“Althea Gibson’s talent, strength and unrelenting desire to achieve made her a great champion,She made tennis a better place. By opening doors and opening minds, doing so with grace and dignity”
NEW YORK – As the players were warming up to kick off Day 1 at US Open, a massive crowd of fans and tennis legends assembled outside of Arthur Ashe Stadium at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center for the long-awaited unveiling of a sculpture honoring tennis great Althea Gibson.
Gibson broke the color barrier in tennis in 1950, and was the first African- American to win singles titles at the French Championships (1956), Wimbledon (1957) and the US Nationals (1957, now the US Open). In 1958, she repeated both her Wimbledon and US Open wins.
The trailblazing Gibson – who passed away in 2003 at 76 – won 11 Grand Slam titles (five in singles, six in doubles) and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971 and to the US Open Court of Champions in 2007.
“Althea Gibson’s talent, strength and unrelenting desire to achieve made her a great champion,” said Patrick Galbraith, President and Chairman of the Board, USTA. “She made tennis a better place, by opening doors and opening minds, doing so with grace and dignity. She is receiving a recognition she richly deserves.
In 1956, Jewish tennis player Angela Buxton, who was a finalist in the 1956 Wimbledon singles tournament, teamed up with Gibson to win the Wimbledon doubles event. Buxton, now 85, addressed the crowd from her wheelchair at Monday dedication ceremony and later, along with tennis legend Billie Jean King, shared memories of Gibson in a post-unveiling press conference.
Buxton, was born in Liverpool, England in 1934, where her father owned a chain of movie theaters. He sent his wife and children to South Africa as World War II approached. Angela’s experiences in Johannesburg and Cape Town helped sensitize her to racial differences. She attended a convent school and developed a friendship with a black girl in her neighborhood. Angela played games with this “daughter of servants next door” until she was met with disapproval of neighbors, who said “we don’t mix with blacks.” The landlord threatened to evict the Buxton family when they offered a job cleaning houses to a black woman.
“This incident stayed in my mind until I met Althea,” said Buxton. Yet, Buxton, who encountered antisemitism in both South Africa and Los Angeles, and herself felt like an outsider, noted that she never discussed with Gibson the outsider status she felt they shared. When asked on Monday what this shared experience meant for the two of them, Buxton elicited laughter from the media when she replied, “it signifies that people who are kicked out probably play better.”
“[Seriously, though] it was a rude awaking getting kicked out of a tennis club in Los Angeles when somebody told them I was Jewish,” Buxton reflected.
King also offered insight in to the meaning of two tennis outsiders coming together to play doubles. “It’s really good in the book, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody, this Jew and black playing together. I thought it was great when I read it.” King remembered being inspired by Gibson when she was a 13-year-old girl.
“I obviously have not had to deal with the challenges that my sisters of color and brothers of color. But I think for young people, the more you know about history, the more you know about yourself. It helps you shape the future. That’s the most important thing I try to pass along to kids: History is not about the past. It is living history. Every single thing you do during the day is history. Everything we all do, each one of us is accumulating history.
Buxton’s rich history included returning to England in 1953 after a stint in South Africa. While she considered quitting tennis after a devastating loss at that year’s Bournesmouth Hardcourt Championships, she traveled to Israel in October 1953 – by ship, with 100 Jewish athletes – to participate in the Maccabiah Games. Buxton won two gold medals in Israel, was ready to return to playing competitive tennis, and would return to Israel many times including winning Maccabiah tennis again in 1957, and a stint volunteering on a kibbutz during the 1967 Six Day War.
Grand opening of 53,000-square-foot center a revolutionary next step in treatment and integration
On the morning that the 53,000-square-foot LifeTown center first opened its doors in December 2018 in Livingston, N.J., Jason Campbell, its therapy director, found himself in the complex’s manicured indoor park. He watched as a dozen or so children with special needs played together with their volunteer teen buddies.
“This is the best therapy,” he observed. “It is even better because there are no therapists working with the kids. It’s just real life.”
