Shefa School

The idea for an observant team came about when tristate-area youth grew tired of hearing stories from their parents of their own hockey-playing childhood.

Original Article Published in the JNS

At 9:30 p.m. on a recent Saturday night, players from the North Jersey Avalanche hockey league finished their game and walked off Rink 3 at the Ice House in Hackensack, N.J. They were tired and a bit dejected, after losing 4-1 to the Bandits hockey team, as well as mindful that in a little less than 10 hours, they would be back on the ice for a Sunday-morning game against the Devils—at 7:30 a.m.

The players—by then, ravished—took off their helmets, masks and pads, put down their sticks, and quickly devoured slices of pizza. Kosher pizza. Helmets were replaced with kipahs, and the lone girl on the team, Elly Younger, changed from her yellow Avalanche hockey uniform into a denim skirt and a blue long sleeve shirt.

The New Jersey Avalanche is a team of skilled skaters and stick-handlers, but it’s not your typical hockey club—the Avalanche are four Shomer Shabbat (Shabbat-observant) youth hockey teams of players ages 9 to 16.

Playing competitive hockey involves participating in four practices a week and competing in tournaments throughout the Northeast; and tournaments usually involve playing four games in a weekend. Scheduling is complicated for organizers who need to work around teams who cannot play from sundown on Friday until three stars appear 25 hours later on Saturday nights. Players and parents also have to make arrangements for kosher food, prayer services and Sabbath-friendly activities.

‘It was a good start’

The idea for an observant team came about when tristate-area youth grew tired of hearing stories from their parents of their own hockey-playing childhood. The parents wanted to provide their kids with the opportunity to try the sport on their own.

According to founder Tzvi Rudman, he and several parents approached the Englewood Field Club in 2001. “The rink was accommodating,” recounts Rudman, “even though the players could not play on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.”

North Jersey Avalanche hockey league member Elly Younger. Photo by Howard Blas.

And so, the team played most of their games on Saturday nights. “It was a good start,” says Rudman. “But the rink was outdoors, and it was small.”

They then approached one of the premier leagues in the area with four indoor rinks. The North Jersey Avalanche is a nationally ranked hockey organization under the guidance of Daniel May, Ice House hockey director and president who has more than 40 years of experience in youth hockey.

May and the Avalanche were willing to work with and accommodate the various needs of the young players. “The biggest and hardest part was explaining how the Shabbat start times and end times changed throughout the year. At first, they didn’t believe us,” recalls Rudman playfully. “They had to look it up! This is something we always took for granted. It was one of the most fascinating things.”

For his part, May says “we knew we could make the schedule work on our end but, we were concerned about league members’ cooperation with the schedule on their end. Fast-forward to today, we now have an observant team at almost every level. It takes a lot of extra administrative work—mostly by my wife, Monica, who schedules around 1,500 games combined for all 34 Avalanche teams, but she makes it work.”

The Avalanche started with one Sabbath-observant team in 2014—a number that has grown to four teams of 15 players: Squirts (ages 9-10), Peewees (ages 11-12), Bantams (ages 13-14) and Midgets (ages 15-16).

Rudman also notes that “there are no tryouts; you just have to say you want to be part of the team. That’s really nice.”

In spite of the commitment of time required for practices, games and travel, coupled with the sometimes challenging logistics of observing Sabbath on the road, the players and parents say they could not be happier with the results.

In fact, the big news is in late October, the oldest group won its division (Under-16, AA American) in the statewide 2021-22 New Jersey Youth Hockey League.

‘Prayer books, Torah scroll and meals together’

Michael Massel, who lives in Manhattan and attends the Shefa School, enjoys being part of a team and spending time with a diverse group of friends, both on and off the ice. “You get to play a sport. It is fun to play hockey with them, and also to chill with them and play mini-hockey at the tournaments.”

He admits, however, that “it’s also a little tiring.”

While the families seem pleased with the level of hockey, they are delighted with what their children have learned about being observant Jews and members of the Jewish community. Michael’s father, Morris, reports: “Our kids can be part of a team that is high-level hockey without compromise. They can live religious lives; there’s no such thing as a Shabbat problem.”

