Original article published in the JNS

“Our kids also come from a perspective culturally and educationally that they will return to the U.S. as allies and friends of the State of Israel,” said head coach Bruce Pearl.

Busloads of American Jewish teenagers arrived at Jerusalem’s Malha Arena to watch Israel’s U20 National play against Auburn University Tigers Men’s basketball team on Aug. 2.

Instead of rooting for Israel, the large delegation of participants on an NCSY trip sponsored by the inclusive Israel experience Yad B’Yad came clad in blue and orange to cheer on Auburn, the reigning SEC regular-season champions. The Alabama team is in Israel to play three games as part of the inaugural “Birthright for College Basketball Tour.”

“We came to support Auburn for coming to Israel,” Emily Farbowitz of New Jersey told JNS.

Eytan Israel of Stamford, Conn., added that “when we heard Auburn was coming to Israel and that they were the first school to show support for Israel, we wanted to support them and make them feel welcome.”

The well-attended event included Israeli Jewish and Arab basketball fans. Photo by Howard Blas.

Ironically, Yad B’Yad head counselor Eytan Aryeh happened to pack his blue Auburn sun hat for his Israel trip before learning the team was coming to the Jewish state. “I like Auburn,” he said. “I was a big Cam Newton (NFL quarterback) fan when he attended Auburn, and I happened to bring the hat.”

Aryeh said he felt privileged to bring his entire group to the game, saying “what better activity than to bring our group to a basketball game, and to welcome Auburn and show that we support them. What a kiddush Hashem,” he said, using words meaning “a sanctification of God’s name.”

The well-attended event also included Israeli Jewish and Arab basketball fans. Moad of Ein Naqquba, an Arab village in central Israel, brought his children. “They are rooting for the U.S. team and I am rooting for the local team,” he said. “We came to watch good-quality professional basketball.”

Tigers head coach Bruce Pearl is familiar with Israel and Israeli basketball. In 2009, he served as head coach for the Maccabi USA men’s basketball team, which took the gold medal at the Maccabi Games in Tel Aviv. Pearl is one of five Jewish coaches in history to reach the Final Four in the NCAA Division I College basketball playoffs.

The 62-year-old noted that once every four years, the NCAA allows a college basketball team to have a foreign tour. In 2017, Pearl took his team on a similar trip to Italy in the summer.

Pearl and the Tigers arrived in Israel Sunday for a 10-day visit. “Auburn is going to allow us to go take my kids to Israel and experience something that could be a once-in-a lifetime thing for them,” said Pearl. “I’m just so grateful.”

He said that he sees great potential for U.S. teams holding sports and cultural experiences in Israel. “My hope is to put Israel on the map for U.S. college teams. Auburn is going to get it started, and hopefully, you’re going to see schools like Duke, Notre Dame or Ohio State—the best names in college basketball—come to Israel. This is my goal and dream, and we are going to try and make it a reality.”

He also said that he hopes the trip will influence his players to return home as allies of Israel.

“Our kids also come from a perspective culturally and educationally that they will return to the U.S. as allies and friends of the State of Israel, and certainly for some of my players, the dream would be for them to be able to come back and play professionally in Israel because it is such a great country to play professionally because of the supportive fans,” said their coach.

Photo by Howard Blas.

‘Try to play some competition’

The Tigers will travel to Hadar-Yosef Stadium in North Tel Aviv, part of the sports center of the same name, to play against Israel’s All-Star Select Team on Aug. 7. The team’s final game will take place against Israel’s National Team on Aug. 8 at Tel Aviv Yafo Sport Palaces. Games will feature four quarters, as opposed to two halves, with a 24-second shot clock.

“One of the things our guys are going to find out in a hurry is they love their basketball in Israel and they’re good,” said Pearl. “A lot of times, you go on these summer tours and you do the best you can to try to play some competition, and there just flat-out isn’t any competition over there. We’re going to get all we want.”

The Auburn team features players from this past season, including Wendell Green Jr.; Zep Jasper; K.D. Johnson; Allen Flanigan; Chris Moore; Jaylin Williams; Babatunde Akingbola; and Dylan Cardwell. New players include freshmen Tre Donaldson; Yohan Traore; and Chance Westry; as well as Johni Broome, a transfer from Morehead State University.

All games are televised live from Israel by the SEC Network at 12 p.m. U.S. Central Standard Time. “We couldn’t be more honored to be able to go with Auburn and Bruce Pearl and his staff for this once-in-a-lifetime trip,” said ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas. “We’re thrilled beyond words.”

Bilas will call Auburn’s games on SEC Network alongside Roxy Bernstein, an American sportscaster for ESPN, the Pac-12 Network and the Oakland Athletics.

