Yeshiva University men’s basketball coach Jonathan Halpert now has his signature on the school’s men’s basketball court. The Coach Jonathan Halpert Scholarship Fund, an endowment to be awarded annually to children of YU alumni living in Israel wishing to study at the university, now bears his name. Later this year Halpert, who earned his high school, college and graduate degrees from YU, will receive an honorary book, recognizing donors to the scholarship fund as part of an interactive display documenting the history of the YU Maccabees.
After 40 years of coaching and mentoring seemingly countless YU athletes and students, the tributes are pouring in for Jonathan Halpert. The aforementioned activities highlighted the recent celebration of Halpert’s four decades of unstinting devotion to YU’s Torah and academic doctrines.
As YU President Richard M. Joel put it: “For four decades, Coach Halpert has imbued the Melvin J. Furst Gymnasium with the values of sportsmanship, teamwork and Jewish pride. With this deserving honor, Coach Halpert’s example and leadership will inform the play and actions of the future scholar athletes of Yeshiva University for generations to come.”
While winning in sports competition, never a consistent pattern at YU, is always one’s goal, it’s far from the only thing. In a recent interview with The Jewish Press Halpert touches on that issue, among other subjects.
The Jewish Press: When did you first get interested in leading a college athletic program?
Jonathan Halpert: My desire to coach began in Camp Raleigh where, as waiter’s counselor, I had the opportunity to coach MTA and future YU greats Stu Poloner, Larry Schiffman and Harold Perl. I also had the great fortune to learn from Hy Wettstein and Red Sarachek. In my senior year of college I decided to pursue a career as a special education teacher, and therefore coaching was a natural continuation of my desire to teach. I never thought about being a college coach and certainly not the YU coach. In 1972 both Hy Wettstein, MTA’s coach, and Red Sarachek, YU’s coach, retired. I was offered both jobs and chose the challenge of YU.
Yeshiva University has always placed academic excellence ahead of athletic success. Did this YU tradition ever conflict with your natural competitive desire to win at almost any cost?
No, because I do not believe that you should ever sacrifice your values and what you represent for any endeavor. What I am most proud of is that we have won without ever forgetting who we are.
With YU student-athletes facing the challenges of a time-consuming double curriculum of religious and secular studies, how do you balance the natural time and stress demands on your players?
I have tried to stress that basketball is only important when you are engaged in basketball, but once the game or practice is over, whatever you do next is the most important.
How hard was it to succeed Sarachek, the legendary YU coach?
It wasn’t hard because Red made it easy for me. He was always there to help and support me, especially after a loss. I also never felt I was in competition with Red. I always felt that I was in competition with myself, to be the best that I could be. I do not think it is healthy to see yourself only in the context of someone else’s achievement.
In a 2010 interview with the Daily News, you said, “If you really want to learn how to coach, lose.” What did you mean by that?
Losing is a recognition that you have not reached your goal. You have two choices after a loss: blame someone else and never get better, or try to determine what mistakes you made and how you can improve. Winning lulls you into a false sense that you didn’t make any mistakes, and therefore there is no need to self-examine and improve.
How humbling was YU’s recent tribute to you?
There is no more rewarding feeling in the world than to feel appreciated. The outpouring of feelings by Yeshiva University, my friends, colleagues and former players was emotionally overwhelming and will be cherished forever.
What is your YU legacy upon retirement from coaching?
Despite the constraints of time due to study and religious observance, the teams and players won 400 games without ever sacrificing Torah observance. Even in our losses we still earned the respect of the college basketball community.