Entrepreneurship for Israel
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Entrepreneurship for Israel

How local athletes turned their sports passion into wartime tzedakah

MLM players stand together; from left, it’s Scott Herschmann, Keith Woda, Andrew Kent, and Chad Mekles.
MLM players stand together; from left, it’s Scott Herschmann, Keith Woda, Andrew Kent, and Chad Mekles.

When Hamas terrorists invaded Israel on October 7, butchering 1,200 people and taking another 240 into captivity as hostages, members of the Jewish community around the world wanted to do whatever they could to help.

Many of them used the skills they’d developed through their studies or their careers or other parts of their lives to turn that need into reality.

Chad Mekles of Tenafly is one of those people. He drew in particular on his experience as an athlete, an entrepreneur, and a leader to figure out how to mobilize people and organize the shipments of a great deal of vitally needed equipment to Israel very quickly.

Mr. Mekles, 43, was born into an entrepreneurial family; he understood both the lure of starting a business and the ups and downs that life entails. His father, Allan Mekles, was the “creator of Sportsworld, the family entertainment center at the Paramus Towne Square shopping center on Route 17,” which opened in 1991 and did well for many years. “My dad had a strong work ethic and instilled the same in me,” Chad Mekles said. “When I was a junior at Dwight Englewood High School in Englewood, he told me if I wanted a car, I’d have to work for it.”

So he did.

Mr. Mekles excelled in sports at Dwight Englewood. He was on the varsity tennis team all four years and became a county and state champion in the late ’90s.

His love of sports continued long after high school. “In 2020, a close friend, Greg Michelson, and I, created the M&M Tennis League at the Tenafly Racquet Club,” he said. Mr. Michelson, also of Tenafly, owns El Taco Bar in Closter. “We wanted to bring Jewish adults together who enjoyed tennis,” Mr. Mekles said. But because the league’s name sounded like melt-in-your-mouth candy, and because another friend, David Lerner of Tenafly, joined them, they changed the name of the program to MLM, for Mekles, Lerner and Michelson.

The league is now in its fourth year and closing in on its 100th player. “We’re aiming to be the largest private indoor tennis league in the country,” Mr. Mekles said. It’s still called MLM, but now it stands for Mens, Ladies, Mixed.

Erica and Chad Mekles with their three daughters, Sylvie, Harley, and Braelyn.

“The league has grown and spawned many friendships,” Mr. Mekles said. “We now have 17 courts at the Tenafly and Edgewater Racquet Clubs.” Players come from every town in Bergen County.

Players use GoogleDocs to coordinate their schedules and sign up for matches. “From Labor Day through Memorial Day, we offer playing time on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings and Friday afternoons before Shabbat.”

In 2006, Mr. Mekles went to Israel on Birthright Israel. “It was my Birthright experience that brought me closer to my roots,” he said. “I was overwhelmed by the responsibilities each of the soldiers bore who protected us throughout the 10 days and traveled with us on our bus.”

Mr. Mekles thinks of his Birthright trip when he thinks about his own family. He and his wife, Erica, have three daughters, Sylvie, Harley, and Braelyn.

Because he feels connected to Israel, Mr. Mekles wanted to help after the Hamas attacks on October 7. He realized that he could use his entrepreneurial background and the leagues he’s built to work toward that goal.

“Eighty percent of the members of our tennis league are Jewish,” he said. “And those who are not have embraced and communicated their desire to stand with Israel.” The members of the league are a close-knit group. “We’ve communicated with one another through WhatsApp to plan social events, and now we use the platform to discuss and determine the most meaningful ways to provide humanitarian relief to those in need.”

Andrew Kent is the executive vice president of Glass Gardens Inc. ShopRites — the Israeli flag flew at half-mast in front of the ShopRite in Englewood soon after October 7, Mr. Mekles notes. Mr. Kent is on the boards of directors of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly and Temple Emanu-El of Closter, and he is vice president and treasurer of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. “Andrew has arranged the shipment of thousands of goods and supplies to the IDF,” Mr. Mekles said. “He will be traveling to Israel with Temple Emanu-El on their second solidarity mission trip.”

Daniel and Anna Klein of Englewood arranged flights after October 7 to help evacuate Americans and Israelis and supported reservists from all over the world who were returning to Israel to serve in the IDF.

MLM co-founder Greg Michelson, left, and Chad Mekles pose before they play tennis.

Marco Benhaim of Cresskill is now a reservist with the IDF. Many members of the tennis league have provided financial support to his unit.

Dan Shlufman of Tenafly, who plays tennis with the MLM League, is the president of Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. He and two friends helped fund the bus that took two dozen families from the MLM Tennis League and the CMEK Basketball League to Washington for the Rally for Israel on November 14.

The CMEK Basketball League is the outgrowth of another of Mr. Mekles’ passions.

Mr. Mekles — or CMEK, as he was called in high school — had been a starter on Dwight Englewood’s varsity basketball team since he was a freshman. “I got a job as a scorekeeper with the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades for their men’s evening basketball league games,” he said. “Because of my skill level, I was asked by adult players to provide private training to their kids at their homes.” In 1997, Mr. Mekles used the money he’d earned to buy himself a car, as his father had challenged him to do — it was a Nissan Pathfinder — and he began offering private and small group basketball lessons. “I continued doing this on a small scale throughout high school and college,” he said.

After he graduated from the University of Delaware with a degree in marketing in 2004, Mr. Mekles started his own boys and girls basketball league. CMEK was for kindergarteners through high school students, and for players of all backgrounds and skill levels. Mr. Mekles is CMEK’s director and oversees a staff of 10 coaches. “Each team pays a fee that includes weekly skills training sessions with a professional trainer or coach, a weekly team strategy practice and weekend games,” he said. “Initially, we paid to use gym spaces in Tenafly, Cresskill, Paramus, and Englewood — now, our games are played in gyms throughout Bergen County. We play our playoff and championship games at Hoop Heaven in Waldwick.”

The league has flourished. “This season we won in 12 different age groups, which set the league record in fall travel championship leagues,” Mr. Mekles said. “CMEK draws players from all the major yeshiva schools, as well as public and private schools throughout Bergen County. Many of the fifth and sixth graders attend Moriah, Yavneh, and Yeshivat Noam.

Many MLM players have children in the CMEK league, and the CMEK families, like their MLM counterparts, have been active in supporting Israel.

“Iris Shamus of Demarest, a mother of one of our CMEK basketball players, learned of the urgent needs of IDF soldiers,” Mr. Mekles said. “She started a GoFundMe page to raise money to purchase special military vests for soldiers to wear in combat.” The page was circulated on Facebook and viewed by players, parents and coaches of all CMEK leagues. “Within two days, a significant amount of money was raised to supply vests for a whole division,” he said. “The CMEK basketball program ran a free youth basketball clinic and received $1,800 in charitable donations to be sent to a humanitarian relief fund in Israel.”

Back in 1997, Chad Mekles could not have imagined that his competitive edge in basketball and tennis and the entrepreneurial spirit instilled by his father’s business endeavors at sports venues would lead to a passion for coaching and managing a successful youth basketball program and creating and overseeing a thriving adult tennis league. What’s more, he couldn’t have imagined that the camaraderie and community that developed from these two leagues would lead to the generosity, philanthropy and commitment in serving Israel’s needs during such a tumultuous time in the country’s history.

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