They may not have known whom they were honoring when they first arrived at the NCSY Freddy Hirsch Tournament, but by the end of the weekend, the basketball players from eight Yeshiva League high schools knew all about Holocaust hero Freddy Hirsch.
Adam Melzer, basketball coach at the Heschel School in New York and a resident of Teaneck, had learned about Freddy Hirsch during a trip to Yad Vashem two years ago and wanted to do something to make him better known. Hirsch had no descendants and has garnered little recognition beyond the Yad Vashem display.
The tournament/Shabbaton at Teaneck’s Rodda Center was held Oct. 16-‘1 and brought together 1’0 students from eight schools to play basketball, listen to former Dallas Cowboy-turned Orthodox Jew Alan Veingrad, and learn more about Freddy Hirsch.
Melzer had held a smaller tournament with four teams at Heschel last year but wanted to expand it. Six months ago, he approached the National Council of Synagogue Youth office in Teaneck and the organization’s director, Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, eagerly embraced the idea.
NCSY put forward most of the funding for the tournament and arranged the Shabbat programming, including Veingrad’s lecture, which Glasser said, students particularly enjoyed.
"He touched a chord in these kids that only he could," Glasser said. The talk "enabled the kids to have a great time and spiritually grow from this."
Veingrad talked about the difference between being a fan and a player, telling the group that in Judaism, one doesn’t want to be just a fan, but also a player.
But, said Melzer, students were most moved by the segment on the tournament’s namesake. Melzer led a siyyum on a tractate of Gemara in Hirsch’s memory on Friday night and explained why the coach should serve as an inspiration.
Born in Aachen, Germany, Hirsch was an athlete and coach in the Macabia games. After the implementation of Germany’s race laws, he moved to Prague, where he continued to coach Jewish children until he was sent on one of the first transports to Terezin. He continued to work with children in the camp until he was caught handing out Jewish New Year cards in September 1943 and was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in a transport that included 5,000 people, mostly women and children.
Along with the women and children, Hirsch was placed in a "family camp," where he continued to work with the children. At one point, he staged a rendition of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." On March 8, 1944, Hirsch and all of the children were sent to the gas chambers.
"The fact that Adam pulled this guy out of Yad Vashem without any other connection to him gave the kids a sense of ‘here’s just one of the heroes who perished in the Holocaust,’" Glasser said.
The tournament was a "very special way to remember" Hirsch, said Noam Liron, a 17-year-old senior at The Heschel School. A member of Melzer’s team, Liron had learned about Hirsch on a recent trip to Israel, following Melzer’s recommendation to visit the exhibit. "It was a great tribute to him," Liron said of the tournament.
Hebrew Academy of Nassau County won the gold medal, and Heschel took the silver in the tournament, which also included the varsity teams of The Frisch School, Torah Academy of Bergen County, Rambam Mesivta High School of New York, Moshe Aaron Yeshiva High School of South River, N.J., and Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy of New York.
Because the Macabia games were modeled after the Olympics, medals were given out to the winners. And because Hirsch was so involved in Macabia, Melzer decided medals should be given out at the NCSY tournament, as well.
Bringing the coaches and athletes together before the season begins next week gave them all an opportunity to bond, Glasser said. It also brought together Orthodox and non-Orthodox students.
"By the end of the weekend, there was singing and dancing on Shabbos, and you had Orthodox guys dancing with non-Orthodox guys and you had such a sense of camaraderie and respect," Glasser said. "It gave them common ground."