They don’t roll on Shabbos

Members of Israel’s national lacrosse team might drive cars on Shabbos. They might ride in cars, handle money, turn on their ovens, or even go bowling. But they sure as hell won’t play lacrosse.

That, at least, is the policy of the Israel Lacrosse Association, which features four men’s teams — in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Netanya and Ashkelon — and participated in its first international men’s competition last year.

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Now, Israel’s women are competing in the 2013 Lacrosse World Cup. Headed by three women originally from the U.S., the team achieved a playoff berth with a decisive 13-6 win over Scotland. So far, it’s a story of competitors bested, obstacles overcome.

But the team won’t be able to advance to the next round because the tournament’s round of eight is scheduled for Saturday, July 20. Scott Neiss, the Israel Lacrosse Association’s founder, asked the International Federation of Lacrosse to reschedule the games, but the request was denied because it would have entailed a Friday doubleheader.

Israel’s Olympic teams compete on Shabbat. So does its popular domestic soccer league. But Neiss wants to set a new standard — whatever the price.

“It’s less of a religious issue and more of a national identity issue,” he said. “We have to set the right precedent for our program. We want to make sure we’re not offending anybody.”

About ten percent of Neiss’s players — many of them American — observe Shabbat traditionally, abstaining from work on Friday night and Saturday. Neiss noted that many Olympic sports are individual rather than team sports, so each athlete can decide whether and how to observe Shabbat. But he added that Israel’s Culture and Sport Ministry encourages teams to inquire about postponing games scheduled for Shabbat.

“In my personal opinion, if you’re wearing Israel on your shirt you should be doing everything in your power to represent Israel the right way,” he said.

That’s not the only reason Israel’s lacrosse teams don’t play on Saturday. Neiss has dreams of making the game into the national sport. And in a country that’s 25 percent Orthodox, he said, “you have to be accessible to everybody.”

Ben Sales is JTA’s Israel correspondent. He reports on Israeli politics, culture, society and economics, in addition to covering Palestinian and regional affairs. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and the Columbia University Journalism School, he is the former editor-in-chief of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine.