NORTH MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- Early Thursday morning at a Jewish high school here, Elan Kainen donned the prayer shawl that had been a gift from his maternal grandfather and recited the prayers of the Shacharit service. Nine hours later, he went through another ritual, one involving pads, cleats and a helmet, as he suited up for what might be the final game of his high school football career.
The Hurricanes of Scheck Hillel Community School were going up against a conference rival, the Berean Christian School Bulldogs, with a spot in the postseason playoffs hanging in the balance. For Elan and his teammates, who attend one of the only Jewish religious schools in the nation to play varsity football, Friday evening is for Shabbat dinner. Their gridiron action takes place under Thursday night lights.
For Scheck Hillel's team, the fall football schedule bends in deference to the string of holidays that run from Rosh Hashana to Simchat Torah. Before getting the usual locker-room exhortation from their coach, players hear a d'var Torah, a sermon about the week's Torah portion, from a rabbi. At home games, the Israeli national anthem, "Hatikvah," is played over the stadium loudspeaker.
"Football requires a lot of discipline, not giving up, pushing yourself," said Elan, 17, who plays both fullback and linebacker. "In Judaism, I feel like the discipline I've learned on the field helps me follow the rules."
His teammate Nathaniel Rub, a wide receiver, drew another parallel: "Going to a Jewish school, you're put into a community of friends you'll know the rest of your life. And football is just another kind of team."
That team effort has a larger, more historic dimension. The Hurricanes represent a continuation, albeit in a form Theodor Herzl never could have predicted, of the Zionist ethos. It held that the oppressed Jews in the ghettos and shtetls of Eastern Europe had to reinvent themselves as robust, physically capable beings as part of their emancipation.
The early waves of settlers to Palestine, and then the nascent Israeli state, adopted the archetype of the "New Jew" grasping a plow in one hand and a rifle in the other. Amid the material comforts of America, young athletes like Elan have chosen to take on a sport of surpassing bodily risk, from torn ligaments to concussions.
For Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University who has written widely about Judaism and sports, a team like the Hurricanes embodies both cultural assimilation and Zionist tradition. Its players are taking part in a consummately American sport, and in the football-obsessed state of Florida at that. Yet they also embody a modern variation on Zionism's mandate that, as Mr. Gurock put it, "the role models for Jews had to be either the victorious Maccabees or at least the courageous Bar Kochba, who fought against the nations of the world."
Be that as it may, perhaps because of a certain communal (and parental) devotion to what is lovingly called the "Yiddishe kup" -- the Jewish brain -- varsity football has not been the favorite athletic expression of Zionism in America. While the numbers fluctuate a bit from year to year, for most of the last decade no more than five and sometimes as few as two Jewish day schools have fielded football teams. The day school near Fort Lauderdale that used to be Scheck Hillel's rival in the annual "Kiddush Cup" game, wryly named for the ritual cup used for the blessing over wine, gave up the sport this season.
Instead of playing tackle football in youth leagues, Elan and his future teammates participated in flag football -- a pale imitation with 5 players on a side instead of 11, a field about half the size, and no real hitting. When Alex Froimzon, now a senior quarterback, raised the prospect of trying out for a varsity team in high school, he recalled, "My parents at first were like, 'Can't you play baseball or something else?' "
Several years before, a former football player and coach from upstate New York moved to the Miami area to escape the harsh winters. That man, Mike Norman, found an online job listing from Scheck Hillel, saying the school was interested in starting a football team. He was soon hired to help David Fried, who until then had been running a flag-football program at the local Jewish community center.
"There was a lot to learn," recalled Mr. Norman, who is Roman Catholic. "No Friday practices. No Saturday games. The first two or three years, there was a lot of naysaying that Jewish kids wouldn't do it, that the program won't last, the kids will be too wimpy, they won't be committed. So we put that out there to the kids, and we went out there with a chip on our shoulder."
After becoming head coach in 2009, Mr. Norman posted a cumulative record of 19-10 heading into this year. Playing in a league for small independent and religious schools, the Hurricanes had a couple of secret weapons, like calling plays in Hebrew. And, when the team still had the David Posnack Jewish Day School as an opponent, the many Latin American immigrants on Scheck Hillel switched the signal count and audibles to Spanish.
This year, the Hurricanes have struggled at times. The team entered Thursday night's game with a 2-4 record. Through every game, though, Elan's grandfather, Dr. Henry Clayman, sat in the bleachers. At just 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, Elan was the leading tackler on the Hurricanes.
Dr. Clayman had inspired Elan with family stories about Jewish toughness, stretching back to when his parents were raising him in England. His father, a soldier in the British Army, was a regimental boxing champion. One time, his mother heard a bus passenger make an anti-Semitic comment. She pulled the man's derby over his eyes, clouted him with her umbrella, and said, "Now you have a reason to hate Jews."
On Thursday night, Scheck Hillel jumped out to a 12-0 lead over Berean Christian, then fell behind. Finally, with less than 30 seconds remaining, Alex connected with Lior Barhai, a junior playing wide receiver, for a long touchdown pass. The Hurricanes won 32-28, earning a playoff spot.
Dr. Clayman was waiting outside the locker room for Elan, so he could take some pictures on the field to commemorate the night. "I was schlepping naches," he said, using the Yiddish term for deriving pride or satisfaction. "As we always said at Oxford."
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This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 19, 2013 2:01 PM