In Tuesday night’s game, Auburn never lost the lead. They led at the half 57-22 and went on to blow out the home team 117-56. Players and coaches seem more concerned with good feelings and the symbolism of the trip than the final outcome. Players huddled, embraced, posed for group pictures and then went to greet fans, pose for selfies and sign autographs. Pearl received a big welcome and put on a white yarmulke as the crowd chanted his Hebrew name, Mordechai.

“We’re going to share this trip together—see things for the first time that we’re never ever going to forget,” he said. “That’s what makes it so special, and that’s what will give us a chance to be able to come together and get to know each other better.”

“The greatest way to understand Israel and the amazing place it has become,” he affirmed, “is to see it for yourself.”

“We came to support Auburn for coming to Israel,” said Emily Farbowitz of New Jersey. Photo by Howard Blas.
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Original article published in the JNS

A 6-foot-2 right-hander from California currently pitching for Louisiana State University, he was the 160th overall pick in the fifth round of the Major League Baseball draft.

If everything goes according to plan, Eric Reyzelman may become the most Jewishly connected and affiliated Major League baseball player in history. Of course, there is a long road ahead for the friendly, hard-throwing 21-year-old Californian recently drafted by the New York Yankees. But to date, his Jewish credentials are almost as impressive as his pitching ones; the list of accomplishments already includes Hebrew school, bar mitzvah, a family trip to Israel and naches shepped (Jewish pride enjoyed) by parents and grandparents.

Reyzelman, a 6-foot-2 right-hander currently pitching for Louisiana State University (LSU), was the 160th overall pick in the fifth round of the draft on July 18. He spoke with the JNS from Tampa, Fla., where he will begin his Major League career at the Yankees’ development facilities.

While he had hoped to be picked by a big team, he says he still finds the experience surreal. He was watching the draft in a restaurant with his family and some close friends: “It was one of the craziest moments of my life. It was unreal. I was surrounded by those who got me here!”

He reports that the TV was delayed at the time, and he actually began getting calls from an “area scout” and friends before he received the official word from the Yankees. “I took my time enjoying the news,” he says, “and then they told us we’d be flying to Tampa in a day.”

Reyzelman notes that packing on short notice was no problem; after all, he quipped, “I have been living out of a suitcase for the past two years—going from San Francisco [SF Dons of the West Coast Conference] to LSU to Southern California to the Cape Cod League [Harwich Mariners] to LSU to Southern California to Cape Cod!” His mother, chiropractor Victoria Reyzelman, accompanied him and helped him get settled in Tampa. He says he works out daily from 8:30 a.m. until midafternoon.

Reyzelman and the 20 other players drafted by the Yankees will continue training at the southern facilities. “There are a ton of options to get some innings in,” says Reyzelman, who doesn’t yet know how he will spend the rest of the season. He may remain in Tampa and play in the rookie league; he may play for the Tampa Tarpons, the Minor League Baseball team and Single-A affiliate of the Yankees; or for the Hudson Valley Renegades in Fishkill, N.Y., the High-A affiliate.

Team Israel baseball at the Tokyo Olympics. Source: Team Israel Baseball/Facebook.

‘It is an unbelievable, indiscernible feeling’

Reyzelman being drafted by the Yankees is especially impressive given some of the obstacles he encountered growing up. He was cut from his high school team twice, and underwent and recovered from Tommy John (ulnar collateral ligament) surgery.

He grew up a San Francisco Giants fan, watching multiple Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum pitch. While Reyzelman enjoyed watching games, he acknowledges that “the eighth and ninth innings were the parts of the game with the most action!” Given his interest in late-game excitement, Reyzelman also loved watching Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. He also liked watching Yankee CC Sabathia pitch.

“It was an unbelievable group!” he gushes (just a bit).

The 21-year-old knows what a big deal it is to join the legendary organization and can’t wait to actually wear pinstripes. “It is an unbelievable, indiscernible feeling knowing their rich history and the number of fans they have everywhere. You say ‘Yankees’ all over the world and ears perk up. It is crazy to think I am part of this incredible organization!”

Still, Reyzelman is quick to note that his older 6-foot 5-inch, 250-pound football-playing (formerly a player at Fresno State University) brother is the “true athlete of the family.” He is also proud of his 13-year-old brother who is “obsessed with baseball.”

His parents and grandparents are relatively new arrivals on the baseball scene. While his father, Alex Reyzelman, a podiatrist, came to the United States from Moldova as a child, his mother, Victoria, a chiropractor, came to America from Ukraine (via Italy) in 1989. “My mother was here with me from the time of the signing until now; she just went back home,” he says. “My parents love it. We talk every day, and my dad loves getting updates.”

He notes that his grandparents are also enthusiastic supporters, despite arriving “late to the game,” so to speak

“My grandparents got into it when I was at the University of San Francisco [before transferring to LSU]; they started streaming every game,” he says. “Now, my grandmother who came from Moldova knows baseball and asks questions like, ‘Why was this pitcher taken out?!’ ”

Eric Reyzelman. Photo by Chris Parent/Courtesy of Louisiana State University Athletics.

‘Work ethic, determination and perseverance’

“We grew up in a pretty strong Jewish family,” reports Reyzelman, who went to Hebrew school and whose family was very active with Chabad of the Tri-Valley in Pleasanton, Calif.—some 38 miles southeast of Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. He celebrated his bar mitzvah there under the tutelage of Rabbi Raleigh Resnick. “We have made so many friends there and made so many connections. I am pretty sure I could pick up my Torah portion now if I reviewed it a few times!”

He credits the rabbi with connecting him to Chabad centers and rabbis in Louisiana, and now in Tampa. “After I transferred to LSU, I was trying to get involved. The rabbi in Baton Rouge went out of his way to make me feel comfortable.”

Jay Johnson, head baseball coach at LSU, is excited about Reyzelman and his future, saying “he is a true testament to work ethic, determination and perseverance. Eric had a terrific season this year for us and is really prepared to have success with the Yankees organization.”

The 21-year-old finished three years of college, studying kinesiology at San Francisco and then sports administration at LSU. He’ll be leaving to play professional ball.

The coach adds that “he has a Major League-ready fastball and the ability to add to his arsenal as he works through Minor League Baseball. I believe the best is yet to come for him as a pitcher.”

As for Reyzelman, he says he would love to don No. 18 (chai, Hebrew for “life”) on his Yankees uniform if given the chance: “That would be awesome. It was always lucky in my family and in Judaism, though I am not so big on numbers.”

He makes it a point to note that he appreciates the Jewish players who have come before him. He especially admires baseball legend, Sandy Koufax. “We all know the story. He definitely has to be one of the biggest. And I didn’t know until recently that Ian Kinsler [MLB legend and current Team Israel manager] is Jewish!”

Reyzelman has been following Team Israel and has watched (and re-watched) the 86-minute documentary about them called “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel.” He says, “I know the whole team from the documentary,” and adds that he would welcome the opportunity to play for Israel’s baseball team—in fact, “I am trying to get it set up for next year.”

He also acknowledges that he would be eligible to play in the World Baseball Classic qualifiers but would need to become a citizen of Israel to potentially play in the Olympics.

Peter Kurz, general manager of Israel’s Olympic and National teams, replies that he would be thrilled to see Reyzelman one day wearing the blue and white. He is also delighted to see him playing in New York—sort of.

He notes dryly, “as a Mets fan, he should be going to Queens … .”

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Original article published in the JNS

Maccabiah educator Jennifer Brodsky says “there is an opportunity to think about Jewish identity and to add context that can often be as impactful” as the sports competitions themselves.

ISRAEL—The road to the Maccabiah is long and challenging for athletes in individual and team sports. Those lucky enough to make it to Israel’s 21st Maccabiah Games had to persevere through tryouts and qualifications, and meet standards set by each sport. The games, which held its opening ceremony on July 14 at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, are slowly winding down this week with finals underway.

They offered an array of sports—familiar and less familiar—in cities throughout Israel, both well-known and off the beaten path. Athletes, family members and all the media that covered the events needed to be mindful of travel times and distances to assure they were in the right place for each event. Jerusalem served as host for many competitions, including football (soccer) basketball, athletics, tennis, hockey, futsal and weightlifting. Haifa hosted the Youth Maccabiah version of many of the same events.

Netanya, which lies between Tel Aviv and Haifa on the Mediterranean coast and is home to beautiful beaches, hosted several competitions, including beach volleyball, basketball 3×3 (pronounced three ex-three), surfing, ninja, climbing, and beach football. For the first time, it also held surf life-saving competitions.

Other host cities and venues included Wingate Institute (rugby, swimming, water polo and futsal masters competition); Tel Aviv (artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics and cycling in the Velodrome); Tiberias (sprint triathlon); Ra’anana (netball competitions, table tennis, squash and youth baseball); Ramat Hasharon (tennis masters); Hadera (judo, karate and masters football); Ganei Tikva (fencing); Ashdod and Lod (cricket); Nof HaGalil (youth football); Ramat Gan (paddle competitions); Dalyiat al-Karmel (badminton); Gezer Regional Council (softball); and Sharona (equestrian).

