Faith before basketball for Yeshiva University champions
NEW YORK (AP) — Each of the mighty Maccabees has his role on the men’s basketball team. Gabriel Leifer sinks three-pointers; Daniel Katz is the defense wizard; Simcha Halpert makes the perfect alley-oop passes to Ryan Turell who soars for dunks.
Kids pretend to be them in pickup games. The home crowd sings in Hebrew and roars when they score. But before tipoff, the team always gathers around Tyler Hod, a senior guard and their unofficial rabbi.
Reading passages from the Torah, Hod shares a story, all the while drawing lessons to inspire them on and off the court in a pregame ritual that ends when they huddle and yell: “Amen!”
Yeshiva University’s basketball team can’t play on the Sabbath, on Jewish Holidays or fast days. They’ve also faced anti-Semitic taunts and ethnic slurs from opponents and spectators. But they continue to beat their rivals, many proudly wearing the skullcap that identifies them as Jewish.
The best team in the Jewish Orthodox institution’s history won the Skyline Conference on Sunday with fans flooding the court and celebrating. The Maccabees extended their record winning streak to 27 games, beating Purchase College 86-74 and qualifying for the NCAA Division III tournament. The championship is the second time in three years the school has won the title. Its first ever conference championship came in 2018. They reached the final in 2019.
“It’s important for us to capitalize on what we’re going for and not just play to the last day of conference but play to the last day of the last game of Division III basketball,” co-captain Katz said on a day that began with practice right after dawn, followed by morning prayer, and that ended with a traditional Shabbat dinner. “That’s what we want to do: win the national championship.”
It’s an improbable rise for a team that had a spotty record competing in the Skyline Conference championship until it stepped into the spotlight when it won it two years ago. This season, the Maccabees, named after the ancient Jewish rebel warriors, have been unstoppable.
Their records include the best start in school history, the longest winning streak and their first national ranking. Halpert also moved into third on the school’s all-time scoring list, ahead of Hod’s father, Lior Hod, a 1987-1988 team captain who records the games from the stands with a handheld camera; while Turell became the first sophomore to reach 1,000 points.
It began with Elliot Steinmetz, a former YU player, who in 2014 took the coaching job with one goal: recruiting the best Jewish players nationwide.
“He sold us all on that dream of bringing Jewish basketball to the forefront and making us relevant,” Halpert said. His brother, Eitan, also plays for the Macs. “And we really bought into it.”
This season they played one of their toughest games against Sarah Lawrence winning when Leifer hit a three-pointer a few seconds before the buzzer. In the locker room, their coach reminded them that it goes beyond basketball.
“You see all these kids who want to take a picture with you - they remember these guys who won two years ago,” Steinmetz said about the legion of young fans who snap selfies with the players after the games. “You have an opportunity to represent your university and something bigger ... you have an opportunity for something extremely special.”
The players come from across the U.S. Some turned down offers at Ivy League and Division I schools to play for Yeshiva. They also vary in their observance of their faith - from Hod who will go to rabbinical school after he graduates this year, to Ofek Reef, a 6-foot freshman from Texas who goes on the court without the skullcap, wearing tattoos and a Star of David-shaped earring, and who enthralls the crowds when he defies gravity and dunks over taller rivals. All of them, though, are united by their Jewish identity and their love of basketball.
“I have a close connection to God,” said Turell, a 6-foot-7-point guard from Los Angeles, who turned down an opportunity to attend West Point.
“To be able to follow my religion and to play basketball at the same time at a high level is amazing. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Many of the players met at high school tournaments, or at a Jerusalem camp run by Tamir Goodman, who was dubbed in 1999 by Sports Illustrated magazine as “The Jewish Jordan.” He retired at the age of 27 after playing in college in the U.S., and professionally in Israel.
“When I watch YU play, there are two levels of pride: on the macro, these guys are inspiring the whole world,” Goodman said in a telephone interview. “And on the micro: I’m proud because I worked really hard with several of those guys in Jerusalem during camps and in the gym. I have tears in my eyes. It’s like one of my kids playing.”
It’s a brotherhood: Some lived together for years in dorms and then moved to the same building after they married. On the road, they’ll find a room to wrap the leather straps of tefillin and pray together. At home court, they practice shooting and drills early in the morning, listening to rap.
They attend Jewish classes on top of their other coursework and sometimes they relax with a slice of kosher pizza and playing “Fortnite” or the NBA 2K videogame. Their families chat on WhatsApp and fly or drive long distances to watch them.
“What is important is not just that the Macs are winning - it is the way they are winning: with selflessness, teamwork and great sportsmanship,” said Rabbi Ari Berman, the president of Yeshiva. “They are an embodiment of our mission to bring our positive Jewish values out into the world.”
The Macs also see themselves as ambassadors for their Jewish identity at a time of an alarming series of recent anti-Semitic attacks across the U.S. Growing up in Baltimore, Katz remembers coins being thrown at him from the bleachers. Even today, some have faced hateful chants and jeers from the stands.
“We got a couple of road games far away, and the crowds have been very loud,” said Halpert, a co-captain who is known as a sharpshooter. “There was one time that they were chanting: “Hitler was right!” ... It’s the 21st century. There’s no room for that kind of hate in any capacity. I try not to harp on it so much, but we’ve heard a lot of things. I just tell the guys: we’re just here to play ball.”
For years, their coach told them to ignore the taunts and anti-Semitic slurs. Steinmetz said that changed this year and he has asked his players to report it. Security has also increased with New York police officers at the games. But it has not deterred the loyal fans of the Macs.
Rabbi Yigal Sklarin, and his nine-year-old son Yonatan, are among the hundreds who fill the Max Stern Athletic Center for home games and follow them on the road.
“We don’t have a television at home, so we only know Yeshiva University Maccabees basketball,” Sklarin said. “He can name more players on the Macs than he can in the NBA,” he said smiling at his son in the stands. “When he plays at home on his basketball, he acts out like he’s the Macs. He’ll take his free throws like Ryan Turell.
He’ll go: ‘It’s Simcha, to Ryan to Gabe for the dunk’... It’s like you’re on your backyard saying: ‘Michael Jordan for three’ - he says: ‘Simcha, for three!’
Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.