Designed with individuals of all ages and abilities in mind and using the latest technology, simulating real life in a safe and accessible environment is precisely the goal at the $18 million LifeTown, which will celebrate its grand opening and dedication ceremony on Monday, Sept. 9.
Perhaps LifeTown’s most striking feature is its extensive attention to detail. A project of Friendship Circle of New Jersey, each room, hallway, program and activity in the sprawling complex is designed to meet the wide range of needs of the various communities it serves.
There’s an aquatic center with a zero-entry pool, the water temperature calibrated with the room’s exact temperature in order to ease transition into the water for those with certain sensitivities. Similarly, the center’s gym is equipped with sound-absorbent walls and ceiling. The LifeTown experience extends to the hallways and corridors, where planning decisions included providing soothing, interactive music; large windows with natural light; and colorful stripes on the walls and floors, leading participants from the map to a specific room. Even the colors, primary but not childish, taking into account sensitivities of people with autism, were carefully chosen in consultation with experts in the field.
The centerpiece of Life Town is the “LifeTown Shoppes,” an indoor town square with streets, traffic lights, a park, sidewalks and stores, and even a coffee shop and bookstore open to the public. Participants gain valuable independent living skills as they navigate the 11,000-square-foot Shoppes. The real-world experience of the Shoppes reinforces classroom skills learned on such topics as budgeting, problem-solving, interpersonal communication and time management.
The roots of the project began 19 years ago, when Rabbi Zalman and Toba Grossbaum founded the Friendship Circle with five participants in their home in Livingston, N.J. The Chabad-Lubavitch emissary couple’s desire at the time was to serve people with special needs, and they hoped to help change the mindset of the communities in which these children and adults lived. Today, the national special-needs inclusion world looks towards their Livingston center as an example of how to do this successfully, and top-tier national universities are dispatching academic researchers to measure and study LifeTown’s impact. The Grossbaums’ work is seen as a model for how best to bring people with disabilities and the larger community together in full-fledged partnership.
All along, first for the Grossbaums and then their ever-growing circle of staff and volunteers, the focus has always been on meeting the needs of each and every individual whom they encounter. In this the work of the Friendship Circle and its LifeTown is guided by the vision of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. During a time when special needs were not understood well by society, the Rebbe stressed the enormous capabilities of such an individual, and their own unique needs.
In response to a 1979 letterfrom a doctor at a Child Development Center in a Brooklyn hospital asking the Rebbe for guidelines regarding the care and education of people with special needs, theRebbe noted that one must first make the essential observation that “it would be a gross fallacy to come up with any rules to be applied to all of them as a group. For if any child requires an individual evaluation and approach to achieve the utmost in his, or her, development, how much more so in the case of [these individuals.]”
A year later the Rebbe wrote a letter to a groundbreaking Jewish community conference on the developmentally disabled held in New York, where he noted that he did not like the term “retarded,” as was commonly used at the time, but rather preferred “some such term as ‘special’ people, not simply as a euphemism, but because it would more accurately reflect their situation, especially in view of the fact that in many cases the retardation is limited to the capacity to absorb and assimilate knowledge, while in other areas they may be quite normal or even above average … ”
“The Rebbe’s pioneering vision of inclusion was a guiding inspiration, something we needed to do,” says Zalman Grossbaum.
In LifeTown, that vision has become a reality.
A Young Couple’s Focus on People With Special Needs
When the Grossbaums arrived in Livingston in the summer of 1996 to serve as Chabad emissaries, they immersed themselves in developing Jewish educational programs and building relationships with educators in the area’s nursery schools, Hebrew schools and day schools under the auspices of the Rabbinical College of America.
They learned early on that New Jersey has the highest rate of autism in the nation, and that Essex County has the greatest concentration of people with special needs in the state. Due to its proximity to New York City and the therapeutic and educational resources it offered for people with special needs, parents had moved there from around the country. In addition to running regular Chabad programming, Toba Grossbaum spent the couple’s first year in Livingston teaching at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in a typical Jewish kindergarten class. The next year she moved on to teach Jewish studies at the Sinai School, a program which the Kushner Academy hosts for children with a wide range of learning and developmental disabilities and other special needs.
“The experience touched me,” Toba recalls. Toba, who grew up in Michigan, was simultaneously hearing about Jewish children with special needs from Bassie and Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the Detroit-based founders of the Friendship Circle. “Everyone in Michigan was buzzing about Friendship Circle, which had started to blossom,” she says. “The Shemtovs tried to convince us to take the dive and open something similar here.”
Meanwhile, her husband had recently seen some of the Rebbe’s powerful correspondences on the subject, and was moved to do something in his own community. Toba agreed and said, “We will do it on one condition—that we will never say ‘no’ to any family.”
Their decision would forever alter the development of programs and services for people with special needs and their families in New Jersey—and catch the attention of a diverse group of people and organizations across the nation and around the world.
Early Successes for Friendship Circle
The Grossbaums launched Friendship Circle in Livingston in October 2000, with five participants and 20 volunteers and quickly grew to serve 30 families with the support of 90 teen volunteers. The core of the Friendship Circle program pairs teenage volunteers with children with special needs for weekly visits. In the early days of the program, the Grossbaums themselves drove the volunteers to visit program participants.
The size and scope of the challenges soon became apparent to them. “We asked a group of parents to come to a feedback meeting in our home,” says the rabbi, who notes that his wife’s wicker desk was at the time serving as the Friendship Circle office. “One parent said, ‘Whenever we approach another organization about our 9-year-old daughter with special needs, they always say what they can’t do, and that she doesn’t fit the criteria, and that they are maxed out, but this is the first time people asked us what we needed!’”
Lori Saunders clearly remembers the day 20 years ago when she first spoke with Toba about her 8-year-old son Avi, who became one of the founding Friendship Circle participants. “People would stare at us on the bus and say, ‘Discipline your child!’” Lori recounts. “We couldn’t go anywhere. Even in shul, people would look at us. It was isolating. It was hard. It was depressing growing up with friends with typically-developing kids.”
Back then Saunders purchased cards from a local autism group, which were meant to be handed out to people; they read, “My child has autism. Please try to understand his behavior.”
Then she met Toba, and she never handed them out.
“At our very first meeting, Avi was banging on the bookcases and turning the lights on and off,” remembers Saunders. “It’s fine, don’t worry about it” Toba responded. “Toba told us about the Friendship Circle program they were bringing to Livingston. Little by little, they started laying the groundwork and it became this enormous program that paired typically developing young adults with children of differing abilities.
“Friendship Circle changed how people viewed people with different abilities,” Saunders continues. “I no longer felt embarrassed or ashamed. Now there is just this embracing of children, young adults and adults of all abilities. They get to see people with lives different from their own. Friendship Circle is the most incredible program with the most incredible, caring, loving, genuine people you could ever imagine knowing. We are truly blessed.”
Learning about the concrete challenges parents experienced, and now witnessing for themselves the sheer volume of families with children on the autism spectrum, the Grossbaums doubled down.
They installed a permanent ramp to their home so that they could invite anyone to their family Shabbat or holiday meals. Lauren Jacob-Lazer and her husband Adam are among the Grossbaums’ regular Shabbat guests, coming with their 8 month old and 6-year-old twins, one of whom, Benjamin, has cerebral palsy and thus has limited mobility and some difficulties with expressive language.
Through Friendship Circle’s Friends at Home program, Benjamin gets regular visits from teen volunteers. “Benjamin has a lot of teenage girlfriends,” Jacob-Lazer says playfully. “Two girls come over a couple of times a month to hang out with him, to keep him occupied and content and give us a few minutes to do things around the house.”
Today, more and more area teens are volunteering for the Friendship Circle, and Jacob-Lazer says many of her friends have children who volunteer or raise money for the program as a bar or bat mitzvah project.