As of Sunday, Israel led the medal wins by far with a total in the hundreds, with the United States in second place and Argentina in third.

Uruguay playing the United States on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on July 24, 2022. Photo by Howard Blas.

‘Inseparable part of the Israeli community’

Maccabiah chairman Arik Ze’evi is very aware of the scale of this year’s games. He says “the Maccabiah has grown over the years, and there is not a single Olympic village that can accommodate it all. Therefore, this year, the entire State of Israel is going to be our Olympic village, with competitions and events all over the country.”

Some sports even made their debut this year. In addition to surf life-saving, they include wave surfing, climbing, 3X3 basketball, motocross and paddle. In addition, after 33 years, the weightlifting contest has returned.

One singular aspect of the Maccabiah as compared to other large sports events like the Olympics is that it features juniors’ adults, masters and people with disabilities in one event. Ze’evi is particularly proud of the inclusion of people with disabilities, noting that “the Maccabiah is an inseparable part of the Israeli community. As such, this year the Maccabiah is hosting the Paralympic Games in a variety of sports and competitions.”

There is another note to the games, and that is in the realm of teaching and culture, assisted by an entire Maccabiah education department.

A U.S. athlete watches the game with Uruguay on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on July 24, 2022. Photo by Howard Blas.

Maccabiah educator Jennifer Brodsky notes that many non-sports opportunities are woven into the games, including tourism, information on Israel in general and resources for Jewish players. “There is an opportunity to think about Jewish identity and to add context,” she says, “that can be as impactful” as the competitions themselves.

The final few days of the Maccabiah proved especially exciting with the July 21 artistic gymnastics and wheelchair basketball finals, as well as the motocross competition. July 22 featured the ice-hockey final and July 23 the women’s soccer final.

July 24 was a big day with finals in men’s and women’s rugby, men’s water polo, men’s and women’s basketball, and men’s soccer. In men’s basketball, the United States defeated France 81-70.

Usually, the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is quiet this time of the year, but it was very much alive on Sunday night. The stands were packed with soccer fans wearing blue and white “Uruguay” jerseys as they enthusiastically cheered on their beloved team. Uruguay went up 3-0 and held on to defeat the United States 3-2.

Jacky Wyluzanski, a Jerusalem native of 20 years who made aliyah from Uruguay, was coordinating a last-minute Mincha minyan at halftime as the Tararam Israeli music and dance group performed on the field. While clearly pleased that his team was ahead at halftime, he noted: “Achdut (‘unity’) is what the Maccabiah is about; it doesn’t matter if you root for Uruguay or the U.S.!”

The 2022 Maccabiah Games were originally planned for 2021. Since they are scheduled to take place every four years, they will get back on track with the 22nd Maccabiah in 2025.

The audience watches Uruguay vs. the United States on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on July 24, 2022. Photo by Howard Blas.
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“The training and working out for hours and hours has been so exhilarating,” says 65-year-old martial-arts expert Dr. Leeber Cohen, who has lost 10 or 15 pounds in the process.

Some doctors and lawyers of a certain age spend their days working at the office. Others fly to Israel to participate in a Maccabiah martial-arts event—or stay at home counting the days until they recover from a hip transplant and can compete in the 2025 Maccabiah triathlon in three more years—at age 83.

Dr. Leeber Cohen, 65, of Teaneck, N.J., is currently in Israel now competing in his first Maccabiah. When he saw a post in the Teaneck Shuls email group this past November asking for “high-level Jewish athletes” who might want to consider competing in the once every four year international event often affectionately called “The Jewish Olympics,” Leeber jumped at the chance.

“It was always in the back of my mind. I love ophthalmology; it is very fulfilling,” says Leeber, who also has rabbinic ordination and enjoys teaching daf Yomi (daily pages of Talmud). But he has been practicing martial arts much longer than his livelihood. “I was at a friend’s sleepover at age 12 and started going to a [martial-arts] class.” The former Upper West Side and Great Neck, N.Y., resident has been connected to the Tora Dojo Martial Arts Association ever since.

Tora Dojo was founded in 1967 by Grandmaster Harvey Sober, a professor at the Yeshiva University of New York. The name is a bit of a play on words as tora is translated as “tiger” in Japanese, and “Torah” in Hebrew refers to the Jewish Five Books of Moses. Dojo means “school” in Japanese. The martial-arts form stresses physical and mental discipline, classical Chinese-style martial arts as Jewish spiritual and mystical concepts.

