Maccabi Games a slam dunk for young Jewish athletes

Maccabi Games a slam dunk for young Jewish athletes

Teaneck teens take the gold in Australia

Two Teaneck teens dribbled their way to the gold as part of a USA youth basketball team at the 2010 Maccabi Australia International Games last month in Sydney, Australia.

Michael Grunstein, 17, and Yisrael Feld, 18, were recruited for a basketball team (there were four) representing the United States. The team, coached by Elliot Steinmetz of Woodmere, N.Y., beat Australia 97-80 in the final match to win the gold medal. Two other U.S. basketball teams won silver and bronze medals during the Dec. 22 through Jan. 3 games.

Steinmetz, a lawyer who coached basketball for five years at Hebrew Academy of Nassau County in West Hempstead, N.Y., wanted to put together a team with a mix of Orthodox and non-Orthodox kids to prove that the Orthodox kids could also compete. Half the team of 10 were Orthodox.

“Unity is the key,” Steinmetz said. “It’s the mantra of Maccabi. You have all these people from different backgrounds playing for one goal. It’s Jewish sport. There’s real camaraderie regardless of where you’re coming from, what your geographic background is, your religious background.”

Michael Grunstein, left, and Yisrael Feld were part of a youth basketball team that won the gold medal at last month’s 2010 Maccabi Australia International Games. Courtesy the Grunstein family

The team, which included players from across the country, did not meet until players arrived in Australia just a few days before the start of the competition, and had only two practices before the tournament.

“The first half of [the first] game it felt like we were all getting used to each other,” Yisrael said. “In the second half we started playing really well and it just took off from there.”

Representing American Jews was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, said Yisrael, who had played against Michael in the yeshiva league. Having a mix of Orthodox and non-Orthodox teens on the team added to the game’s meaning, said Yisrael, who is Orthodox.

“The fact that we were not only able to compete but win made a memory that’s really going to last and made an impression on a lot of people there,” he said.

Before each game, Michael reminded himself of its meaning.

“I always said to myself before a game, I represent myself, my family, my friends and my school, my town, America, and Jews around the world,” Michael said. “Not a lot of people can say that.”

A senior at Solomon Schechter of Westchester, Michael plans to attend Muhlenberg College in the fall, though he is unsure if he’ll play basketball there.

“I will always be around basketball for the rest of my life, whether I play it or not,” he said, crediting his mother, Jackie, for making him explore various sports early on before he found the allure of basketball. “You show your stuff but you play with a team. It’s the best of both worlds and I always love that.”

“He’ll always be on a basketball court,” said Jackie Grunstein who joined Michael in Australia with his father, Erno. “He’s most comfortable there. He’s very much a team player; he sees the whole court.”

Yisrael, a senior at Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy-Yeshiva University High School for Boys, aka MTA, in New York City, plans to spend a year in Israel after graduation, and basketball may be in his future in college, as well.

“However great of a ball player [Yisrael] is – and he is a great ball player,” said Rabbi Aharon Ciment, religious leader of Cong. Arzei Darom in Teaneck and one of Yisrael’s teachers at MTA, “he is an even better person. He is such a humble, special person who makes a kiddush HaShem wherever he goes.”

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