A key to Friendship Circle’s success is the dedication of its volunteers. Like Avi, Eric Helwell, today 26, has also been involved with Friendship Circle nearly from the start. He joined in 2001 and is still in touch with his buddy of 17 years.
“Ike Newman calls me every Friday before Shabbos—we are very close,” says Helwell. The two met when Newman visited Helwell as part of the Friends at Home program. Today Helwell plays basketball in LifeTown’s league, and himself volunteers to help with mailings once a week.
Looking back at the years of participation with Friendship Circle, Helwell’s mother, Susan, praises the Grossbaums’ commitment saying, they’ve “always been there in times of need.”
Watching the Children Grow, Planning Next Steps
As the Grossbaums continued to watch Saunders and Helwell and so many others on the spectrum grow up, they considered how Friendship Circle can further assist people with special needs, their families and the community.
“By then we understood the numbers, the needs, the responsibility, and we began to think on a larger scale,” Zalman Grossbaum explains. He and his wife began to imagine a state-of-the-art destination which would provide recreational, educational, therapeutic and social opportunities for children, teens and adults with special needs, their families and the larger community. They knew about LifeTown in Detroit, which the Shemtovs had built in 2006, and had visions of expanding on this concept.
Slowly, plans for LifeTown Livingston began to take shape.
Some of the major donors to the $18 million LifeTown project are families who have been involved with Friendship Circle for years, including Seryl and Charles Kushner, and Paula Gottesman and her late husband Jerry Gottesman, after whom the building will be named. The indoor park was funded by a $500,000 grant from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey. Numerous individuals and businesses throughout the community have also donated to LifeTown.
The community eagerly awaited the opening of LifeTown and followed its progress through regular posts and photos on the LifeTown website.
Avi Saunders, today 30, couldn’t wait for the day LifeTown would open. “I feel at home there,” he says. In fact, Saunders looks forward to doing jobs at LifeTown, working at the office copy center. “He lives and breathes LifeTown,” adds his mom.
“The goal of LifeTown is to make the world a welcoming place, integrating people with special needs, including autism, into daily life,” Grossbaum explains. “LifeTown is a model for people with special needs and all kids—when they play together on the playground, for example, they naturally come together and don’t notice differences.”
Today, LifeTown hosts all of the Friendship Circle programs, where teen volunteers and people with special needs regularly participate in inclusive programming. Friendship Circle’s team has also grown to include more Chabad rabbis and their wives, staff, active lay leaders and an always-expanding roster of volunteers.
“These are the people who really make all of this happen today,” Grossbaum says. “We have a dedicated team of angels who work here day-in, day-out. None of this could be possible without them.”
Participants begin their visit at LifeTown by entering the village called LifeTown Shoppes. There they can withdraw money from Regal Bank. They can choose to travel in mini Audi cars (sponsored by DCH Millburn Audi) and learn to follow crosswalks and traffic signals. They then have opportunities to visit sometimes hard-to-navigate, sensory overloaded places such as a full-service movie theater (with kosher popcorn!), RWJ Barnabas Health medical center, a ShopRite grocery store, pet shop, book store and hair salon.
Participants also obtain real-world job training through such work opportunities as stocking shelves in the grocery store, serving snacks, making copies and laundering towels at the laundromat, for use in the aquatic center. Grossbaum proudly points out that “every job is a real job with an end purpose and no make-believe work.”
Parents and the public are welcome at the Words Bookstore—founded by Ellen and Jonah Zimiles, parents of a child with autism—and the nearby coffee shop where they can sip a cup of coffee, browse some books, have a business meeting, or socialize with other parents. There’s also a private parents lounge just for family members.
“I have never seen anything like it,” says Dr. Herbert Cohen, director of the Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, and director of the school’s University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. Cohen has worked in the field for 54 years. “The facility is incredible. They do life-skills training plus anything you can imagine for children and adults. I don’t think there is anything close to it. The potential is enormous.”