Leeber has been working with the same teacher almost continuously since age 12, with a few years off for college and medical school. He contacted Maccabiah USA karate co-chair Alex Sternberg, as well as the two karate masters he had been working with for years. He completed the forms, sent a video of him performing and was accepted to the team. In preparing for the Maccabiah, Leeber had to learn a new form and be prepared to perform with younger athletes as the masters division was potentially going to be canceled.

Cohen at practice at home. Credit: Courtesy.

Leeber spent the first part of his trip in Jerusalem—close to his mother and sister, and the Teddy Stadium, the site of the July 14 Opening Ceremonies attended by U.S. President Biden, Israeli President Herzog and approximately 10,000 athletes from 80 countries and tens of thousands of spectators in attendance.

He then relocated with the team to Hadera for the July 18 and July 19 karate competition at the Anerbox Arena.

“This has been a fabulous, fantastic experience,” he reported before leaving for Israel. “The training and working out for hours and hours has been so exhilarating,” adds Leeber, who has lost 10 or 15 pounds in the process.

The excitement started at John F. Kennedy, and then in Israel, which was buzzing; there were posters everywhere and signs,” he reports. “And the Opening Ceremony was fantastic!”

He went on to say that on Tuesday, the day of the competition, “we competed with the 18s and older. Some were top-level. One was third in Europe; one was eighth in the world …

“We entered, bowed to the judges, bowed to the audience, and then they played “Hatikvah,” which was the highlight of my experience. I did not medal; I missed eligibility for the bronze by one-tenth of a point.”

Leeber reports that “the achdut (‘unity’) was terrific. We are really all Jews in the end; we are competing with we are all cousins and family.”

And he also doesn’t forget to credit the true heroes: “My wife has been incredibly supportive, and my family says they are proud.”

Leeber recounts playfully, “When I told my [then] 9-year-old grandson that I was going to the Maccabiah Games, he excitedly told his day-school teacher that his grandfather was going to the Olympics.”

Dr. Leeber Cohen in his official Maccabiah jacket. Credit: Courtesy.

Leeber may not be participating in the Olympics, but he is giving his grandson, family, the Teaneck Jewish community and the Jewish people reasons to feel proud.

‘A connection and devotion to Israel’

Robert Sugarman, 80, a veteran of the 2009, 2013 and 2017 games, is sitting out this Maccabiah as he is recovering from mid-June hip surgery. For now, he will have to be content playing golf, which he can resume in August, according to his doctor.

Robert Sugarman running in a competition in the United States. Credit: Courtesy.

Sugarman’s interest in competing in triathlons started with his early exposure to swimming. “I started swimming at age 4 because my parents were swim counselors,” he says. “I swam in high school and tried to swim at Yale.”

The idea for triathlons was planted in 1999 during a conversation with a friend from KJ (Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun), Sugarman’s synagogue on New York’s Upper East Side, “I had swam forever and biked as a kid, but I had never run,” he recalls. “I started with a triathlon in Central Park in 2000 to see if I could and have continued to do triathlons. I did my first triathlon in Israel in 2009 and won a bronze medal.”

Sugarman finds participating in the Maccabiah “falls into place” for several reasons: “I have an affinity to swim and bike, and I have a connection and devotion to Israel—going back to my parents who were active in the ADL.”

Sugarman first visited Israel in 1956 when he was one of six New York City high school students chosen by the New York City Department of Education to participate in a three-week program sponsored by the Ministry of Education, and notes that his “love and support of Israel started then.”

Sugarman also describes himself as a “patriot” and proud American. He served in the U.S. Army for several years, including a year-and-a-half stint at Fort Lewis, a former army base located nine miles from Tacoma, Wash. He served as a commander and returned to the East Coast to practice law as the Vietnam War was taking place.

Given his love of both Israel and sports, Sugarman notes: “The thought of doing a triathlon in Israel was very attractive to me. I did it in 2009, 2013 and 2017, and 2021 was supposed to be next.”

Sugarman at a swimming competition in Israel. Credit: Courtesy.

He says he is disappointed to miss the 2021 event, which was rescheduled for 2022 and taking place from July 12-26. He is also proud to represent America. “The combination of representing the United States in a combination—in Israel—is very special to me.”

Sugarman speaks fondly of gathering with all of the American athletes prior to each Maccabiah—“all in their USA uniforms, ready to march in. Marching into Teddy Stadium is a really thrilling experience.”

And he has used his previous participation in the Maccabiah as an opportunity to “bring everybody” on a family trip. His wife, four children and 10 grandchildren now look forward to cheering him on in the 2025 Maccabiah triathlon.

The family of Robert Sugarman cheers him on in his athletic adventures, even into his 80s. Credit: Courtesy.
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