'In the League Together': Religious and Secular Children, Soccer and a Meeting of Identities

Winter, 2015

Source: HaYidion – Winter 2015


Soccer is Israel’s most popular sport. And, as any Israeli child will tell you, soccer is played on Shabbat; that’s just the way things are. The question of whether games should be held on Shabbat usually arises in the context of discussions related to Shabbat observance. The issue of the sanctity of Shabbat is important, but in this article we will highlight a different important social problem—the exclusion of the religious public from sports. It turns out that religious youth are largely prevented from excelling in sports in Israel. This is the case not only in soccer, but in general: in judo, fencing and swimming, many of the major tournaments are also held on Shabbat, thereby excluding religious competitors. Basketball leagues are an exception to this rule, as games take place during the week, and in fact many religious youth participate.


This religious-secular dispute about playing on Shabbat poses a special challenge for Tzav Pius, an organization dedicated to bridging this divide in Israel. How can it be turned into an opportunity for turning the soccer field into a place of meeting and cooperation, one that would not only provide a solution for Shabbat observers, but would become a space where people can live and develop together beyond labels, stereotypes and separate educational systems?


About twelve years ago, religious journalist Shaul Meislish sought a solution for his son who wanted to play soccer without desecrating the Shabbat. Meislish’s idea was simple: to initiate the establishment of a children’s team that would not play on Shabbat. Meislish contacted Tsav Pius, who agreed to sponsor the initiative, and together they succeeded in convincing the Israel Soccer Association to allow one team to play on weekdays. Thus, the first “Tsav Pius team” was born in the Tubork Club in Netanya.


Today, in the Soccer Association’s children and youth leagues, more than eighty Tsav Pius teams do not play on Shabbat, thereby also making it possible for Shabbat-observing children to play soccer together with secular children.


Notwithstanding the challenges, increasing numbers of clubs are opening Tsav Pius teams that play on weekdays. This is a product, on the one hand, of pressure upon club managers to include religious children on their soccer teams, and on the other hand, of positive reactions from families of the secular children—whose Shabbat turns from a day of transporting children to and from soccer games to a day of calm family leisure.


While playing soccer on Shabbat is a social issue in Israel, no less significant is the unfortunate prevalence of violence on the playing fields—in professional games and in youth soccer as well. We thought that our teams could provide an alternative with regard to this as well, and this was the motivation behind the idea of developing an educational program for members of the Tsav Pius soccer teams. The meeting of secular and religious children creates an opportunity to talk about how children are similar and how they differ, about identities in Israeli society, about friendship, and about values of tolerance and acceptance of the other. In the course of the program, the children learn to use dialogue to solve and manage conflicts, respect for the other (both in the team and on opposing teams), tolerance, and mutual responsibility.


In clubs in which some of the players are Arab children and youth, the national dimension is also included. The educational program relates to both the religious and national dimensions, with an emphasis on Israeli society’s complexity and cultural diversity, and on the challenges of living together.


We realized from the beginning that the significant educational figure in practice is the soccer coach. The program has a professional facilitator on behalf of Tsav Pius, yet we decided that the active participation of the soccer coaches is critical: When soccer coaches work with children they deal, as in other sports, with issues beyond the game itself, including especially discipline and team building. Therefore, the program was designed in a way that the coach would be involved with the program, while actively assisting the facilitator in its delivery.


Read the entire article in Hayidion.

Updated: Jan. 06, 2016