What surprises Cohen most is the sheer number of volunteers.
Dr. Nancy Kirsch, professor and community director of the doctor of physical therapy program at nearby Rutgers University recently brought a group of Rutgers faculty from various disciplines on a tour. “They knew nothing about Friendship Circle and Chabad and were blown away,” she explains, noting that they “were enamored with the sensory awareness, and architectural barrier awareness that went in to the planning—they were so excited—like kids in a candy store.”
While Friendship Circle is geared towards the Jewish community, LifeTown’s programs, including respite, after-school activities, sports leagues, and educational programs, are nonsectarian and open to the entire community. There may be potential for collaboration and training between LifeTown and Rutgers and Grossbaum is already thinking several steps into the future. He is exploring ways to more effectively incorporate technology in to LifeTown and is looking into ways to take participant IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) and make them into an interactive platform.
Despite all the bells and whistles, the Grossbaums never lose focus of the core purposes of LifeTown, to fully integrate people with special needs into the community and society at large. With a birthday center and a coffee shop, family volunteer or other community volunteer opportunities, LifeTown is itself an integrated center. While children can grow to obtain the life skills they need, thousands of community members will have the experience of interacting with them so that such a thing becomes second nature to them.
In his 1980 letter to the conference on disabilities, the Rebbe wrote that no less important than the therapies and programs which needed to be developed, people with special needs must be given the same opportunity to connect with their Jewish identity as every typically abled person.
“The actual practice of Mitzvos in the everyday life provides a tangible way by which these special people of all ages can identify with their families and with other fellow Jews in their surroundings, and generally keep in touch with reality,” the Rebbe wrote. “Even if they may not fully grasp the meaning of these rituals, subconsciously they are bound to feel at home in such an environment, and in many cases could participate in such activities also on the conscious level.”
“Every neshamah [soul] has a unique personal mission to fulfill in this world,” says Grossbaum. “Even as the programs have grown, that has remained at the heart of Friendship Circle and LifeTown.”
My recent college graduate daughter and I hoped to visit three hard-to-get-to Western states, hike two national parks and see bison, bears, wolves, elk and moose all before arriving in Jackson, Wyoming, for a restful Shabbat. We picked up our pickup truck at the Bozeman Yellowstone Airport, stopped in a local supermarket where we were pleasantly surprised to find more than enough kosher-certified products, and spent one night in Bozeman before setting off for Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.
We naively thought we might be the only observant (though well-disguised with baseball caps) Jews in the area and wouldn’t see any easily identifiable Jewish people or hear any Hebrew for days. This lasted until the Canyon Village snack bar and gift shop, near the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, where a pack of 40 girls in bright yellow sweatshirts with the name of a Jewish camp plastered in Hebrew across the front seemed overjoyed to find Sabra humus in the middle of a national park in Wyoming.
On our way out of the park that evening, en route to a lodge in nearby Idaho, we followed the cars ahead of us as they pulled over to the side of the road – a sure sign of nearby wildlife. As we grabbed our binoculars and cameras, we couldn’t help but overhear a family in a nearby car listing all the animals they had seen: ze’ev, ayal, dov.
After three days of in Yellowstone, where we hiked, spotted a wolf, observed the geothermal pools, numerous hot springs and geysers and the world-famous Old Faithful, we continued just south of Yellowstone to Grand Teton National Park. The snow-capped mountains look as beautiful and picturesque in person as they do in the postcards.
We covered most of the park by car and on foot before discovering the ferry which shuttles passengers across Jenny Lake, allowing access to waterfalls, lakes, breathtaking views, and miles of trails deep into the canyon. I hadn’t paid attention to my hiking outfit of the day – which included one of my dozens of Camp Ramah T-shirts. A fellow hiker ascending as we came down the trail – likely a veteran of an American Jewish summer camp – noticed my shirt, smiled and said, “Mah nishma?” So much for anonymity.
