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Chief rabbi lauds Herzlia soccer stars

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Herzlia High School’s under-14 soccer team was excited about playing in the provincial final of the Kay Motsepe Football Cup, until they found out it was to be played on Shabbat no matter what.

The final would be played in Saldanha Bay in the Western Cape, on Saturday, 23 September. The school learnt of this date in the week after winning the Kay Motsepe Football Cup regional tournament.

“The minute we heard that the date of the final was on a Saturday, we communicated our dilemma to SAFA [the South African Football Association] and requested that the date be reconsidered,” said Shane Brorson, the principal of Herzlia High School. “When this proved unsuccessful, we immediately withdrew from the tournament so as not to compromise our Jewish values as a Jewish school.”

The team won their local league and the Kay Motsepe Football Cup regional competition to qualify for the tournament’s provincial final.

Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein was impressed. “The team had the potential to go all the way and become national champions, and to give that up for Shabbat is an incredible example to our whole community of the importance of Shabbat as a Jewish value,” he said.

Brorson said a great deal of disappointment was felt by all after the team pulled out. “However, we’re all aware of what our school stands for, and as our school song says, ‘We are from Herzlia, we know who we are.’ Thus, there was no hesitation to withdraw, in spite of extensive conversations with all affected parties to work through this.”

The chief rabbi wrote on his communal Facebook page on 22 September about Herzlia’s under-14 team standing up for Shabbat, saying that it wasn’t “just any game” but a provincial final that they were pulling out of and “with it, the chance to become national champions”.

The team’s “principled stand”, he said, reminded him of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s impassioned speech in the Knesset about introducing a law to stop EL AL planes from flying on Shabbat, even though this action came at significant cost to the national carrier. “This is exactly what these young Herzlia soccer players are: proud Jews who don’t play on Shabbat.”

Goldstein said he was moved to write about it through “a sense of wanting to express my support publicly for the principled stand taken by the Herzlia school management, with the support of the board, the parents, and the boys involved. It’s so important when people stand up for our Jewish values with pride. I wanted to tell this story to the community, and publicly give them support.”

After the date of the final was announced, Rabbi Sam Thurgood, the school’s rabbi and head of Jewish life and learning, sent a letter of appeal to SAFA and the tournament organisers, requesting that they move the match to another day.

“In communication with SAFA, sponsors, and organisers, the reality was that the logistics and change of the date would be incredibly difficult as 24 teams across different age groups were involved in the day of the finals, and arrangements for transport, accommodation, and catering for players and team management was difficult to change,” Brorson says.

“One of the positive outcomes of this situation is that we now have a commitment from SAFA to bear Shabbat and other religious beliefs and religious days in mind when planning future tournaments.”

Andries van Renssen, the executive director of United Herzlia Schools, said, “Though we were saddened that we were unable to represent Cape Town, the decision was easy, being that this match fell on Shabbat.

“We’re aware that this was a sensitive and unprecedented issue. We weren’t looking to create controversy or unhappiness, and were resolute in approaching the matter with humility and dignity. We did make an appeal to the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) to make arrangements to accommodate us, but it regretted that it wasn’t possible to make any changes at such a late stage. However, it has committed to taking this into account in future.

“For many decades, the WCED has accommodated Herzlia in many sporting code leagues by arranging matches during the week, for which we are grateful. We would like to participate in all sports at the highest level, and appeal to all schools to accommodate us on days other than the Sabbath.”

Shabbat “stands above it all”, Goldstein said. “When we root ourselves to our eternal divine values, we connect ourselves to things which are so much greater than we are. That gives our lives meaning and the purpose that G-d gave us.”

Herzlia’s decision to prioritise Shabbat is also a “tremendous educational lesson for children”, Goldstein said. “We want to teach our children that ultimately, life isn’t just about taking personal, immediate benefit or gratification, it’s about living with values and principles. Shabbat is one of our most important pillar values of what it means to be a Jew. It’s our G-d-given mitzvah that underpins the foundations of the Jewish people.”

The secret behind the success of Herzlia’s under-14 team is “a combination of passionate and dedicated young players, a highly motivated coach, committed supporters, and parents,” Brorson said.

“Herzlia High School’s under-14 team has trained with a high level of commitment. This has ensured each practice session was productive,” he said.

At the beginning of the season, the team’s coach motivated the players to perform to the highest level possible, with the aim of winning the local regional league. Herzlia’s under-15 girls’ soccer team also won their league this year.

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