By Raphaela Gold ‘21 and Talia Levin ‘20
Heschel has recently experienced conflicts with the regulations mandated by the Yeshiva League. The Yeshiva League, or more formally, the Metropolitan Yeshiva High School Athletic League, is a high school athletic league made up of 37 mostly-Orthodox Yeshivas and Jewish Day Schools in the New York Metropolitan area. The league includes teams in basketball, floor hockey, volleyball, soccer, baseball, and softball. Heschel participates at in boys and girls basketball, girls floor hockey, cross country, track, and boys baseball within the league. Regarding how Heschel became involved with the league, Director of High School Athletics Rick Munn commented, “This predates my time, but I think we joined the Yeshiva League just because it’s part of the Jewish community, and it’s a pretty old league, so it’s been in existence for a long time and there is a good history.”
Heschel is the only non-Orthodox school in the Yeshiva League. The league does not not have games on Shabbat, which is in line with Heschel’s athletic policies. Issues have arisen with certain teams in regards to dress codes that are expected by the league, especially because the league’s website does not specify any rules regarding clothing. Instead, these guidelines are generally conveyed verbally. Munn said, “One thing particular to the Yeshiva League is there is always a reference to community standards… we will be respectful of the schools we go to, and wear long sweats if we need to, but when they come here, we don’t require that, and this is a currently ongoing discussion.” The conversation regarding requirements on what students wear varies based on gender and sport. This issue has been contentious and a few female athletes from Heschel are petitioning for change.
One of those students is junior Mia Steinberg. An incident occurred in early October when Steinberg was asked to tie an article of clothing around her waist to cover her leggings at a cross country meet. The temperature was almost 80 degrees. “Two seconds after I got there one of the heads of the Yeshiva League came up to me and was like ‘You cannot wear this. It’s against the Yeshiva League rules… You’re going to have to change to compete.’” Steinberg noted that the woman was very polite but still insisted on the change. “I couldn’t really dispute. She didn’t give me a choice. [She said,] ‘I don’t make the rules… but we have to do this.’” Steinberg had not brought a change of clothes and was forced to change into a black SAR shirt and tie a teammate’s sweatshirt around her waist. She continued, “So I ran the race like that. And it was awful.” The additional clothing she had to wear, particularly when coupled with the heat, had a negative effect on her race. Most of the time, Steinberg appreciates being in the Yeshiva league: “I really like being in Yeshiva League because last year we weren’t and we had to leave school [very early to go to meets] and also, they had meets on Saturdays.” Cross-country participants found that competing in the Private School Athletic Association (PSAA) last year was much more difficult and preferred the team’s switch to the Yeshiva League. Steinberg made a distinction between this sport and others in regards to dress code: “It’s no one’s home field [yet] you need [consistent] rules, and I guess the best way to do that is to make sure everyone feels comfortable.” She pointed out that since meets take place in public parks, no one school can set the dress expectations, so a general standard may be required. She also expressed concern over the treatment of the girls’ basketball team dress code, especially on Heschel’s court.
The girls’ basketball team is required to wear sweatpants and a shirt under their jerseys. Noa Gilad, a junior on the team, reflected, “I just don’t really like how we are not allowed to wear basketball shorts. I understand that it is out of respect for the other teams who have some players who might be more religious than us, but I think that when we play games on our home court, we should have the freedom to wear shorts.” The boys basketball team is free to wear shorts and jerseys. They are also not required to wear kippot or tzitzit, which are often required by the other teams in the league for their male students.
An issue that often arises for students is how late the weekday games are held in the Yeshiva League. Munn explained “One disadvantage [of participating in the Yeshiva League] is travel. Even though travel is better in Yeshiva League than in the PSAA, the disadvantage is that the starting time is usually later because those schools get out of school later, so it can put a bit of a burden on the students.” Students have complained about the issue of late games in addition to the regular student workload.
