It was a usual scene in a locker room at the Chelsea Piers hockey rink Sunday morning. Two teenagers sat next to each other, removing their pads and uniforms, discussing a late-game lapse that allowed the only goal surrendered in their team’s 9-1 victory.
But something was unusual: One of the players was an Orthodox Jew, a student at the Ramaz day school on the Upper East Side; his teammate was black, a Catholic who studies cross town at St. Agnes Boys High School.
For the third year, the roster of the KJ Barak team, which is sponsored by the youth department of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and competes after the winter season in the Chelsea Piers Spring High School League, has an interracial flavor. Half of the 12 skaters (excluding a pair of goalies) are Orthodox kids, from the KJ team; the others are black and Hispanic, from the Ice Hockey in Harlem program.
The KJ Barak plays the IHIH’s Harlem Rangers each year. Three years ago Bennett Epstein, an attorney who founded and coaches the KJ squad, asked the Harlem team to provide some players for its spring competition.
His spring team unites two communities with little tradition in ice hockey. IHIH, in its 15th year, combines sports with academic tutoring and community service. And the Barak, whose winter team includes players from Ramaz and the Manhattan Talmudic Academy, was joined this season by a second religious high school team from The Frisch School in Paramus, N.J. The Frisch Cougars, members of the North Jersey Junior Varsity Hockey League, were founded by stockbroker Joseph Rotenberg as a "feeder school" for a future varsity hockey team at Yeshiva University.
Rangers Coach Jim Gunn says, "My players … love being part of KJ," he says. "It’s like their second home in hockey." The teams shared a bus trip this season to a tournament in Quebec.
When Epstein proposed the idea, "at first it seemed awkward," says 15-year-old David Kaufman, a Ramaz sophomore and Barak center. But as the players practiced together, a black-Jewish team "became normal."
On the ice, no apparent divisions exist between the Jewish and non-Jewish players. One black member of the team took a hard hit in a recent game; his Jewish teammates were the first to come to his defense.
The message of the team? "We’re not out to make a statement," Epstein says. "The statement is that we just do it [play hockey]."
"It’s very important that our kids … have an opportunity to interact with kids outside the Orthodox Jewish community," says attorney Barry Kluger, father of two Barak players. "People learn to respect each other."
"The Ramaz parents thought it was a great idea," Epstein says. "The kids have more in common than they thought. We’ve had some e-mail friendships growing out of this."
"It shows that it is possible for a team to be [racially] mixed," says Garrick Elliston, 18, a defenseman who attends St. Agnes Boys High School.
In fact, he gets more reactions as an African American playing ice hockey than as a member of a black-Jewish team. "It’s shocking to some outsiders, Elliston says. "You people," one person told him, "play basketball."
The KJ Barak, whose spring record is 5-2, will play Brooklyn Tech Sunday morning at 10:30.
A team composed of various minorities sometimes draws bigoted comments from opposing players, Epstein says. "I’ve heard some things on the ice that I wouldn’t want to hear," he says. But, "We just play hard and point at the scoreboard."