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Orthodox basketball star Naama Shafir led the University of Toledo to victory

April 2, 2011
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Naama Shafir is the first Orthodox Jewish woman to earn an NCAA scholarship and to play basketball at a Division I college. Image courtesy of the University of Toledo.


On Saturday, April 2, 2011, junior guard Naama Shafir scored a career-high 40 points, securing the University of Toledo’s victory over the University of Southern California in the final round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament. Named the tournament’s MVP, Naama Shafir is the first Orthodox Jewish woman to earn an NCAA scholarship and to play basketball at a Division I college. After her championship win, Shafir walked two miles home in accordance with her observance of Shabbat.

“The game was one of the most incredible moments of my life,” Shafir told the Forward. “There were over 7,000 people there, and during those seconds when the game was over and the whole crowd ran to the court, I experienced an unbelievable high.”

Naama Shafir was born in Hoshaya in Emek Israel in the Galilee. She is the fourth of nine children. She began playing basketball in the Emek Israel girls’ basketball league when she was in the fourth grade. At 18, Shafir was recruited by the University of Toledo. When she arrived in Ohio, she knew very little English and almost no one in her new hometown.  A business major as well as star athlete, she had made friends and educated her peers about Israel and Judaism.

Naama Shafir received special dispensation to play, but not practice, basketball on Saturdays from Rabbi Rabbi Chaim Burgansky. He told the Forward: “Practice is in the category of ‘exercise’ and therefore forbidden, but the game itself is fun for the player. Who wants to sit on the bench?” Nevertheless, some people insisted that what she was doing is not right. “But I believe what I am doing is right," Shafir told ESPN,

As an Orthodox woman, Shafir faces additional challenges. The principles of tsnius, or modesty, dictate that women keep their knees and elbows covered. Shafir wears a t-shirt underneath her sleeveless basketball jersey. In June of 2011, Munich-based FIBA Europe refused to let her play in Europe unless she wore the standard sleeveless uniform. Eventually, FIBA agreed to permit Shafir to play if she wore skin-toned elastic sleeves.

The basketball program at the University of Toledo has been supportive of  Shafir’s religious commitments.  The team does not practice on Saturdays and if it has an away game, the whole team travels before sundown on Friday. They also make sure to pack frozen kosher meals. USA Today reported that a hotel in Hawaii heated up Shafir's kosher meal but refused to allow her to eat it in the dining room with the rest of her team. The team was shocked. The players moved their meal to the lobby so that they could eat together, chanting the Hebrew word for “team” that Shafir had taught them.

Naama Shafir believes that Orthodox observance need not hamper the ambitions of young women. She told the Forward, “If you have a dream, it’s not a question of ‘either-or.’ You can do both. You can be religious and fulfill your dreams.”

See also: This Week in History for November 4, 2009, Women’s basketball pioneer Nancy Lieberman becomes the first woman to coach a NBA D-League men’s basketball team and March 22, 1893, Senda Berenson officiates at first collegiate women's basketball game; Sports in the United States.

Sources: Naama Shafir Bio, University of Toledo Women's Basketball; An Orthodox Jew Leads Toledo to a Women's National Basketball Title, The Forward; At Tournament, Naama Shafir Wears Observance on Her Sleeves, The Forward's Sisterhood blog; Toledo's Naama Shafir balances beliefs, basketball, ESPN; Naama Shafir, Toledo share a religious experience, USAToday.com; FIBA Will Definitely Not Allow Naama Shafir To Wear Her Undershirt, Business Insider.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Orthodox basketball star Naama Shafir led the University of Toledo to victory." (Viewed on April 24, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/apr/02/2011/naama-shafir>.