After days of eating sandwiches and fruit, we could almost smell Shabbat – and our first hot meal in ages. We had paid ahead for the tasty Shabbat dinner at the Chabad of Wyoming in Jackson just a few miles from the southern exit of the Grand Tetons. Thankfully, Shabbat in July starts late, and Chabad is kind enough to not bring in Shabbat early. We had time to explore the quaint town with art galleries, coffee shops, and the town square where each entrance gate is covered in elk antlers. No surprise given its proximity to National Elk Refuge. Each winter, as many as 7,000 elk come down from the high country to the valley floor.
WE ENTERED the home of Chabad emissaries, Rabbi Zalman and Raizy Mendelsohn, through a large white tent which was erected on their driveway hours before. Following a spirited Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv service which didn’t quite have a minyan (a quorum for prayer), guests helped transport food from the kitchen, through the study, and to the driveway for a delicious, multi-course dinner, with a local touch of moose napkin rings.
In typically inclusive Chabad fashion, guests included a few locals; an elderly Chabad couple who rented a motor home and drove from Denver, Colorado; a Jewish woman from Vancouver, Canada, who traveled (with her horse!) to Jackson for a few months; and a handful of Israelis from New York City who spend the summer season working beauty shops in Jackson. They were making their first appearance at the Chabad and expressed appreciation that they had finally taken the plunge – after three summers in town – to set foot in Chabad.
We returned to Chabad the next morning in time for prayers. Although there was no minyan, we still managed to have a Torah reading. The rabbi asked various men and women to read each aliyah in English, and led an extensive discussion. Who ever thought my daughter would be able to read Torah at a Chabad House?
We made it back to the Cowboy Resort Lodge and enjoyed Shabbat lunch outside on our picnic table. We walked a few blocks to an off the beaten track attraction. Vertical Harvest is an impressive state-of-the-art, three-story hydroponic farm that trains and employs many local residents with disabilities. They offer tours several times a week.
We settled in to a long Shabbat nap and were awakened by the sound of a loudspeaker in the distance. As we listened more closely, we realized it was the sound of the Jackson Hole Rodeo about to get underway. My daughter and I looked at each other and right away knew we had to at least walk over to the rodeo. Who knows? Perhaps we’d be able to talk our way in. Might we be able to explain the Jewish Sabbath at the rodeo? We had no ID, phones or money.
We took our chances and explained Shabbat. It only took three attempts before we reached the manager, who kindly stamped our hands and waved us in to the stadium. As we entered, the announcer, who just half an hour earlier had woken us from our Shabbat slumber, was in the midst of an impassioned speech to the crowd. All 1,000 or so guests – most donning the characteristic cowboy hats and boots – were on their feet and silent, awaiting the singing of what he called “America’s number one song, the Star Spangled Banner.”
HE DIRECTED everyone’s attention to a woman racing across the arena on a horse in a red, white and blue riding outfit and carrying a larger than life American flag. As the announcer narrated her ride, my daughter and I understood what it truly means to be American. “Whether you are a school teacher, a cowboy, or a broker on the New York Stock Exchange, that is the American spirit that is represented in this horse.”
Well, this clearly was our first rodeo! It was underway and we had no idea what to expect, or where to look. The first event, to our immediate right, was bull-riding. One person carefully opened the gate where a rider was holding on for dear life as the bull tried to knock him off. Three wranglers were skilled in directing the bull pack into his pen without first harming the rider who was now on the ground. Another man observed from a barrel, near the bull-riding competition.
The next event, barrel-racing, featured women on horses. The rider and her horse started sprinting from one end of the arena and raced down the course in an attempt to complete a cloverleaf pattern around preset barrels. Unlike in swim meets that I have witnessed at countless JCCs, where the timers strive to be accurate to the hundredth of a second, the timing for both of these events seemed more approximate than exact.
As we observed the various events, we slowly began to understand how certain expressions worked their way in to the English language: taking the bull by the horns, for example. And why one of America’s top-selling blue jeans is known as Wrangler.
