Birthright Israel

Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

American-Israeli basketball influencer making an impact on courts and screens all over the world.

NEW YORK – Mike Kaufman may be the most popular Israeli basketball player you never heard of.

The American-born 28-year-old Kaufman played professional basketball for two years in Israel, is a well-known basketball teacher, coach, sports journalist/videographer and social media influencer. He has accompanied NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo to Greece, shot around with Dwyane Wade, taught literally millions of aspiring young players to make complex shots, and recently did a feature video story on Israel’s two recent NBA draftees – Deni Avdija and Yam Madar.

These days, Kaufman consistently outscores all Israeli basketball players on social media combined by a long shot. The very gregarious Kaufman described himself this week to The Jerusalem Post as a “late basketball bloomer.” He was born into a Jewish family in New York, moved to Florida at age seven, and eventually made his high school basketball team as a junior.

“I fell in love with Cambridge and Boston,” said Kaufman, who went on to play at Division III Lesley University, where he studied business management and psychology and served as captain for two years. Kaufman set two school records – most three-pointers made in a single game and best single season three-point percentage at 44.5%. He was also a semifinalist in the 2014 ESPN college dunk contest.

During his college years, Kaufman met Berdugo, who currently serves as head skill development coach for all of Israel’s national basketball teams.
Kaufman was impressive enough to catch the attention of recruiters from a number of colleges in the United States.

In considering his next basketball move, Kaufman consulted with Laine Selwyn, an old mentor and coach from his early days at what Kaufman refers to as “the Marv Kessler Basketball Camp.”

Kessler was a well-known coach and instructor throughout the basketball world; he was best known as an instructor from the mid-1960s to the 1990s at the prominent Five-Star Basketball Camp in Honesdale, PA.

“Laine knew me from when I was a little kid!” reported Kaufman.
She went on to be a basketball star at University of Pittsburgh, as well as in the WNBA, with several European teams and with Maccabi Ashdod. She played in Israel for 10 years and encouraged Kaufman to consider joining her there.

“[Laine] said ‘should think about aliyah and playing basketball in Israel.’ So, after graduation, I went for it!”
Berdugo was again a big help.

“Yogev introduced me to Israel,” noted Kaufman, who met various Israeli players and coaches through the basketball camp. “He introduced me to Matan Siman-Tov, who became my agent.”
Siman-Tov is currently Avdija’s Israel agent.

“He tried to get me a deal, but they said they needed to see me play in real life,” noted Kaufman.

In 2014, Kaufman participated in a Birthright Israel trip.
“I had a great Birthright experience.”

He decided to stay in Israel to shop around his basketball skills. He practiced with a team in Ramat Hasharon, caught the attention of several Israel team owners, and the then-22-year-old was offered a contract for the 2014/15 season by Maccabi Hod Hasharon of the Israel National League.

“I made aliyah and bought a one-way flight! I had to have the mentality that I was not coming back [to the US].”

In Israel, Kaufman lived with his childhood friend from Florida, Nicolas “Nico” Olsak, a midfielder for the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team. Kaufman did not see much playing time that season which he notes “had its fair share of ups and downs.” The shooting guard acknowledges the style of play was different from what he was used to in the US and that he “needed time to adjust.”

Kaufman did not receive any offers at the end of the season to continue playing in Israel – “I didn’t want to go out like that,” – he recalls – and tried out with Elizur Ashkelon, where he received an offer to play for the 2015/16 season. However, the team experienced financial problems, and Kafuman’s playing career in Israel came to somewhat of an abrupt end.
Kaufman is very honest as he reflects on his Israel basketball careers.
“It was shaky. I did not have a lot of closure. It drove me to keep pursuing basketball somewhere else.”

Still, Kaufman loved the opportunity to play professional basketball and to play in Israel.

“Playing pro ball was a lifelong dream. Playing in Israel was super special. Tel Aviv is my favorite city in the world!”
While Kaufman hasn’t played professionally since then, he has creatively carved out an impressive niche and presence in every part of the basketball world – from the NBA to youth basketball.
At 23, he returned to Florida and began coaching a third-grade travel team. After five months in Boca Raton, he realized that coaching “wasn’t for me – I’ll coach my own kids one day!”