In addition to sports, all competitions in which the Heschel debate team participates are held within the Yeshiva League. They are hosted by various schools in the league, and teachers from the different schools serve as judges. According to debate coach Sandra Silverman, one advantage of being in the Yeshiva League is “learning how to debate and having the ability to do this within the parameters that are respectful of our religious observance.” Silverman thinks that overall, Yeshiva League students are very well prepared for competitions and that everyone takes debate seriously. The only major difference between the Yeshiva League and other leagues is that most other leagues use the Lincoln Douglas format for their debates, while the Yeshiva League uses parliamentary format.
In regards to Yeshiva League debate dress code, Silverman remarked, “Heschel has not been discriminated against for wearing too short skirts. When you are a guest in somebody’s house, you don’t insult your host. It would be inappropriate for students to disrespect schools by not adhering to the dress code standard.” In the past, students in the Yeshiva League have respected the dress code, and there have not been many issues surrounding this matter. However, at the December 2nd MTA (Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy) Great Debate of 2018, Mrs. Harriet Levitt, an MTA English teacher presiding over the debate, noticed that some girls were not following the dress code. After the debating rounds were over and all students reconvened to receive the awards, Levitt voiced her annoyance at this disregard for the rules of the Yeshiva League, saying, “It’s uncomfortable for some male debaters when females wear skirts above the knees. Female debaters must respect this and make sure that male debaters don’t experience discomfort or distraction.” Levitt’s statement was greeted by an immediate outcry from almost all of the female students present. Sophomore Ayelet Kaminer protested, “Are you suggesting that we limit what we wear just to make men feel comfortable?” Many girls from other schools joined in with their own criticism. Even a history teacher from Ramaz declared, “Part of being a good citizen is acknowledging that other people are doing things that we don’t care for, and we must accept that.” One male student from MTA supported Levitt, claiming “I don’t think we’re insulting anyone and I’m not trying to limit their freedom, but it makes me feel uncomfortable when they wear skirts above the knee.” Levitt, seemingly unsure how to respond, said, “I’m glad we’re having this discussion.”
Kaminer felt that this incident was a sign that MTA and the entire Yeshiva League value the comfort and wellbeing of males students over that of female participants. She noted, “We are seen as side characters in the background of male students, rather than active and engaged participants. Though we are equal to male students in every manner imaginable, it is obvious that the Yeshiva League does not view us as so.”
Heschel’s Model United Nations team has also experienced several values conflicts with Yeshiva League events. The Model UN team attends the Yeshiva University Model United Nations conference. Unlike other Model UN conferences, it does not take place on Saturday, eliminating the issue of overlap with Shabbat. One matter of slight contention is that only an Orthodox praying option is offered at the conference. Social Studies teacher and Model UN faculty advisor Joseph Eskin expressed that despite this possible deviation from Heschel’s pluralistic values, being at a specifically Jewish conference was convenient for the team. “We’re often the only religious school [at other conferences] in any capacity. It puts a lot of pressure on us as a school and me as an advisor,” Eskin said. In regards to the Yeshiva University conference, he commented,“It was taken care of. It was full service. All the kosher catering was taken care of. Three-times-a day-davening.” Eskin added, “I sort of went in with the feeling that it’s one of those situations when we’re going on to a turf that is not exactly our own.” Overall, Eskin felt welcome, and appreciated the convenience of a conference that provided a Jewish context, despite it being different from than the environment at Heschel.
Heschel’s mission statement explains that “The Heschel School is a pluralistic, egalitarian community that includes families from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds, practices and beliefs.” Heschel strives to include members from different religious backgrounds by providing varied prayer options, supporting diverse religious practice, and engaging openly in discussion. Is participating in the Yeshiva League in alignment with Heschel’s commitment to pluralism? Despite tensions felt by both students and faculty, the league certainly has its advantages. Munn concludes, “I think we should certainly remain in the Yeshiva League in the sports that we’re currently playing in because we get good competition and it’s run fairly well.” For now, Heschel teams will continue the balancing act of upholding our school’s pluralistic nature while participating in an Orthodox league.