We held off offering any comments about animal cruelty, though seeing calves lassoed and their legs tied up made us uncomfortable. Calf-roping, also known as tie-down roping, is another timed event where the rider throws a loop of rope from a lariat around the calf’s neck and tries to “rope” and restrain it by tying three legs together.
There were even some family friendly audience participation events as well, and some simulation booths. In the sheep scramble, hundreds of kids lined up on the arena dirt. Three sheep are released, and the excited children had to fetch red bandanas tied to their horns. In another on-field event, a dozen over-eighteen year olds were blindfolded and competed in a dance competition.
We saw a five-year-old girl on the rodeo grounds trying her best to ride a mechanical bull while her mother tried getting her to hold the bull with her left hand and wave with her right. “That’s how the cowgirls do it!”
The announcers told somewhat racy stories and jokes throughout the evening. On a more serious note, at one point, they asked all veterans to rise so the crowd could pay tribute. They thanked them for their service and for “making it possible for cowboys to travel the country.” I was now beginning to understand and appreciate the father-to-son transmission of a culture, and of the community aspect of the rodeo.
I didn’t expect to be religiously inspired at a rodeo, but as the stars came out indicating that Shabbat was over, we looked up and thanked God for a week of new experiences, beautiful scenery, and for this newfound appreciation for America.
Jewish New Yorker aims to qualify for US Open, starts program to shine light on deep issues facing pro tennis players
Jewish tennis player Noah Rubin has been doing great things with rackets – on and off the court – since he was a little boy. The 23-year-old, 195th-ranked ATP professional from Long Island, New York, had a tennis-themed bar mitzvah, enjoyed a successful run as a junior, and has already had some memorable on-court moments since turning pro in 2015.
Rubin has beaten top tour players such as John Isner (2018 Citi Open in Washington DC), and he has given Roger Federer a run for his money, losing 7-5, 6-3, 7-6(3) in the second round of the 2017 Australian Open. Rubin continues to hover around No. 200 in the rankings and travels the world participating in both the ATP Pro Tour and Challenger Tour events.
He is also active and vocal off the court, advocating for more equitable earnings for all tournament players, and helping humanize the sport through his “Behind The Racquet” project on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. The initiative features many of the world’s best tennis players posing behind their rackets and telling personal stories of depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse and more.
This week, Rubin is working to secure a spot in the main draw of the US Open in New York at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. He is no stranger to the Grand Slam event; Rubin has played in either the US Open Qualifying Tournament or the main draw every year since 2013. To earn one of 16 coveted spots in this year’s main draw, he must first win two more matches in this week’s qualifiers.
A local favorite who was surrounded by family and friends during his first-round match, Rubin easily defeated Italian Gianluca Mager 6-2, 6-3 on Tuesday to set up a second-round duel with 166th-ranked Spaniard Guillermo Garcia-Lopez late Thursday night.
Rubin comes from a tennis family. According to his mother, Melanie, Noah began playing tennis while “still in diapers.” Melanie and her ex-husband, Eric, would get up at 5 a.m. and drive daughter Jessie and Noah to a 6-8 a.m. indoor tennis clinic on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Jessie Rubin McNally, who met her husband on a Birthright Israel trip, went on to play as the captain of the Binghamton (NY) University tennis team, but her younger brother took tennis to another level.
“Eric and I were a good team,” said Melanie. “He would feed Jessie and Noah balls, and I would pick up the balls and offer encouragement.”
As a young child, Rubin played tennis several days a week. He played for the John McEnroe Tennis Academy and competed in tournaments, but also played on a soccer team and attend Hebrew school three days a week from second grade through the age of 13.
Rubin celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Merrick Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue on Long Island and organized a “mitzvah project” collecting used tennis rackets to donate to the Israel Tennis Centers (recently renamed the Israel Tennis and Education Centers). As Rubin playfully noted, “I can recite my haftarah to this day!”
