By Josh Bernstein
Special to the TJP
The Chai Force basketball dynasty was developed in recent years through the efforts of two local fathers, Dusty Eber and Dr. Arbe Cohen, to allow both shomer and non-shomer Shabbat kids to play competitive basketball together.
And this past weekend, Eber and Cohen succeeded in organizing the first ever Chai Force Shabbaton. Thirty boys, ranging in age from fourth grade to eighth grade, spent an amazing 25 hours together observing Shabbat and bonding. For some of the boys it was their first time having a “Shabbat Experience.”
The weekend began with Friday night services and a beautiful dinner at the home of Rabbi Meir and Sarit Sabo, beloved teachers of many of the Chai Force kids at Akiba, who also have a son on the second-grade Chai Force team. As Israelis, the Sabos’ home is always open to the community and full of love, spirit and amazing food, and hosting the Chai Force boys was no different. Former Yavneh basketball superstar Gavi Wolk spoke to the kids at the Friday night Shabbat dinner about ambassadorship and sportsmanship on the court and about how we represent all Jews when we are on the court. For example, Wolk explained, when the Yavneh varsity boys traveled to Abilene recently for the state basketball championship, that may have been the first time people out there had experiences with Jews, highlighting the importance of displaying proper behavior both on and off the court for all to see.
For the Friday overnight, Marni and Graeme Rael hosted about 10 seventh- and eighth-graders, Amy and Dusty Eber hosted about 10-15 sixth-graders, and Bat Sheva and Gary Schwartz hosted about 10-15 fifth-graders. Out of respect for the kids and host families that keep Shabbat, all participants were asked to refrain from using their cell phones from Friday drop-off to Saturday after Shabbat. Although this may have seemed like a tall order at the outset, the togetherness of the Shabbat experience actually allowed the boys to unplug with very little effort.
Saturday morning Shabbat services were held at Congregation Shaare Tefilla. Exemplifying the unity the group developed, Park Hill seventh-grade Chai Force player Micah Bernstein shared, “When we were all together saying the Shema arm in arm in a big circle, it didn’t matter where we were from, we were all one.” Following services, the Ebers hosted a giant Shabbat lunch for all participants. Yavneh junior varsity basketball coach Zach Pollak gave an inspiring talk to the boys at the Shabbat lunch about the two steps to becoming a great basketball player — persistence and resilience.
Shabbat afternoon, the boys enjoyed a few hours of sports, activities and just hanging out. Shabbat ended with a spirited Havdallah service at the Eber home, led by Rabbi Sabo on vocals and Graeme Rael on the guitar. Once again, Rabbi Sabo could hardly contain his awe and Jewish pride upon seeing the boys arm in arm singing and bringing Shabbat to an end together. Eli Levine, a sixth-grade Chai Force player from Chandler Elementary who had not participated in a Shabbaton before, was given the honor of holding the Havdallah candle in the middle of the circle of 30 boys.
The Chai Force philosophy is one of inclusion, where shomer and non-shomer kids play together in competitive basketball leagues at Sportsplex at Valley View, with a guarantee that no regular season or playoff games will take place on Shabbat, and no child is turned away due to skill level or for any other reason.
For information on joining a Chai Force team, please contact Dusty Eber or Arbe Cohen at ChaiForce18@gmail.com.