Nice Jewish kids finding sports playing into their Jewish learning

Jewish day-school students have enough on their minds.

They must balance a double curriculum of Judaic and secular subjects. They endure lengthy school days. Many of them try to get into some of the country's best universities, which requires that they excel in all academic areas. And they sacrifice some of the diversity and wide options of extracurricular activities that can be found at public schools.

Yet for students who find the time to play day-school sports, the rewards make the sacrifices worthwhile. At three different Chicago-area Jewish day schools, students face many challenges — and enjoy many rewards — that secular-school athletes never taste.

Solomon Schechter Day School in Skokie has provided its sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders with several athletic options. There are three basketball teams (two for boys and one for girls) and a track squad. There is even a cheerleading squad for seventh- and eighth-grade girls.

"For some kids, it gives a big boost to their self-esteem," says athletic director Alicia Holan. "To them, being part of the team is really important. For some kids, it expands their social circles. And it's fun."

Although the Solomon Schechter Lions are not considered a prep-school power, making a team is still a privilege.

"When you have tryouts, you have to have competition. But we try to play up the fact that trying is putting more on the line than making it," Holan says.

Since the Lions, like most day-school teams, don't play on Shabbat, the team often competes against small parochial schools, including other Jewish and Catholic academies. Holan says playing other small schools affords each athlete considerable playing time.

"It's the last time they'll play on a team like this," she says, noting that Solomon Schechter players find their games stirring. Jeremy Fine, the eighth-grade boys' basketball team captain, says he wouldn't want to play for a big-name high school.

"I could be more recognized if I played for Deerfield High School," Fine says. But he recalls that at a local yeshiva game, "the intensity was just as high."

At the Fasman Yeshiva High School in Skokie, finding time to be on the court is a challenge. Students learn for 13 hours some days, while the school's basketball team (varsity and junior varsity) practices only four hours each week.

But although playing on the team might be the only exercise students get, taking the extra time is rewarding, says athletic sports director Sheldon Schaffel.

"It's good experience for boys to participate," Schaffel says. "It builds spirit and pride in the school community. We hope they learn to win and lose with dignity and honor."

Watching the basketball teams has inspired other yeshiva students to get involved in athletics. When the yeshiva offers intramural sports, almost every student participates.

Even during games, the yeshiva team doesn't shy away from its opponents.

"I think they like to win, but they also like learning the skills," Schaffel says. "But they don't go on the floor saying, `Who cares?' They say, `We want to win.'"

A competitive spirit is definitely present at Skokie's Ida Crown High School, where, in addition to men's and women's basketball teams, a wrestling team is making history.

The Crown High Aces traveled to New York to participate in the Henry Whittenberg wrestling tournament, an all-yeshiva competition. The Aces wrestled against teams from four other yeshivas and day schools from around the country.

"Some foresee wrestling as becoming a big yeshiva sport," says wrestling coach Doug Klein. And the tournament, the first of its kind, has clearly made the season for many of Ida Crown's wrestlers.

"It's the start of a new era," says senior team member Benji Cohen.

Cohen says he has found personal benefits in sports too:He is watching less TV at home.

Why offer sports at a Jewish day school? Beyond the exercise, the camaraderie and the thrill of victory, athletic competition teach many students how to play as a team, and how to work hard.

"I think there's a misconception that Jews aren't athletes," Klein says. "We are."