Ping Pong Champ Estee, Who Skipped Title for Shabbat, Beats OU’s ‘Fearless Foe’

12 Feb 2013


Back and forth goes the ball, as Estee faces Eli.

The outcome was never really in doubt; all the fun was in getting there. Eleven-year-old ping-pong phenom Estee Ackerman of West Hempstead, N.Y. showed why she is ranked fourth in her age group nationwide in her chosen sport. She handily defeated 28-year-old Eli Hagler in an exhibition that aired live on the Nachum Segal Network Thursday evening from Orthodox Union headquarters in New York City.

Estee had risen to fame overnight when word got out that she had turned down the chance to compete for a ping pong (or table tennis, take your pick) championship at the 2012 National Table Tennis Championships in Las Vegas, because it would coincide with the Jewish Sabbath. In an interview on Eli Hagler’s program, “The Jewish Reaction,” on the Nachum Segal Network, Estee explained that Shabbat comes first, and that was what she has learned at home and in school. It was not really a choice; it was a decision based on her pride in being a Torah-observant Jew.

As a result of Estee’s sudden fame, and because she is such a fine role model for other Orthodox youngsters who may be intrigued by outside influences, Nachum Segal and the Orthodox Union invited her to face a sacrificial lamb — a strong ping pong player, more than twice her age, at OU headquarters, with the play-by-play being broadcast internationally by Daniel Gordon on Segal’s network. Her opponent, identified in OU materials as the “fearless foe,” was none other than Eli Hagler, 28, Assistant Director of Yachad | Jewish Disabilities Inclusion, the ping pong champion of Camp Sde Chemed in 1998, and the host of “The Jewish Reaction” to boot. (For those who keep track of such things, Estee was not yet born in 1998.) Yachad is the OU agency for individuals with disabilities.

Eli is an all-around athlete — a former volleyball coach at Ramaz Upper School, where his team won three consecutive championships — and a big fellow who in theory could smash the little ball with great force. A week previously he had been part of Team Yachad, running the ING Half-Marathon in Miami. So he was in great shape.

As the match went on, Eli improved, going from 11-1, 11-3, 11-7. Perhaps there are no moral victories in sports, but he by no means embarrassed himself.

“I never imagined that Estee would be as good as she was,” Eli said after the match. “With the incredible amount of spin that she was able to get on the ball, I was hoping to just make contact, hoping the spin would carry the ball over the net. As the match went on, I got better at reading the spin and you can tell by my score — I went from one to seven. I wish I had played better, but at the end of the day, Estee should be very proud of the Kiddush Hashem she made — it’s not about the match with me, but about the message that she is sending to the world that she will always choose Shabbat over her sport.”

Perhaps anticipating the outcome of the match (ok, the OU definitely anticipated the outcome of the match), a trophy was prepared in advance with the following inscription: “To Estee Ackerman: L’Kavod Shabbos (For the Glory of Shabbos). With admiration, The Orthodox Union. Feb. 7, 2013.”

Estee being interviewed on the Nachum Segal Network; Daniel Gordon is at right.

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