How a youth hockey league is accommodating Shabbat-observant players


This article was produced as part of JTA’s Teen Journalism Fellowship, a program that works with Jewish teens around the world to report on issues that affect their lives.

(JTA) — Six hours of hockey games squeezed in between Saturday night and Sunday may seem like suboptimal scheduling, but for Alex Ottensoser, a forward on the North Jersey Avalanche 16U travel ice hockey team, it’s the main reason he signed up.

As a Sabbath-observant Jew, Ottensosser would have to miss many of the games on most other hockey teams, and that’s if a team would be willing to take a player who would miss Saturday games in the first place. That all changed when his mother’s friend mentioned the idea of forming a team for players who similarly observe Shabbat.

That idea came seven years ago, when several parents from New Jersey’s Bergen County approached the Avalanche, a competitive youth ice hockey program based out of Hackensack, New Jersey, about starting a Sabbath-observant team. Up to that point, Robert Rudman, one of those parents, says his son, now a junior in high school, would have had to miss at least one game every weekend because of his family’s Sabbath observance.  

After some discussion with the Avalanche organization, Rudman says they offered to make a parallel team that was similarly competitive with the organization’s existing teams but also accommodate their religious practices. 

Since then, the Avalanche have been attracting Sabbath observant players from the New York metropolitan area. “We’ve grown so much that this past year we had four teams made up of at least 15 players, so about 60-65 kids,” said Rudman. Now, “if you come to The Icehouse [in Hackensack] – which is where the Avalanche play their games – after Shabbat, you’re going to see four different age groups all playing.” 

Rudman estimates that 95% of the players on these teams are Sabbath observant, although they have also attracted a small number of nonreligious players who simply want to keep their Saturdays free. The Avalanche teams are open to boys and girls, although the vast majority of current players are boys. 

 Jews who observe Shabbat have been accommodated in a wide array of fields. Former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was the first observant Jew to hold a cabinet position. Former senator and vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman managed to make it work. And Ryan Turell, the former Yeshiva University star now playing in the NBA’s G League, hopes to become the first Orthodox player in the NBA.

Yet, for practical reasons, youth ice hockey has remained hard to access for Sabbath-observant Jews. Competitive youth ice hockey requires large time commitments from players and their families, including on weekends. Teams from the age of 6 and up typically have multiple weekly practices, and games Saturdays and Sundays, from September through March. Because of this intense schedule and competition for limited rink time, Saturday games are built into the culture of youth hockey, perhaps more than most other sports. 

Sabbath-observant Avalanche teams have had their share of success on the ice, including winning state championships at the A and AA levels. (Courtesy of the Avalanche)

Jewish students in the New York metropolitan area have filled this void, compensating for their schools’ lack of ice rinks, with floor hockey. The yeshiva league currently stands at 15 teams and has developed into its own subculture, complete with local youth leagues and a summer camp. Still, the pull of ice hockey remains strong, and a small number of Jewish high schools now field ice hockey teams. 

For Ottensoser, fitting in two weeknight practices and multiple weekend games with his Ramaz Upper School workload, and commuting from the city to practices and games, requires efficiency. “I find a way to do work in the car and make use of the time,” he said.

While hockey teams that accommodate Sabbath observant players may be uncommon, it’s not without precedent. The Avenue Road Hockey Association has fielded Toronto-area teams with similar accommodations, and the NY Icecats, a hockey program based out of rinks in New York and Hackensack, also fields teams “arranged to accommodate Sabbath observant families.” In addition, some Sabbath-observant players do manage to play on competitive teams without these accommodations, including on several teams in Long Island.

“[W]e are in an era where the schedule is much more fungible. It’s much easier to create specialized schedules for people,” said Judith Shulevitz, journalist and author of “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.” “So I think it’s easier to accommodate schedules for particular means.” 

That said, she also sees a broader appreciation for a day of rest, citing the players from non-observant backgrounds who have joined the Sabbath-observant Avalanche teams. In her view, kids are too driven and scheduled, with not enough down time. “As soon as you begin to grasp the importance of a day of rest, you will begin to grasp the idea of a day of rest with others and begin to structure your time in such a way that it becomes possible,” Shulevitz said. “That’s what they’ve done. They want the day of rest. They’ve joined a [Sabbath-observant team] so they’ve created a structure for themselves.That’s a social good in and of itself.”

Ultimately, while the Sabbath-observant Avalanche teams have had their share of success on the ice, including winning state championships at the competitive A and AA levels, Rudman says the goal is not to get players to the NHL. (The league currently features a small but historically strong group of Jewish players, including Edmonton Oiler Zach Hyman who wears the number 18 for chai, or life in Hebrew.)

“It’s so they can be kids and play the game they love, without having to sacrifice anything in terms of their religion,” he said.

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