After his bar mitzvah, Rubin stopped attending Hebrew school and began to focus on tennis. He attended high school in Bellmore, Long Island, for one year before, as his training and tournament demands intensified, he switched to learning online.
As a junior player, Rubin reached No. 6 in the world in the International Tennis Federation. In 2014, he was the No. 1 junior in the United States. He reached the second round of the French Open juniors’ tournament in 2014 and soon after won the Wimbledon junior tournament.
One month later, Rubin won the 2014 US Tennis Association’s Boys 18s National Championships in both singles and doubles. As a result of this victory, he received a wild card in to the main draw of the 2014 US Open. Since turning pro in 2015, Rubin has won four ATP Challenger titles and reached a high ranking of No. 131, in 2018.
The likable Rubin – who stands 5-feet-9-inches tall (1.75 meters) and weighs 155 pounds (70 kilos) – is articulate, earnest and very forthcoming to The Jerusalem Post this week in describing his first-round match, some personal struggles and the often challenging life of young professional tennis players.
“There is this anxiety which fills me at the US Open,” said Rubin. “As you can see, right behind me are my family and my friends – everybody who is close to me. I love the support, but once I step on court it hits. There is a lot of pressure. These are all the people who have worked so hard to get me to where I am. I don’t want to let them down.”
Rubin said that he “loves to show off, not in front of people I know.”
Acknowledging that some of his best tournaments have been in Australia, Rubin offered: “That is because it is on the other side of the world.”
Rubin appeared to be healthy during his match against Mager. When asked about his health in recent months, given a number of injuries in past years, he unexpectedly reported, “Another injury has stricken me and it is mental. A lot of people don’t talk about that and that is what I am fixing. It is a huge issue in tennis. I have this ongoing quote that I say – tennis is not conducive to happiness. That is a tough thing since tennis is the thing I love and I still love. But the system of tennis doesn’t make it a viable choice to really smile each and every day.”
Rubin tries hard to keep perspective.
“My new mentality these past five months, actually really the past two months, has been to try and just enjoy tennis, enjoy the atmosphere. People are here to support me.”
Rubin has worked hard to help fans understand the real life experience of professional tennis players and to offer insight in to how they are feeling.
“There are a lot of problems in this sport and it leads to depression, alcohol abuse, etc. I am desperately trying to get people to understand what is going on. I want to help the world of tennis. I think nowadays people are starting to outwardly speak, but it will still take more effort.”
He is making progress through Behind the Racquet.
Rubin described the goals of the online series – to break the stigma of mental health, to allow players to share their stories and to let fans relate to players on a deeper basis. Rubin hopes to “bring new excitement to tennis.”
Behind the Racquet currently has 13,600 followers on Instagram. Even tennis great Venus Williams has posted about it online.
Melanie proudly added that tennis legend Billy Jean King has also commented on Noah’s important contribution. Melanie said that many players have reached out to Noah privately to “thank him from the bottom of their hearts” for what he is doing in capturing the often lonely, physically taxing life of an on-tour tennis player.
“He is really trying to do something good and help people. He has already made people’s lives better.”
His sister Jessie put Noah’s off-court work in a Jewish context.
“He is doing Tikkun Olam – he is trying to repair what needs to be repaired.”
Noah would appreciate her reference to the important Jewish concept of “healing the world.” Proud of his Judaism, Rubin plays around the world sporting a necklace he describes as “the hand of God with a chain in the middle,” which his father bought him as a 17th birthday present. He is pleased when fans engage him about being Jewish. While he acknowledges that he represents America and New York wherever he goes, he adds, “I am a Jewish New Yorker and that means a lot to me.”
Rubin would very much like to visit Israel for the first time, but noted that his tournament schedule has made this difficult. He almost had the opportunity to play in the Jerusalem Challenger Tournament this year – “I tried to go but it was during the French Open Qualifying Tournament.”
“I will get to Israel,” asserted Rubin. “It is not even a question. I will get there with my girlfriend or my family or by myself. I’ll run over there if I have to.”