It was the start of what is called the happiest month in the Jewish calendar, when the joyous holiday of Purim takes place. It was also the start of March Madness. As the sun went down, it was hard to tell that just hours before there had been tears in the locker room – the Macs had lost Game 1 of the NCAA Division III Tournament and a chance to realize their dream of a national championship.
It was the end of an unforgettable era of three years and four seasons, in which the team representing an Orthodox Jewish institution made national and international headlines and inspired the Jewish people at a time of anti-Semitism. growing and an unrelenting pandemic.
The NBA congratulated them on Twitter in December when they built a 50-game winning streak. Yeshiva was also ranked #1 in Division III for the first time. The team has won three Skyline Conference championships in four years and entered the Division III tournament, where last Friday they lost 63-59 to Johns Hopkins University.
“It’s something historic,” coach Elliot Steinmetz told them. The former Yeshiva player, who works full-time as a lawyer, took the coaching job in 2014 with one goal: to recruit the best Jewish players in the country. “It’s more important than wins and losses,” he said.
Players have come from all over the United States and range in upholding their faith – from Max Leibowitz, who leads them in prayer and gives them Torah-inspired lessons before they hit the field, to Ofek Reef, a 6-foot junior from Texas who takes to the field bareback, sporting tattoos and a Star of David earring, and captivates crowds when he dives over taller rivals .
The list also includes Jordan Armstrong, a 6-foot-8 forward who sports a beard and man bun and describes himself as a Northern California hippie, and Gabriel Leifer, who returned to play as a graduate student. while juggling a full-time job at an accounting firm and became the team’s all-time leader in assists and rebounds.
All, however, are united by their Jewish identity and their love of basketball.
The Macs were led by senior Ryan Turell, a 6-foot-7 point guard, who turned down Division I offers to play for the Orthodox school in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood because he wanted to be a ” Jewish hero”.
Professional scouts noticed his talent and followed him closely. ESPN and The New York Times featured him when the Macs had the longest active winning streak in men’s basketball and he became the school’s — and for a time, the country’s — leading scorer. His goal? Become the NBA’s first Orthodox Jewish player, so he can continue to inspire Jews to “stay proud.”
“It’s a dream come true,” Turell said. “Making people proud to wear a yarmulke or to be Jewish is what we set out to do, and we accomplished it.”
The match against Johns Hopkins was played in the last seconds. The Macs were down 60-52 with less than a minute and a half to play. Turell then led a comeback, scoring three consecutive free throws followed by a three-pointer. Trailing just by two with less than a minute on the clock, Turell hit the equalizer but missed and Johns Hopkins won, scoring on the free throws. After the buzzer, Turell hugged every teammate on the pitch and congratulated them on an incredible season.
“It’s a question of Jewish pride. It is really meaningful for me and for the children. They look up to them as heroes,” said Daniel Hermann, who attended the game at Stockton University in Galloway, New Jersey, with three of his children.
Two years ago, the Macs qualified for the Sweet 16 of the Division III tournament for the first time.
The team made history in their own way by playing the first American sporting event held without fans due to COVID fears.
After a four-hour bus ride to their next game in Virginia, they learned that COVID-19 had forced the NCAA to cancel the tournament; the pandemic brought an abrupt and shocking end to their season and their dream of winning a national championship.
Over the next year and a half, some teammates and their families across the United States contracted COVID-19. Players were quarantined, trained in isolation in small groups and saw match after match cancelled. Two seasons later, they made their comeback to reach the top of the national rankings and a Division III title shot.
“Our team is not just playing for a school, it is playing for a people,” said Rabbi Ari Berman, president of the Yeshiva.
“Countless stories of how our basketball team has inspired people around the world have poured into our offices,” he said. “Children gained new heroes, Jews who had been estranged from their identity reconnected, some started attending services and lighting Shabbat candles again.”
“Most importantly, through their excellence, humility and character, our team emanated Jewish pride around the world,” Berman added. “In a time of global darkness and all-too-common anti-Semitism, these incredible students were a beacon of light.
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