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Students torn on Jewish holiday
On Yom Kippur, many Jews struggle: Should they attend services or school events?
By SHERRI DAY and JOEY KNIGHT, Times Staff Writers
Published September 21, 2007
[BRIAN CASSELLA | Times]
Gaither High saxophone player Andrew Cohen poses with his instrument at the Congregation Beth Am temple.
TAMPA - Andrew Cohen hasn't missed a single football game since he joined the Gaither High School Marching Band this year. But tonight, there will be an empty spot on the field where the 14-year-old alto saxophone player usually stands.
Instead of attending the game against Jefferson High, Cohen will be observing his Jewish faith at temple services.
Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, starts at sundown tonight and ends sundown Saturday.
Cohen, a freshman, feels torn.
"I want to be in both places at once," he said. "I'm very strong in my faith, and I also love band. I shouldn't have to make a choice."
Because Yom Kippur falls on a weekend this year, Cohen's problem reverberates with many of the more than 65,000 Jews throughout the bay area. Several high school students and their families have to choose between attending temple Friday night or participating in cheerleading, football, band or parent-booster activities. It spills over into Saturday for families who must decide whether to allow youths of fasting age to participate in team sports.
In Hillsborough County, which this year wiped its calendar free of religious holidays, tensions around the issue run deep. Many parents and religious groups still seethe because the School Board removed Yom Kippur from the calendar while still providing time off around Christmas, though the days are not dubbed religious holidays.
"People understand that we're a minority, and that the sort of community calendar can't work around us all the time," said Rabbi Jason Rosenberg of Congregation Beth Am in North Tampa. "But this is a big holiday. There seems to be, from some areas, a lack of sensitivity around this."
Nationwide, Jews make up about 3 percent of the population, making the conflict between their religious holidays and secular events an age-old problem. In 1965, Los Angeles Dodgers left-handed pitcher Sandy Koufax famously refused to pitch the first game of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.
Helene Geller has yet to decide if she'll take her 9-year-old to his first Little League game Saturday. "I normally fast so I don't think I'm going to be out in the heat and try and fast," said Geller, who attends Temple Ohev Shalom in New Tampa. "Maybe it will get rained out."
Public school officials in Pinellas County largely sidestepped the issue by scheduling games and activities earlier in the week. Junior varsity football teams played Wednesday. Varsity teams hit the gridiron Thursday.
Before school started this year, Nick Grasso, Pinellas County's executive director for extracurricular activities, met with local religious and cultural leaders to mete out a schedule respectful to all traditions. "I try my hardest to get our folks to honor and respect the fact that these dates are important to folks in our community," he said.
Lanness Robinson, Hillsborough County's athletic director, said he sympathized with students conflicted because of religious obligations, but he intends to follow the district's school calendar.
"If the district thinks that we shouldn't have school, we won't have an event," Robinson said. "That's the fairest way to do it. We can't start making exceptions for different things because then the list of special exceptions being requested would just grow."
Whether parents, students and faculty choose to be absent from events this weekend, will largely depend upon their level of religious observance.
Over the years, Plant High football coach Bob Weiner, who is Jewish, has adapted. He plans to coach tonight and anticipates the "two or three" Jewish players on his team taking the field.
"They pretty much decided on their own" to play, Weiner said. "Other than missing practice last week for Rosh Hashana, no one has spoken to me about it. I guess the possibility is Saturday when we're watching films, they may miss that."
By contrast, Jesuit High junior cross country standout Jordan Schilit will not travel with his team Saturday to the Florida State University Invitational in Tallahassee.
"I already knew this well in advance so I kind of let my team know pretty early on," said Schilit, the team's No. 2 runner. He will attend services Saturday at Congregation Kol Ami in North Tampa.
Last year, Blake High School band member Daniel Wind struggled with missing the big game between his school and Middleton High at Raymond James Stadium. Ultimately, Wind's mother decided he should go to services and he dealt with a guilt trip served up by band mates. "They were saying 'It's your fault that you're Jewish and you're missing the game,' " he said.
But this year he decided on his own to miss a game tonight against Chamberlain. "My religion is important to me," said the 15-year-old sophomore, who attends Congregation Rodeph Sholom in South Tampa. "So, my mom did make the right choice in making me go."
For Kyra Frye, a freshman at Bloomingdale High, the decision to skip a game tonight against Plant City was effortless. "If it's a holiday, you go to services," said Frye, 14. "Religion is more important than a marching band."
Cohen, the saxophonist from Gaither, hopes to one day make similar decisions with ease. But for now, he admits he may struggle to focus on his faith while keeping thoughts of tonight's game or Saturday's all-day band practice at bay.
His mother, Lisa Cohen, said her son and others like him shouldn't have to choose. "Look at the calendar. That's all we ask."
Information from Times archives was used in this report. Times Staff Writer Keith Niebuhr contributed to this report. Sherri Day can be reached at 813-226-3405 or firstname.lastname@example.org