PHILADELPHIA (JTA) — Gabe Carimi already knows that Yom Kippur won’t fall on a Sunday for at least the next 20 years.
The star left tackle at the University of Wisconsin looked up the dates in anticipation of being a potential first-round pick in this spring’s NFL draft. But first, Carimi will end his college career by leading the Badgers against the Texas Christian University’s Horned Frogs in the 97th Rose Bowl.
Carimi, co-captain of the Big Ten championship team, was recently named the conference Lineman of the Year and awarded the Outland Trophy, a national honor given to the best interior lineman. The civil and environmental engineering major has also been named Academic All-Big Ten four years in a row.
For Carimi, at 6 feet, 7 inches and 327 pounds, playing football and practicing Judaism both come naturally.
"It’s always just who I’ve been," he told JTA.
Speaking by phone before an intensive series of Rose Bowl practices, Carimi recalled how his childhood baseball coach had sized him up and suggested giving football a try.
Of course, Carimi said, his mom always worried about him, but there wasn’t much danger of serious injury in peewee football. And even though sports practices dominated his schedule, he always reserved time to attend Temple Beth El, a Reform synagogue in Madison.
"He grew up at temple," said Larry Kohn, the congregation’s education director.
Kohn chuckled at the memory of blessing Carimi during his bar mitzvah service, which he led in the rabbi’s absence. The teenager was already so tall, Kohn said, that he had to put his hands on Carimi’s shoulders instead of his head – even with the future football star bending down.
After becoming a bar mitzvah, Carimi continued his religious studies, celebrating his Confirmation and working as an assistant to a fifth-grade Sunday school teacher. For Chanukah one year, he asked his parents for a shofar and joined the men who share the honor of blowing the ram’s horn on the High Holidays.
While football has become more time consuming lately, Carimi still joins his parents and older sister for Friday night services whenever he can.
“Our lives have been busy and Friday evening was the time to stop, take a deep breath, inhale, exhale, just kind of get back in touch with what’s important," his dad, Sanford Carimi, said.
"It always felt like home there," Gabe Carimi said. Plus, he added, after nine hours a day at Camp Randall Stadium during football season, there wasn’t time to get involved with the campus Hillel.
To Kohn, the fact that Carimi continues to prioritize Shabbat and take on a leadership role at his synagogue, on top of commitments to football and academics, speaks volumes about his "spiritual strength and devotion.”
"A lot of kids, when they hit college, sort of take a break and return after they have kids,” Kohn said. “He’s a model of a long-term commitment to a task and to a value."
Carimi has also made a point of maintaining some observance of the High Holidays, even when football interferes. When Yom Kippur fell on a Saturday during his freshman year, he fasted until an hour before the night game.
This past September, the holiday coincided with an afternoon face-off against Arizona State University. Carimi wrestled with whether he should play at all, even going to his rabbi for advice.
"I’ve always fasted, even when I was young,” he explained. “It’s a moment of clarity to kind of take the focus off the whole world and everything you have to do — just focus on trying to make yourself a better person."
Ultimately, he came up with his own compromise: Instead of fasting from sundown to sundown, he started the fast early enough to give himself a few hours to recover before the game.
"Religion is a part of me and I don’t want to just say I’m Jewish,” Carimi said. “I actually do make sacrifices that I know are hard choices.”
As long as coaches respect those decisions, Carimi said, he has no problem respecting the team’s longstanding religious traditions. The Badgers, for example, have a Catholic priest lead prayers before every game. So as not to seem "socially different,” Carimi said, he opts to sit together with the group and listen quietly.
Outside of football and Judaism, Carimi has developed a passion for construction through his engineering studies, his woodworking hobby and two internships. This spring, he’ll work with an adviser to complete a final capstone design project.
As much as he likes engineering, Carimi said, he’s happy to put it aside for a pro football career. After the Rose Bowl, he’ll get two weeks off before returning to the field to train for the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine.
More important than any football achievement, Sanford Carimi said, his son has proven to be a smart thinker with strong character and self-esteem. Even when he thinks about a huge honor like the Outland Trophy, he said, “that would mean nothing to me if he wasn’t a good kid.”