By Howard Blas
At 9:30 p.m. on a recent Saturday night, players from the North Jersey Avalanche hockey league finished their game and walked off Rink 3 at the Ice House in Hackensack, NJ. They were tired and a bit dejected, after losing 4-1 to the Bandits, as well as mindful that in a little less than 10 hours they would be back on the ice for a Sunday-morning game against the Devils — at 7:30 a.m.
The players — by then, ravished — took off their helmets, masks and pads, put down their sticks, and quickly devoured slices of pizza. Kosher pizza. Helmets were replaced with kippot, and the lone girl on the team, Elly Younger, changed from her yellow Avalanche hockey uniform into a denim skirt and a blue long sleeve shirt.
The New Jersey Avalanche is a club of skaters and stick-handlers, but it’s not your typical hockey club. The Avalanche is comprised of four youth hockey teams of players ages nine to 16, all shomer Shabbat (Sabbath-observant).
There are four practices a week and tournaments throughout the Northeast, usually involving four games in a weekend.
Scheduling is complicated. Organizers need to work around teams who cannot play from sundown on Friday until three stars appear 25 hours later on Saturday nights.
Players and parents also have to make arrangements for kosher food and prayer services.
The idea for an observant team came about when tristate-area youth grew tired of hearing stories from their parents of their own hockey-playing childhood. The parents wanted to provide their kids with the same opportunity.
According to founder Tzvi Rudman, he and several parents approached the Englewood (NJ) Field Club in 2001. “The rink was accommodating,” recounts Rudman, “even though the players could not play on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.”
So the team played most of their games on Saturday nights. “It was a good start,” says Rudman. “But the rink was outdoors, and it was small.”
They then approached one of the premier leagues in the area with four indoor rinks. The North Jersey Avalanche is a nationally ranked hockey organization under the guidance of Daniel May, Ice House hockey director who has more than 40 years of experience in youth hockey.
“The biggest and hardest part was explaining how the Shabbat start times and end times changed throughout the year. At first, they didn’t believe us,” recalls Rudman playfully. “They had to look it up! This is something we always took for granted.”
May says, “we knew we could make the schedule work on our end, but we were concerned about league members’ cooperation. Fast-forward to today, we now have an observant team at almost every level. It takes a lot of extra administrative work — mostly by my wife, Monica, who schedules around 1,500 games combined for all 34 Avalanche teams.”
The Avalanche started with one Sabbath-observant team in 2014 — a number that has grown to four teams of 15 players: Squirts (ages 9-10), Peewees (ages 11-12), Bantams (ages 13-14) and Midgets (ages 15-16).
Rudman notes, “there are no tryouts; you just have to say you want to be part of the team.”
In spite of the commitment of time required for practices, games and travel, the players and parents say they could not be happier with the results. The big news is in late October, the oldest group won its division (Under-16, AA American) in the statewide 2021-22 New Jersey Youth Hockey League.
Michael Massel, who lives in Manhattan and attends the Shefa School, enjoys being with a diverse group of friends, both on and off the ice. “It is fun to play hockey with them, and also to chill with them and play mini-hockey at the tournaments.”
He admits, however, “it’s also a little tiring.”
While the families seem pleased with the level of hockey, they are delighted with what their children have learned about being observant Jews and members of the Jewish community. Michael’s father, Morris, says: “Our kids can be part of a team that is high-level hockey without compromise.” Players and parents spend Shabbat together at tournaments. They bring prayer books and a Torah scroll, and eat Shabbat meals together. “We are all in it together, and the memories are unbelievable!”
Aaron Younger’s daughter, Elly, is the only girl on the team. She attends Hillel in Passaic. “She loves skating, and she loves playing with the guys.”
Melanie Sosland of Englewood, NJ, has two boys in the league. Gabriel, age 11, plays on the Peewees, and Noah, age 14, plays on the Bantam. “They saw that other Englewood kids were playing, and they wanted to play as well,” she says.
Sosland concedes that playing four times a week is a big commitment but sees the benefits that go beyond sports.
“It teaches a great work ethic and how to balance schoolwork with hockey. And the tournaments are amazing — with the Torah scroll and the kosher food. They will always remember it.”
Bringing Jewish observance “on the road” teaches the players to navigate sometimes complex real-life situations. They also have opportunities to serve as ambassadors for Judaism.
Rudman, the organization’s founder, recalls:
“Seven years ago, the other teams on the road looked at us like we were from another planet when they saw our kippahs and tzitzit. Now they all know our teams, and we are accepted.”
He also recalls a moving incident from a tournament in Providence, RI. “We played a team with players from Colorado and Kansas. One kid came over and said, ‘I had two firsts this weekend — I saw the ocean for the first time, and I met a Jewish person for the first time.’”
“There is respect out there,” acknowledges Rudman, who takes the Jewish values and menschlichkeit piece very seriously, and encourages his players to remember that. In fact, “we sometimes send out reminders that we are being judged on a higher level.”
Rick Pomerantz of Englewood says, “the teams have won tournaments, but if you speak to the parents, the most gratifying thing is that we have a beautiful minyan every day, and the entire group will eat together.
“The fact that we have been on tournaments with minyans of 40 men and had catered Shabbat dinners in [places like] Hershey, Pa., is unbelievable. It’s important for the kids to see that as religious Jews, you don’t have to compromise to do what you love.”
“There is no sport like hockey,” attests Pomerantz. “That’s why everyone who plays is passionate about it. The camaraderie and bonds that are made are priceless.” His Alex “has made friends for life.”