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Religious conflict in Harvard football schedule

Asks game be moved from Yom Kippur eve

Under pressure from season ticket holders and alumni, Harvard proposed yesterday to move the date of its first nighttime football game from a Jewish holiday to another day that would not conflict with the religious observance.

The game against Brown, billed as a momentous occasion in the 133-year history of Crimson football, had been scheduled for Sept. 21 at 7:30 p.m.

When Jewish fans pointed out that the date conflicts with the eve of Yom Kippur, known as Kol Nidre, Harvard initially told them they could exchange their tickets for another game. Fans complained that the university was forcing them to choose between synagogue and football. And Harvard relented.

Yesterday, Harvard said it had asked Brown to move the game to Sept. 22 at 7:30 p.m. Yom Kippur ends at sunset that day.

"We understand the sensitivity, and we want as many people as possible to be able to come to the game," said Harvard's athletic director, Robert L. Scalise.

Chris Humm, a spokesman for Brown football, said the program had not decided whether to honor the request.

"We just heard about this today, and no decision has been made -- real simple," Humm said.

Michael Simon -- associate director of Harvard Hillel, a campus Jewish organization -- applauded Harvard, saying the new date would allow Jews to attend services and catch the game.

"Clearly, they understood there was a problem with having it on the highest of holidays in the Jewish calendar and are clearly making an effort to correct their mistake," said Nancy K. Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.

Scalise said athletic officials from Harvard and Brown knew that Sept. 21 was the eve of Yom Kippur when they chose the date in the spring. Harvard believed that the date, on a Friday night, would draw the most freshmen to its newly illuminated stadium. And because Ivy League football is typically played on Saturdays, they figured the date would pose no more of a conflict than a regular game. Scalise said Harvard has no official policy on scheduling games on holidays. He pointed out that the baseball team has played on Easter Sunday.

"Let There Be Light!" Harvard's official sports blog proclaimed in May. "September 21, 2007, will be an historic day as plans are in the works for the first-ever Friday night Harvard Football game at Harvard Stadium."

After the announcement, a dozen fans called Harvard to complain. Six mentioned Yom Kippur, five the hassle of driving to the stadium on a Friday night, and one the cost of electricity to power the lights, Scalise said.

Harvard Law professor Alan M. Dershowitz said he received a dozen e-mails and calls from angry fans. Dershowitz called the date "insensitive to religious obligation."

Harvard reversed course yesterday and said it hoped that Brown would agree.

Such conflicts are hardly new. In 1965, Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers famously chose not to pitch the first game of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. In 2004, Shawn Green of the Dodgers also decided not to play on the holiday, while Gabe Kapler suited up for the Red Sox, saying it would be "slightly hypocritical" of him not to, because he does not consider himself an observant Jew.

Harvard also has Jewish football players.

"This is about what does it mean to try to balance religious observance and the expression of your American values and it's very much a part of the challenge of modern life," Simon said.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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