Amar’e Unplugged: Jewish Icon Reflects on NBA, Israel and Religious Zeal

Read the original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

The Brooklyn Nets have opened the National Basketball Association season at the Barclays Center (capacity: 17,732) in front of no fans. In contrast, Amar’e Stoudemire – the Nets’ new player development assistant and former NBA, Hapoel Jerusalem and Maccabi Tel Aviv star – performed in front of 2,000 fans on Monday night, December 21. The crowd assembled on Zoom for a UJA Federation New York-sponsored discussion, “Amar’e Stoudemire: His Practice On and Off the Court.”

The likable Stoudemire, a six-time NBA All-Star, NBA Rookie of the Year with the Phoenix Suns in 2003, and a bronze medalist with the USA Olympic basketball team in 2004, recently returned to New York after many years living in Israel. Stoudemire is a co-owner of the Hapoel Jerusalem basketball team and he was the playoff MVP for Maccabi Tel Aviv as it secured the 2020 Israeli championship.

Stoudemire is also a proud Jew, deeply committed to combating antisemitism, and works to strengthen relationships between the Jewish and African-American communities. He shared his intriguing journey to Judaism and Israel with the event attendees.
From a young age, Stoudemire’s mother said: “You should keep the laws of Moses. We are from the tribe of Israel, brought here [to the United States] as slaves.” Stoudemire admits that he “didn’t know what she meant by that.”

At age 14, he reported, “I started davening to the Torah.” He continued his Bible studies through high school and continued his studies when selected ninth overall in the NBA draft at the age of 18. When he was 24, he “began gravitating to Judaism. This is what I was searching for, but I was doing it on my own. Judaism gave me structure.

”Stoudemire first visited Israel in 2010.“I came to learn Torah and discover my Hebrew roots, to see what I was reading.”

Stoudemire was always intrigued by the prophets of the Hebrew Bible.

“I loved how they carried themselves and how they were righteous and wondered, ‘How do I get to that level?’ It was over for me. I was hooked.”

Stoudemire and family moved to Israel in 2015. Coming to Israel meant a drastic lifestyle change.

“It was a truly humbling experience. I went from traveling on an NBA private jet to using buses. I was an A-list celebrity who went to fashion shows, the Met Gala, Jimmy Kimmel and David Letterman. I was living the dream!”

Stoudemire feels the move to the Middle East was worth it.

“I made the decision for the sake of Torah.”

Stoudemire signed a two-year deal with Hapoel Jerusalem in 2016 and helped the club win the Israeli Basketball League Cup that year. In June 2017, he helped the team win the 2016/17 Israeli Basketball Super League. He retired briefly in 2017, considered a return to the NBA in 2018, only to return again to Hapoel Jerusalem for the 2018/19 campaign, when he had a standout season.

In 2019, Stoudemire signed with the Fujian Sturgeons of the Chinese Basketball Association and played 11 games before returning to the US.

In January 2020, Stoudemire was back in Israel, and signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv with whom he won the championship. When asked about his preference for Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, Stoudemire, who lived in Jerusalem for three years and Tel Aviv for one year, offered a thoughtful reply.

“Jerusalem is a great place. I was able to study and go to yeshiva on a consistent basis. And Shabbat is elevated 20 times in Jerusalem. Tel Aviv has a coastline with beaches, and beautiful places to hang out. And it is closer to basketball. I love both equally,” said Stoudemire diplomatically.

Stoudemire recently returned to the United States and was hired in October 2020 by Steve Nash, his former Suns teammate and the new head coach of the Nets.

Back in America, Stoudemire continues to be a proud, committed Jew and lover of Israel, and he is involved in combating antisemitism.

He reported that his Hebrew is “not bad,” noting that it is “a little rusty” but that “[I] can still carry my weight.”

He is founder of Diversity U, “an organization and educational platform I started based on eradicating antisemitism. It teaches the attributes of Torah.”

Before the start of the NBA season, he was living in Miami, where he is pursuing a master of business administration (MBA) degree at the University of Miami.

“I also learn Mishna and daven [pray] at the Miami Beach Kollel,” he reported.

Now in Brooklyn, he said he has “a couple of chavrusos [learning partners] in Flatbush, and I study Mishna online.”

In addition, he speaks fondly of his Zoom learning partners in Israel.

“They are hard-core – they stay up til 4 a.m. [Israel time] to learn with me.”

Stoudemire recently had the opportunity to see his old friend and teammate, Deni Avdija when the Nets and Washington Wizards faced each other at a December 13 NBA pre-season game. Israeli Avdija was recently drafted by the Washington Wizards in the ninth overall pick.

“My guy, Deni – we were both ninth picks – we share that. And we played together last year on the Maccabi Tel Aviv championship team. We have been close friends since then!”Avdija is fond of Stoudemire as well.

“Amar’e was a big part of me, a big part of my game. The amount of experience and knowledge he gave me is [through] the roof.”

Stoudemire is 38, old enough to be 19-year-old Avdija’s father.

“He was a professional. He always came first to the gym,” Avdija said. “We were always talking about things. I was always asking about the NBA and he always answered me, no matter what the time or no matter how tired he was or angry he was, he always sat with me and answered my questions.”

On Monday, Stoudemire was introduced to the UJA Zoom event by Ido Aharoni (Aronoff), Israel’s long-time consul-general in New York. Aharoni first met Stoudemire many years ago when he attended a New York Knicks game with Israel basketball legend Tal Brody.

The two became dear friends and Aharoni introduced Stoudemire to the late Prime Minister Shimon Peres. The Zoom crowd shared Aharoni’s positive feelings about Stoudemire. Aharoni described Stoudemire’s many professional, educational and charitable accomplishments in the US and Israel.

“He has a huge heart.”

And that is an attribute that always plays well, on or off the basketball court.

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