He moved to New York to work for Overtime, a startup described on its website as “a sports network for the next generation of fans. We bring you the content of the stars and personalities you want to see.”
Kaufman has worked his way up in four-and-a-half years with Overtime.
The work soon expanded from part time to full time and the company went from five workers to 100 workers with offices in New York and Los Angeles. Since the company started, it has raised $33 million dollars. NBA All-Stars, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony have invested in Overtime.
Kaufman currently serves as Senior Manager, Social Strategy and Distribution. He has media credentials for the New York Knicks, covers the NBA All Star Weekend, and regularly meets with such NBA stars as Zion Williamson, Wade, James Harden and Antetokounmpo.

Kaufman attended Williamson’s last high school game and the state championships, played basketball with Wade at Chelsea Piers in New York, hung out with Harden and was invited by Nike to accompany Antetokounmpo for the launch of his sneaker in his hometown in Greece.

“It was so cool. He is such a down-to-earth guy and I met his brothers, who also play in the NBA.”

While working with NBA stars is glamorous, Kaufman still feels a special connection to Israel.

“I went from playing in Israel and just five years later to working in sports media and doing a feature story on Deni and Yam Madar.
Everything really came full circle for me at that moment. The mini-documentaries I produced ended up getting picked up by Israeli News outlets like Sport5 on TV in Israel. This really brought exposure to them and helped them grow on social media before they got drafted to the NBA.”
The hard-working Kaufman has a “side gig,” known as Better Bounce, a concept he first envisioned while playing basketball in Israel.

“I always had teammates and other basketball players asking me how I increase my vert[ical leap] and what I do to become more athletic and jump higher. I finally decided to monetize this in an effective way. Having everything online has allowed me to scale my expertise around the world to help as many athletes as possible.”

Kaufman describes Better Bounce as “a basketball lifestyle brand that specializes in making workout programs to help athletes improve their vert, overall athleticism and give them what they need to be successful on the basketball court.”

His videos have a tremendous following. On some, NBA players perform complex moves as Kaufman breaks them down and narrates over them so young players can work on mastering the moves on their own. More playful videos feature Kaufman in the air himself, like the one where he is vaulting over a woman.

“My fiancée lets me jump over her. This is how we built trust!”
The incredible numbers of viewers show just how popular and influential Kaufman is. He has had four videos in the past six months with over a million views each. His “stats” include: 85,400 Instagram followers with 1.5 Million views in the past month; 358,700 followers on TikTok, with his videos having been “liked” 14.3 million times
(By comparison, other Israeli and Jewish basketball players – many with very successful careers – lag behind Kaufman in terms of Instagram followers: Gal Mekel: 23k, Jordan Farmar: 120k, Deni Avdija: 190k, Omri Casspi: 252k, Amar’e Stoudemire: 526k and Yam Madar: 37k.)
Kaufman is more than a basketball entrepreneur and influencer – he is a role model and a mensch, appreciated by both kids and adults. Kaufman personally replies to all questions submitted to him from kids.

“I want to be a resource so they can be better at basketball.”
He also cares about emotional well-being.

“I talk about mental health, post about how much sleep I get, nutrition, meditation and good habits.”
And colleagues value him.

Danny Herz, long time director of Six Points Sports Academy, notes, “Mike is a special human being. In addition to his massive talent and his unmatched work ethic and drive, he is a great human being that is kind to everyone, appreciative of others, and unselfish to his core. I was fortunate to coach Mike back in the day, and he always made every team he was on better because not only was he a good player, he was a great teammate.”

Herz uses Better Bounce at his camp and says that “one of my favorite days at Six Points Sports Academy was when Mike came to visit. He brought his energy, his enthusiasm, his infectious smile, and his ability to entertain that day when he performed a series of slam dunks for our campers. Hundreds and hundreds of Jewish athletes cheered for him as he put on a show – and then inspired every camper to be the best versions of themselves with hard work and making good decisions.”

Berdugo, his childhood friend who hired him to work at his sports camp and opened doors for Kaufman in Israel, agrees.
“Mike took a talent, honed and mastered it, and became a world known dunker. He followed his dream and helps others do the same!”
Kaufman takes this role very seriously.

