Take a bunch of children from two different cultures who have almost nothing in common but the love of a sport, and where once there might have been fear and hatred, understanding is reached, friendships are made, and a whole lot of respect is gained for each other through how they play the game.
This was the vision attributed by some parents to the administration of the Englewood City Parks and Recreation department when they realized that only about half of the town was being serviced and using the facilities. The idea, citywide, was to become inclusive.
“Basketball seems to be the thing that’s drawing everyone together. You give a kid a ball and they all get into it.”
The words are from Gila Comet, an Orthodox Jewish mother, who has three sons who love to play basketball. “They’ve been playing since they were in diapers.” A social worker with a background in planning, she worked on the Municipal Democratic Committee in Englewood when about five months ago another member, involved in basketball and the recreation department, asked her to come on board and get involved in the programming.
“They wanted to get everyone together because then you get more school time, more gym time, more play time, you get more recognized and possibly get more funding when you blend basketball. An inducement to get into the Englewood rec league from Comet’s point of view was that her children were playing the same people over and over again. “I thought wouldn’t it be great to broaden their horizons, in basketball, in anything, to step out of their comfort zone.”
Between Comet’s work and a public relations effort instituted by the city, she said people started to hear about the program.
“The programming for basketball was running for limited times, on Friday night and Saturday over Shabbos so the department offered to switch the practice days to Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, depending on the age groups, so the different Orthodox children could participate.” The practices are in Grieco for 3rd and 4th graders, McCloud for 5th and 6th graders, and JDMS for 7th and 8th graders. “This is the first time that the Orthodox Jewish kids have been playing on the ‘rec’ league and it’s been absolutely fantastic.”
Two of Comet’s sons go to Moriah. Another son goes to Frisch in Paramus. They’ve been playing on their school teams as well as on a travel league through the JCC and in the Mitch Gross Basketball League out of Teaneck. So with the change of practice times in place she signed them up with the Englewood Recreation league for a free program. That program was being run by Bill Willoughby, a former center and power forward who played for the Atlanta Hawks, Buffalo Braves, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, and New Jersey Nets.
The program expanded to a summer program with the public school children. “My kids were signed up. They made friends, the coaches were engaging, and it was a wonderful experience for them.” While the program had about 50 to 60 children signed up, about 12 more came from the Orthodox schools. “They learned how to play basketball in a different way. They were so positive about it that a lot of their friends signed up.”
Comet said it’s a new program and expects that this will expand. “The more kids that sign up, the more the program grows, the more gym space we have, the more time we get.” She said a league is going to be started for the girls this winter and is progressing.
She said the program has been spectacular. “The Orthodox children have been accepted by a whole other community. It’s been wonderful for them and for all the other kids who signed up.”
Jonathan Comet, 12 years old, said he’s been playing basketball since he was 2. He said he loves the game because it’s active and fun. “I’m a point guard so I control the game and the speed of the game. You have to know what to do at the right time.”
When he started with the rec team he was the first and only Orthodox player and said that at first he had to prove himself, “but I think I did that and now I’m friends with all of them. It’s really a learning thing.” What Jonathan has learned, he said is to be more aggressive in his play. “They try to make you play better. All the kids encourage you to try hard and do more and they are really nice.”
Aside from sharing basketball, Jonathan said when they hang out they talk about the differences in their schools. Most of the other boys on the rec team go to the Dr. Leroy McCloud Elementary School. “We played a scrimmage game at our school (Moriah) and they said it was gigantic compared to their school.”
Aside from playing in the public school and meeting the children there, they travel with the team to play other recreation teams, such as in Dumont and Hawthorne and of course meeting new children there.
One of the new experiences for her children, as for many of the Orthodox children, was just to walk into a public school where few of them had ever been before. Another parent who heard about the comingling of the students and the facilities was Dr. Robert Sholomon. “This past September we decided to try it and now more and more Orthodox boys are playing on the team and having a nice experience.
“My son (Nathan) did it in the fall, now he’s doing it in the winter and just this semester he had five more friends sign up. “He asked me if he could be on the same team with his new friends. He likes it. They’re trying to be more involved and let the kids play together. It’s kind of nice actually. There’s a big gap in the community, black v. white, rich v. poor and this allows them to play together and speak with each other. They see what our school looks like and our kids see what their school looks like. It opens their eyes a little bit to the rest of the neighborhood and what’s going on.”
Comet said, “The children have been so nice and so welcoming. They exchange phone numbers, they call each other. It’s what keeps me going. When my child walks into a public school and he’s greeted so nicely with such openness and friendliness, it’s fantastic.”
Speaking of Englewood’s travel program, Comet said that while most of the cost for teams is several hundred dollars for just one time a week, this is $100 per person per session for three times a week.
By Anne Phyllis Pinzow