By Elana Sztokman, THE FORWARD
Naama Shafir, a junior guard, poured in a career-high 40 points to lead the University of Toledo to victory in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament championship. She was crowned the basketball tournament’s MVP. And then she walked about two miles home.
Shafir, an Orthodox Jew from Israel, did not want to break the Sabbath.
The University of Toledo’s 76–68 triumph over the University of Southern California on April 2 marked a historic moment for Toledo — its first postseason championship in school history. The win also marked the climax of a historic season for Shafir, the first female Orthodox Jew to earn an NCAA scholarship and to play American women’s Division I basketball.
Indeed, Shafir is arguably the only Orthodox woman athlete prominent in the public eye right now. But to get to this point, she had to overcome unique barriers of language, religion and gender.
“The game was one of the most incredible moments of my life,” Shafir told the Forward. “There were over 7,000 people there, and during those seconds when the game was over and the whole crowd ran to the court, I experienced an unbelievable high.”
The 21-year-old star is the fourth of nine children born to a family in the town of Hoshaya in Emek Israel in the Galilee. Like Shafir, almost all of Hoshaya’s residents are traditionally observant. Shafir began playing basketball in the Emek Israel girls’ basketball league when she was in fourth grade, and her talent became readily apparent. Outside the league, she often played with the boys where, her father recalled, she also excelled.
“Naama was always a very special girl, and she has grown into a wonderful young woman,” gushed her coach from Emek Israel, Liran Barel. “She is a natural leader, and she is very creative in her game, very courageous and very humble.”
The Emek Israel league, a mixed club of religious Jews, secular Jews and Arabs from around the Galilee, is considered one of the best in Israel. The league’s makeup has imbued it with a commitment to pluralism and accommodation that respectfully nurtured Shafir’s talents. Out of consideration for its observant members, the league refrains from practice on the Sabbath.
“To coach someone with this kind of talent and ambition is a gift that most coaches don’t get in their lives,” Barel said. “It’s a privilege.”
It was late on a Saturday night in Israel when the Toledo Rockets faced off against USC in the championship game. In Hoshaya, the Shafir house was packed with people, and after the game, celebrations continued long into the night. The family had to wait until 4:30 a.m., when the Sabbath was over in Toledo, to call Shafir and congratulate her personally.
In Toledo, the entire basketball program adapted its practices to accommodate Shafir’s religious needs. There are no practices on the Sabbath, and whenever there is an away game, the team travels together on a Friday, before sundown. To mitigate religious concern regarding modesty, Shafir also wears a T-shirt under her sleeveless jersey. The team stocks a storage freezer in a nearby eatery with kosher meals. The Rockets are also planning a trip to Israel this year.
“The college has been incredibly supportive,” said Itzik Shafir, Naama’s father, who visited different colleges with his daughter before she settled on Toledo. She had been offered several scholarships, but he wanted to ensure that the one she chose would respect her lifestyle.
Shafir, who is 5-foot-7 and led the Rockets with an average 15.3 points and 5 assists per game this season, is not the first Orthodox Jew to play American basketball. Tamir Goodman, an Orthodox Jew from Baltimore once ranked among the top 25 U.S. high school players, and he received public attention for refusing to play on the Sabbath. But he has since moved to Israel and retired from basketball.
More than Orthodox men, women face additional challenges, such as religious demands to wear loose clothing that covers knees and elbows, and in some circles, an expectation not to play in front of men, as Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a prominent Orthodox Zionist religious leader, has ruled.