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Senior point guard Naama Shafir discovered second home in Toledo

By Jay Skebba
On February 20, 2013

It’s not easy to play Division I basketball when you’re not allowed to travel from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. But that’s just one of many challenges University of Toledo senior Naama Shafir has overcome in her almost five years as a Rocket.

“I’m not allowed to practice, I’m not allowed to use any electricity and I’m not allowed to use a car,” Shafir said in a phone interview last Friday. “Those are the main things that make it a little more difficult to be a basketball player.”

The Hoshaya, Israel, native is an Orthodox Jew — believed by many to be the first one to receive a Division I scholarship — and obeys the Shabbat every weekend, even when the season is in full swing.

“But it’s actually not that hard just because of the way coach [Tricia] Cullop, other coaches and teammates, the way they handle it,” she said. “They just do everything they need to make sure it’s not a problem.”

And when Shafir says “everything,” she means it.

Team practices are often moved to avoid falling into the 24-hour window. All of her meals must be kosher and are brought in from Detroit, frozen, then packed with her on road trips. When she has to travel before or after the rest of the squad, a teammate and a coach will adjust their travel schedule to accompany her so she won’t be alone.

Sometimes, Shafir even stays at a different hotel so she can walk to the game.

“Some people might think ‘Naama, how can you do it? It’s so hard,’” she said. “But to be honest, it’s really easy because I’m used to it and I’ve been doing it forever. The people that really deserve the credit is everyone around me that’s allowed me to do it.

Of course, Shafir didn’t have to go through this. She could have stayed home after high school and played college ball, something many players overseas choose to do. There are also plenty of professional leagues in those nations.

Shafir was initially a bit leery of moving 6,000 miles away and leaving her life and family behind, but any feelings of uncertainty soon dissipated.

“In the beginning, I didn’t want to do it,” Toledo’s leading scorer said. “It would be so much easier to just stay at home [and play]. But when I finally had to make a decision, it was easy because I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Thinking about it like that made it a lot easier to decide.”

Shafir didn’t know a lick of English when she arrived in the U.S.

“It was hard to communicate, it was hard to go to school and study,” said the 5-7 point guard. “That was really hard, but everyone around me helped me a lot. People were understanding and it made it a lot easier on me. Every day, every year got better.”

The Toledo community also played a prominent role in helping Shafir adjust to her new life

The city has embraced its women’s basketball for decades — they’re leading the Mid-American Conference in home attendance for the 23rd straight season. But when Shafir made the large sacrifice to help UT win games, they were quick to make her feel as comfortable as possible.

“You go out to different places in the city and people recognize you, the whole team,” she said. “They say ‘good luck’ on your next game or ‘good job’ about the game yesterday. It makes you feel really good. It’s nice to have them watch and support you. You just want to work harder for them.”

The Jewish community in Toledo also made the All-MAC first team selection feel more at home.

One member in particular is Sharon Ravin, who worships at a synagogue in Toledo.

“Early in her sophomore year, she spoke at our synagogue,” Ravin said. “She just ingratiated herself to everybody. Someone asked her the question, ‘Is it hard being so far away from home?’ and she said yes, especially at the games when other players have family members [there]. At that point, we just all adopted her.”

Ravin was one of many whose interest in UT women’s basketball was sparked by Shafir. Soon after their first encounter, Ravin purchased an Israeli flag that she brings to every home game and several road contests as well.

“She also said it makes her feel good to see an Israeli flag,” Ravin said. “So I came home that night, got on the Internet, ordered the flag and bought season tickets. The first time I was there with the flag, I went to the corner of the floor and she saw me. Now we always have this thing where she knows I’m there and it’s just our little thing.

“The Jewish community in Toledo has just enveloped her as one of us.”

It wasn’t Shafir’s objective to bring so much attention to Judaism, but her success at Toledo has done just that. It has also attracted many Jews in the area to Savage Arena.12

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