Massel also likes the fact that players and parents spend Shabbat together at tournaments. They bring prayer books and a Torah scroll, and eat Shabbat meals together. “We are all in it together, and the memories are unbelievable!”

Aaron Younger’s daughter, Elly, is the only girl on the team.” She attends YBH yeshivah in Passaic. “She loves skating, and she loves playing with the guys.”

Melanie Sosland of Englewood, N.J., has two boys in the league. Gabriel, age 11, plays on the Peewees, and Noah, age 14, plays on the Bantam. “They saw that other Englewood kids were playing, and they wanted to play as well,” she says.

Sosland concedes that playing four times a week is a big commitment but sees the benefits that go beyond sports. “It teaches a great work ethic and how to balance schoolwork with hockey. And the tournaments are amazing—with the Torah scroll and the kosher food. They will always remember it.”

North Jersey Avalanche hockey league member Michael Massel. Photo by Howard Blas.

Bringing Jewish observance “on the road” teaches the players to navigate sometimes complex real-life situations. They also have opportunities to serve as ambassadors for Judaism. Michael Massel recalls an incident where “one team had Shabbat issues in Delaware a couple of years ago, and the local Chabad pitched in.”

Rudman, the organization’s founder, recalls: “Seven years ago, the other teams on the road looked at us like we were from another planet when they saw our kipahs and tzitzit. Then we kicked butt during the games! Now, they all know our teams, and we are accepted.”

He also recalls a moving incident from a tournament in Providence, R.I. “We played a team with players from Colorado and Kansas. One kid came over and said, ‘I had two firsts this weekend—I saw the ocean for the first time, and I met a Jewish person for the first time.’ ”

“There is respect out there,” acknowledges Rudman, who takes the Jewish values and menschlichkeit piece very seriously, and encourages his players to remember that. In fact, he quips: “We sometimes send out reminders that we are being judged on a higher level.”

Rick Pomerantz of Englewood looks back with pride on what the league has accomplished over the years and on what it has meant for his family. His son, Alex Pomerantz, 13, is a second-year Bantam and attends the Moriah School. His father recalls that “the first year at the Ice House, Alex was one of three frum kids who played when there wasn’t a Jewish team. He loves the game and has since the first time he put on skates at 3 years old. What it has done is given him a chance to pursue his passion with high-level coaching, all without compromising our Judaic values. I know it sounds trite, but it’s true.”

He continues, saying “the teams have won tournaments, but if you speak to the parents, the most gratifying thing is that we have a beautiful minyan every day, and the entire group will eat together. The fact that we have been on tournaments with minyans of 40 men and had catered Shabbat dinners in [places like] Hershey, Pa., is unbelievable. It’s important for the kids to see that as religious Jews, you don’t have to compromise to do what you love.”

“There is no sport like hockey,” attests Pomerantz. “That’s why everyone who plays is passionate about it. The camaraderie and bonds that are made are priceless. Alex has made friends for life.”

Players on the Shomer Shabbat North Jersey Avalanche hockey league. Photo by Howard Blas.

Read more

Two years ago, a delegation of Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) and Jewish Funders Network (JFN) members visited eight Jewish summer camps in the Northeast in three days. Despite their different locations (from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts), sizes, and movement affiliations, the camps had one important thing in common: They were successfully including campers with disabilities in the camp community.

The long bus ride provided opportunities for discussion and processing of all the group was seeing and experiencing. The energy, enthusiasm, sharing, and creative thinking led to an amazing back-of-the-bus brainstorm—how about a one-day conference on disabilities inclusion in the Jewish community after the GA 2012 in Maryland? Thus, “Opening Abraham’s Tent: The Disability Inclusion Initiative” was born.

Jewish Federations of North America President and CEO, Jerry Silverman, literally ran straight from the halls of the GA to Opening Abraham’s Tent to welcome the 120 attendees. The audience members and speakers from across North America and Israel, assembled on short notice, were a “who’s who” of the Jewish disabilities world; each made his or her way to Baltimore to be part of this historic meeting.

I was proud to represent the National Ramah Commission at the convening. Looking around the room, I saw so many colleagues from across North America, and from many different organizations in the Jewish disabilities world. Many of us reflected proudly on how we got our start in this field by working with the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah. Since 1970, the Tikvah Program has been a pioneer in serving and including campers with disabilities and in training staff members for this important work.