“Growing up, I didn’t know too many Jewish athletes who became professional athletes. I’d love to inspire the young generation to work hard and chase their dreams.”

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Original Article Published On The Respectability

Founded in 1948, Israel’s accessibility for people with disabilities was not a top priority.  I recall several almost comical incidents from nearly 20 years ago when helping people with disabilities navigate Israel.  On one group trip, while pushing 20-something Rivka in a wheelchair in northern Israel, the sidewalk abruptly ended. We carried her in the wheelchair to where sidewalk eventually continued.  In the Old City, near the Kotel, I asked soldiers where was the accessible path. They lifted Rivka up the steps in her wheelchair.

Fortunately, Israel today is fairly accessible and straightforward: from riding buses, to shopping in grocery stores, to studying in university. Modern Israel has become a well-known destination for accessible travel.

Israel’s road to accessibility has been a journey. Physical accessibility doesn’t happen automatically; nor does shifting attitudes toward people with disabilities and accessibility.

Twenty years ago, Yuval Wagner, a recently paralyzed helicopter pilot, ignited a public awareness campaign. Wagner eventually founded Access Israel. Having elicited President Weizman’s attention,  the President invited Wagner to celebrate this accomplishment together. Access Israel’s impact on access and inclusion of people with disabilities is now experienced worldwide.

Each year, over 800 people with and without disabilities from 22 countries visit Israel to participate in Access Israel’s International Conference, where they learn about accessibility from technology to tourism; experience Israel’s accessible beaches; visit the now-accessible Old City of Jerusalem; and learn about Access Israel’s work in Israel and worldwide.

“We are the only Israeli organization that focuses on accessibility and inclusion– not only for people in wheelchairs, not only for people who are blind or who have hearing impairments— but for all kinds of disabilities and in all fields of life,” reports Wagner.

Alan T. Brown, Director of Public Impact for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, a board member of FAISR (Friends of Access Israel) and a person with quadriplegia, attests to Israel’s efforts to increase accessibility. Several years ago, Brown met Access Israel CEO Michal Rimon, expressed his desire to visit Israel, and shared concerns about accessibility. Rimon enthusiastically invited Brown to Israel to experience its  accessibility firsthand. Brown later summarized, “Something like this has to be done in America – something that is proactive and aggressive in attaining accessibility for all. I even went on the tour under the Kotel walls in a wheelchair!  I am amazed at how Israel is using more than ramps to include the disabled.  They are also doing it through corporate sensitivity training.”

Pre-COVID-19, tourists with a wide range of disabilities experienced the country, holy to many of the world’s religions.  I have been leading trips to Israel for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities for many years.  I have served as group leader for multiple trips with Camp Ramah’s Tikvah disabilities inclusion program and Shorashim Birthright Israel Asperger’s trips.  Each trip’s participants travel the country, visit Jerusalem’s Old City, Tel Aviv, Old Jaffa, Safed, the Golan Heights, Masada, and the Dead Sea. We go camel riding and explore off-the-beaten path gems such as the chocolate factory at Kibbutz Ein Zivan. Tikvah’s and Birthright’s participants experience a multi-sensory, multi-cultural country with great excitement—and no barriers.

Close to 2,100 young adults with disabilities from around the world have experienced Israel on nearly 100 Accessibility Israel trips, according to Elizabeth Sokolsky, executive director of Birthright Israel North America.  Birthright Israel offers approximately ten accessibility trips annually for participants with a variety of medical, developmental, and physical disabilities including: Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), Asperger’s, vision or hearing impairments, IBD and Crohn’s Disease and other medical issues, and for participants who use wheelchairs.

Sokolsky emphasizes, “It is our belief that every eligible young adult should be able to travel to Israel to experience their birthright. . . . Accessibility trips typically have fewer participants than a traditional Birthright Israel trip, with a larger participant to staff ratio as well as other programmatic accommodations as needed. Birthright Israel also offers opportunities for young adults with a disability to join a classic trip as an inclusion participant, who may be accompanied by an aide or shadow.”

We eagerly look forward to a day soon when tourists with and without disabilities will again have the opportunity to experience Israel, celebrate Israel’s 72 years of growth, and dream of a day when the country will be even more fully accessible to everyone.

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