebrew High School here, plays on her Modern Orthodox day school’s girls’ basketball team, but she never considered playing basketball in college.
Because of various halachic restrictions, “I never would have thought it was possible for an Orthodox Jewish girl to play basketball” at the collegiate level, she said.
Today, Koloski is giving the matter another thought.
Outfitted in a denim skirt, the unofficial uniform of her Modern Orthodox crowd, and a light blue “BIG SIS” sweatband around her forehead, an artifact from a chesed organization at her school, she sat with a teammate and her coach in the stands of Temple University’s Liacouras Center last week, watching history.
Naama Shafir, a freshman point guard on the
visiting University of Toledo women’s basketball team, is the first Orthodox woman to ever play a sport on a National Collegiate Athletic Association team with an athletic scholarship.
A native of a small religious settlement near Tiberias, and a veteran of Israeli national youth basketball teams, she was recruited by the Toledo Rockets’ new coach this year, becoming the Rockets’ top scorer, and by consensus, the team’s best player.
At 5-foot-7, the second-shortest player on the roster, she has been a starter since her first game, a ponytailed leader on the court, with a smile always on her face, driving to the basket, dribbling behind her back, dishing pinpoint passes.
Opposing teams frequently double- and triple-team her.
“She’s a female Tamir Goodman,” says Ira Stern, coach of the Stern day school’s boys’ and girls’ teams, referring to the Baltimore native who starred for his yeshiva team a decade ago, earned the nickname “The Jewish Jordan,” won a scholarship to Towson University, played one season with limited success and now is playing professional ball in Israel.
Goodman, the first Orthodox male to play NCAA basketball — or any sport — on an athletic scholarship, dribbled and shot in a glare of publicity, attracting media interviews and hordes of Jewish fans wherever he went. Shafir, 18, so far has operated under the radar.
Their examples are “part of a world where Orthodox Jews are both courted and comfortable in American society,” says Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University and author of the forthcoming book, “Orthodox Jews in America” (Indiana University Press). “It’s a growth industry of accommodation of excellence.”
Toledo, in northern Ohio, has a much smaller Jewish community than Baltimore. The university has not promoted her unique status. And Shafir, as soft-spoken off-court as she is aggressive on-court, isn’t looking for the spotlight.
“I’m not famous,” she says.
Besides the three-member contingent from the Stern Hebrew High School, who brought a small Israeli flag to the Temple game, Shafir’s cheering section included a few fans with Israeli connections who had driven down from New York.
As a Sabbath-observant, kosher-eating minority of one on the Toledo campus, Shafir is providing an education about the customs and requirements of Orthodox Judaism, and the team is serving as a model of religious tolerance.
Her favorite food, according to a player’s profile in the Rockets’ media guide, is “kosher food.”
“My teammates ask a lot of questions,” Shafir says. “I explain.”
Alerted to the symbols of kosher certification, the other young women on the team, Christians, many of them African Americans, go out of their way to find products with the Orthodox Union’s OU symbol when buying snacks, she says.
With the guidance of her rabbi in Israel, who advised her when she was the sole Orthodox girl on her national team a few years ago, she has worked out an MO that allows her to follow Jewish law while playing at the highest level of college hoops.
That means walking to Saturday games — a mile or more sometimes — from a separate hotel for road games. Bringing a cooler of kosher food on the road. Playing in a uniform that features a T-shirt with sleeves under her jersey, and shorts that cover her knees.
Shafir’s biggest accomplishment during her brief collegiate career, she says, is demonstrating that a player can excel at sports without compromising her religious principles.
When she stays in a separate hotel from the team, closer to the arena for a Shabbat game, one teammate stays with her.
Most restaurants on the road allow Shafir to heat her frozen kosher meals in their oven, then eat her food with the rest of the players. One restaurant didn’t. Citing obscure health regulations, the restaurant’s management insisted that she could not eat her outside-prepared food inside, but in an outer lobby.
Head Coach Tricia Cullop picked up her plate to join Shafir in the lobby. The coach glanced behind her and noticed that all the players were carrying their meals to sit with Shafir. They were shouting “k’futsa!” Hebrew for team, a word Shafir had taught them.
“We’re a team. We need to stick together,” says guard Clare Aubry, one of the players who decided to eat with Shafir.
At the University of Toledo, the Jewish students familiar with Shafir’s story are “very excited,” says Rabbi Yossi Shemtov, the school’s Chabad emissary. “She’s really a kiddush Hashem,” a sanctification of God’s name.
Does she feel pressure as a role model? “A little.”
Shafir, who by her teens started and starred on co-ed teams in her region, excelled on her national teams, then started thinking last year of applying for a college scholarship in the U.S. She sent out some highlight DVDs, and a few teams were interested, but one underwent a coaching change and another was unwilling to accommodate her religious demands.
Then Cullop, who had come from a successful stint at Evansville University, found herself late in the recruiting season in need of a point guard. Her contacts in international basketball suggested Shafir.
She contacted the Israeli.
Weeks of discussions with Rabbi Shemtov and an uncle of Shafir in Israel, her unofficial representative, about the player’s religious practice, followed. Cullop learned that an Orthodox player can’t ride in a vehicle on Shabbat, can’t eat the non-kosher food served at team meals, must dress a little more modestly than her teammates. “Is that all?” Cullop asked. She agreed to all the conditions.
“They didn’t just give what [Shafir] demanded. They gave what she asked,” Rabbi Shemtov says.
One example: Saturday practices this season were shifted until after sundown.
“We adapt things for everyone on the team,” Cullop says. “It’s a great opportunity for the team to learn a little about another culture.”
“It’s a minor miracle” — because of bureaucratic roadblocks — “that we were able to get Naama,” the coach says.
Shafir arrived in Toledo, her first time in this country, a few days after the start of the fall semester. “It’s a big change from Israel,” says Shafir, who is still developing her English skills. “It’s not easy.”
Several weeks after Shafir came to Toledo, the team left for the Bank of Hawaii Invitational tournament in Hilo, Hawaii.
In the first game, against the University of Arizona, Shafir was the Rockets’ top scorer, winning the game by sinking two free throws with four seconds left. She was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
From that performance came her teammates’ nickname for Shafir, “Phenomanana.” “Namana,” for short.
So far she’s been named the university’s Athlete of the Week, and the Mid-American Conference West Division Player of the Week.
“I feel lucky that I’m here,” says Shafir, a mantra she repeats often.
A business major, she hopes to play professional basketball, according to the team’s media guide. After graduation, she may do her deferred army service, or perform the national service available to young women from religious backgrounds.
In the game against Temple, she led the team in minutes played and was second in points and steals.
“It’s really inspiring,” says Sheera Ohayon, a senior at Stern Hebrew High School who watched the Temple game after taking part in her day school team’s victory earlier that evening.
“It’s possible within halacha that an Orthodox Jewish girl who is talented can play Division I basketball, within certain guidelines,” says Coach Stern.
Shafir showed Aviva Koloski that someone like her, who is both a basketball player and Shabbat observant, might qualify for an athletic scholarship.
“I didn’t think it’s possible,” Koloski says. “Now it’s an option.”
- Jeffrey Gurock
- Tamir Goodman
- professor of American Jewish history
- Indiana University
- Indiana University Press
- Temple University
- University of Toledo
- Aviva Koloski
- Clare Aubry
- Ira Stern
- Yossi Shemtov
- Naama Shafir
- Tricia Cullop
- point guard
- Yeshiva University
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