In recent weeks, Ramah has taken this to the next level by creating the position of director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network, a position which I assumed last month and which is funded by the Oppenheimer Haas Foundation. The National Ramah Tikvah Network will expand its efforts to support the Ramah camps’ efforts to raise funds and create new programming to meet the needs of this vitally important population.

Now, two years later, nearly to the day, the GA returns to Maryland. So much has happened in the disabilities inclusion world since that initial meeting to establish Opening Abraham’s Tent. Much of the Jewish world—from synagogues to organizations to funders—is making strides toward inclusion and serving people with disabilities. We need to keep the people engaged in this effort and the issue high on the Jewish communal agenda. The work is not over.

The topics of disabilities and inclusion are now more openly discussed in religious schools, synagogues, camps, Jewish organizations, and even in the Israel Defense Forces. As a result, new disabilities and inclusion initiatives are being launched, and existing ones are being expanded throughout the North American Jewish community and in Israel. We are proud that many of the individuals establishing, leading, and staffing these initiatives and programs gained their skills and knowledge in the disabilities field by having trained and worked at Ramah’s Tikvah camping programs.

Here are just several examples of new initiatives or expansions of already existing disabilities inclusion programs:

  • The Shefa School, a new Jewish day school in Manhattan serving children with language-based learning disabilities, opened this past September.
  • The Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) recently hired a full-time director of their disabilities initiative. This will allow more camps to receive resources, support, and training as they expand services to campers with a wide range of disabilities.
  • Two new Tikvah programs for campers with disabilities will be opening by summer 2016 at Ramah Darom in Georgia and Camp Ramah in the Poconos. They will be staffed through the growing pipeline of young adults who have participated in National Ramah Tikvah Network training, which now includes staff from all other Jewish camps and is funded with the support of the Neshamot Fund of UJA-Federation of NY.

-Hineinu: Building Jewish Community for People of All Abilities, a cross-denominational partnership, recently produced a free, 32-page guide designed to increase disability inclusion in synagogues.

– JCC camps across the United States and Canada continue to expand services for people with disabilities.

– Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, continues to evolve and grow, now offering “shadow programs for maximum inclusion, where campers are FULLY integrated into a typical bunk together with supportive  ‘shadow’ staff.”

– The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and Ruderman Family Foundation launched a new Inclusion Initiative, with the goal of improving attitudes about inclusion and disabilities and ensuring full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Reform Jewish life.

This increased disabilities inclusion awareness and these new and expanded initiatives are due in large part to increased collaboration and sharing among Jewish institutions and organizations. In the Ramah camping movement, we have always believed that the best results come from joint efforts, and we have been eager to share best practices derived from our 45 years of experience in inclusion of Jewish campers with disabilities.

With generous funding from the Covenant Foundation, Ramah recently convened thirty camp directors, disabilities program coordinators, funders, and key shareholders from across the entire Ramah movement for a day of strategic planning around disabilities camping. This effort was an exciting milestone in our efforts to think together about ways we can both strengthen inclusion within Ramah as well as share our expertise with other camping movements and educational organizations seeking to create programs for children with disabilities and include them in every aspect of Jewish life.

Last week, I had the privilege of having dinner in Ra’anana, Israel, with Herb and Barbara Greenberg. In the late 1960s, these two humble Long Island public school teachers had the visionary idea to create a Jewish overnight summer camp program for campers with developmental disabilities. Despite opposition and concerns that it would lead to “normal kids” leaving, decrease the level of Hebrew, be too costly, and otherwise negatively impact the Ramah camping experience, they went ahead with their idea, with the support of a lone Ramah director, Don Adelman (z’l).

Now, 45 years later, Tikvah serves 320 children, teens, and young adults with disabilities in the Ramah camps throughout North America and also offers family camp and vocational training programs, as well as the launch of new inclusion programming in the Ramah Israel Seminar summer travel program. We all benefit from the Greenbergs’ and Don Adelman’s efforts and look to them as inspiration as we train the next generation of young people dedicated to making a place for everyone inside the Jewish community’s tent.


Read more