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Playing Israel: Or L'Goyim
December 14, 2009 by Howard Blas and Jamie Zimmer

The New York Knicks hosted Maccabi Tel Aviv at Madison Square Garden. The game helped raise funds to keep the Tower of Light shining bright for children in need.
Sport brings the world together. Whether it is the Olympic Games, the World Cup or even just a group of friends watching “the game,” sport has the incredible power to make everyone stop, drop their political, ideological, social or any other agendas and just enjoy the symphony of skill that is played out before their eyes. The cherry on top is when the fans come together not only for the spectacle, but to do a good deed as well.

Late in 2009, Madison Square Garden in New York City was packed on a Sunday afternoon for a most unusual basketball game. 14,600 fans came out for a pre-season exhibition game featuring the home team, The New York Knicks of the NBA and special guests Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv, of the Euroleague. The “Garden” crowd was split between Knicks fans, wearing white, orange and blue and Maccabi Tel Aviv fans, dressed in yellow and blue. Thousands of people of all ages and from all walks of life came out to show support for an organization in Israel called Migdal Ohr (Tower of Light), the largest orphanage in the world.

Fourteen year old Ben, a New York City native clad in his David Lee jersey, is a Knicks season ticket holder. He and his father Gil came out to see the game and his favorite Knicks players, David Lee and Danillo Gallinari, before the actual season began. “I think the Knicks are going to win,” said Ben, who also noted, “European basketball is rougher and slower than American basketball.”

Twenty-something Mendy Fuchs, a student in a Brooklyn Yeshiva, was wearing his yellow Maccabi Tel Aviv shirt and sitting in a section of Israeli and American yeshiva students, all of whom were dressed in yellow to support the Israeli team. “Maccabi Tel Aviv will win!” screamed Mendy.

Since the event was a benefit to raise money for Migdal Ohr, the game was anything but typical! Boys and men with kippot and women with covered hair were everywhere. Bobby Alter and his five kids, from Englewood, New Jersey, came out to show support for Migdal Ohr. “What they do for children is amazing. It is unfortunate how the children start out, but with the help of Migal Ohr they thrive and give back to the Land of Israel,” Bobby said amongst the screaming fans.
During the game, the scoreboard showed video footage of Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman, founder of Migdal Ohr and recipient of the 2004 Israel Prize, embracing former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and being praised by current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The scoreboard also invited fans to the upcoming Jewish Heritage Night at MSG. Madison Square Garden seems to be sprouting a true Jewish neshoma (soul) these days. It was a pleasure to see.

Meanwhile, the concession stands had special boxed lunches for sale. The chicken and avocado wrap, the knishes as well as the two other deli sandwiches were provided by a kosher restaurant known as Noah’s Ark. The boxes said, “Packaged exclusively for ‘The Rematch,’” a reference to the fact that this was the second time Maccabi Tel Aviv played the Knicks. The Knicks beat Maccabi 112-85 on Oct. 11, 2007, before the largest crowd ever in attendance at an MSG exhibition game.

The Maccabi players, in yellow shorts and blue practice jerseys, took the court first for shooting practice. The players were tired from their long flight from Israel the previous day. Giant starting forward D’or Fischer, who stands at 6 feet 11 inches (2.11m), is a strong defensive player who joined Maccabi after playing college basketball in the States and pro basketball for Poland, Germany and Belgium. Fischer was looking forward to the game. “It is going to be a challenge, but playing an NBA team can only make you better and give you confidence against other European league teams,” he said between shots.

Raviv Limonad, a 6”3 (1.9m) tall point guard said it was “meragesh”(emotional) and “madhim” (amazing) to be playing in the world famous Madison Square Garden. He pointed out that there are different rules in the NBA and in the European league. For one, according to NBA rules, quarters are two minutes longer than European quarters, and three points in the NBA are awarded for shots from further out than in the European league.

Center Yaniv Green also appreciated the historical significance of playing in MSG and knew it was going to be tough against the Knicks. He was right.

Following the exchange of gifts by Knicks and Maccabi players, the singing of Hatikvah by Beat’Achon, a male acapella group and then The Star Spangled Banner, Maccabi got out to an early lead, which they held only briefly (2-0, then 4-0). At half time, the Knicks were up, 56- 35. The Knicks won 106-91, though several Maccabi players performed very well. Alan Anderson, who played briefly for the NBA Charlotte Bobcats, scored 20 points, and D’or Fischer scored 19 points and had 16 rebounds.

The excitement in the stands, on the scoreboard, during half time and on the sidelines was just as impressive as the action on the court. Fans enthusiastically chanted “Mac-Ca- Bee!” The announcer welcomed former Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, and other dignitaries in attendance. Fans had an opportunity to cheer for their favorite song in “Choose Your Tune.” It was no big surprise that the Black Eyed Peas song, “I Gotta Feeling,” with their “Mazel Tov” lyrics won the crowd over. Rabbi Grossman came on the court during halftime, wearing his black hat, long black coat, and sporting a very long beard. He led the crowd in the chanting of “Shema Yisrael” and the singing of “Am Yisrael Chai.” Finally, Onlysimchas.com sponsored the t-shirt toss into the crowd.

Though Maccabi Tel Aviv did not come away victorious, the State of Israel was proudly represented. The crowd thoroughly enjoyed the game and most importantly, the incredible work of the Migdal Ohr organization was highlighted and given further support by the Jewish and wider communities. It really does pay to be a good sport.
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