Bonding through basketball

Bonding through basketball

Members of the Hod Hasharon High School basketball team, together with staff. Photos by Sara Lewis

Several months ago, residents of Hod Hasharon in Israel approached the education department of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem with a proposal: They wanted the city’s high school basketball team to travel to America to compete against high school teams on the East Coast.

Soon after, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s community shaliach Stuart Levy received a phone call pitching the idea.

“Members of the high school from Hod Hasharon have a connection to members of the Tenafly community,” said Levy. “Many have close friends and family that live here.”

The team initially intended to come between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. However, said Levy, the Tel Aviv Maccabi Electra and the New York Knicks were scheduled to play at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 18, and he thought the Israeli high school team might want to attend.

“Why not experience Israeli and American culture at MSG?” said Levy. Israeli organizers agreed, and the trip was postponed until October 9. That way, the team would be able to attend the MSG game on the last day of their trip and fly home later that day.

Nine local families hosted the Israeli team members. Sara Lewis, director of the Maccabi team from the JCC on the Palisades, arranged for many of them to be hosted by families of the JCC athletes whose team recently took home the bronze medal during the Maccabi Games.

Although the Tenafly team members are younger than those on the Hod Hasharon team, they were still able to scrimmage against them and, according to Lewis, “play incredibly well.”

During their trip, the Israeli team traveled to Boston to see the Celtics play the Nets. In addition, they visited local yeshiva high schools, including The Frisch School in Paramus and the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck.

On meeting the Israelis, Frisch’s Judah Schulman commented, “They seemed timid at first, but after I approached them, they began telling me about their trip in America. I could tell they were ballers.”

The Israeli ballplayers faced off against TABC in a scrimmage in the school’s gym, commonly referred to by students as “The Weather Center.”

Nimrod Sofrin and Eyal Shamban, members of the Hod Hasharon High School basketball team.

Hod Hasharon coach Dror Birger said the Israeli team prepares differently when competing against American teams.

“In Europe, the teams play man-to-man. In America, from a young age the athletes are taught how to play a zone defense. The younger players on my team are not familiar with a zone, so when we got here, I had to teach them how to play against one. It is very different.”

Still, the Israelis were able to use their size and agility to defeat the TABC team. TABC guard Jason Katz explained one problem his team faced when playing against the Israelis.

“Some of the kids on our team don’t speak Hebrew fluently,” he said, “so when the Hod Hasharon team began screaming out plays in Hebrew, our players had no idea what was going on. I can’t say we have that particular problem when facing American teams.”

The TABC Video Squad broadcast the entire game live on the Internet, so that family and friends of the TABC and Hod Hasharon athletes could watch the international battle from home.

On Sunday, the Israeli team went to Madison Square Garden to see the Maccabi Electra of Tel Aviv play against the New York Knicks. Earlier in the morning, The Frisch School played against the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns & Rockaway in a rematch of last year’s Yeshiva League Championship, during which HAFTR won in the final seconds. The game ended in a tie and was not allowed to go into overtime due to time restraints presented by the subsequent game between the Electra and Knicks.

The proceeds from the games went toward the Israeli charity Migdal Ohr, one of the largest orphanages in the world. The 2007 game between the Knicks and the Maccabi team was played during the evening and was reported to host the largest crowd for an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden. This year, the game was played during the day so that fans back in Israel would be awake to watch.

Midway through the third quarter, Maccabi coach Pini Gershon was ejected for his second technical foul. Gershon refused to leave, however, and instead lingered around his team’s bench. After an eight-minute delay – with the crowd chanting “Ma-cca-bi!” and with Migdal Ohr’s founder, Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman, pleading with the referees to allow Gershon to stay – the decision was upheld and Gershon eventually agreed to leave.

One member of the Hod Hasharon team, Adam David, said “[The trip] was really helpful for me as an athlete and Israeli. It was a chance to have fun and gain experience playing the game. American teams really taught us about the game and the culture.”

Levy speculated on whether the trip might become an annual event. “It’s up in the air,” he said. “It’s a matter of finances.” This trip was financed by members of the Hod Hasharon community.

Hod Hasharon is seeking to become part of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership 2000 program, to be paired up with a city in America containing a strong Jewish community. Such a partnership, similar to the one northern New Jersey has with Nahariya, would likely be the catalyst for future trips connecting the distant Jewish communities.

“One of my aims as shaliach from Israel is finding ways to bridge the gap between northern Jersey and Israel,” said Levy.

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