On December 7, a Bronx public high school basketball team played for the first time with Orthodox Jewish students from the Yeshiva League. Marc Skelton, a Jewish basketball coach at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom high school, decided to organize a scrimmage with Salanter Akiba Riverdale (SAR), an Orthodox Jewish academy, after he and his students enjoyed seeing a basketball game at Yeshiva University.
Skelton has always been open with his team about his Jewish faith. This past summer, he competed in the Maccabiah Games in Israel and his students were filled with questions about Israeli food and culture. He told The Jewish Press, “It was really nice. It wasn’t the questions that people assume kids would have about Israel. It made me smile and feel warm that I was talking about Israel and I didn’t have to defend Israel.”
Skelton also explained to them that the reason why there is a Jewish Olympics is because many internationally recognized Jewish athletes were excluded from competing in the Olympic Games in Nazi Germany.
When rapper Kanye West started praising Hitler and Brooklyn Nets basketball player Kyrie Irving promoted an antisemitic film on Twitter, Skelton’s team felt comfortable with asking him questions, particularly about Irving having been suspended for his actions. Skelton explained to his students, “It’s not as simple as a movie with an alternative view…It’s not just hate speech. In the end, Jews always get hurt.” His players agreed with him.
One way to combat the hate permeating throughout society is through developing personal relationships with people being pitted against each other. SAR Coach Rafi Halpert said he prepped his students for the game by telling them, “Listen, we’re going to play a school from the Bronx that probably has never really seen or interacted with Orthodox Jewish kids before, possibly Jewish kids at all before…. I think it’s important for us to meet them and for them to meet us and for us to learn more about each other and understand that, although we might seem very different…we’re a lot more similar than we are different. It’s important for you guys to see that and learn from that.”
Skelton described the Orthodox SAR players as being extremely amicable. While his students were warming up, SAR team members came right over to them and openly introduced themselves. He said his players kept asking him, “Coach, why are they so nice to us?” Skelton explained, “Usually when you go into an opposing gym, it’s not that type of atmosphere…. There was this general, you know, friendliness that you don’t normally see in New York City…. We made some friends for sure.”
Fannie Lou senior point guard Michael De La Cruz describes how the warmth and receptiveness of the SAR team instantly broke the ice. He said his teammates were “scared and nervous” at first, but when the SAR players approached them, “they were very welcoming…they were more than willing to just open up…. I felt like they were just interested in our lives.” Fannie Lou shooting guard Benjamin Abreu said the atmosphere at SAR “felt like a second home.”
It was a 30 point win for the yeshiva team, but the real victory could be said to be the bonding experience afterwards, when competing team members sat down in SAR’s dining room for pizza together. SAR senior guard Itai Berkowitz explained, “What was special was that afterwards, it didn’t matter whether we lost or we won…we all came together and just started talking about different things, like for us about our religion…and just trying to get to know each other more, which was very nice.”
When pizza was ordered, the subject of keeping kosher came up. The yeshiva players explained why they can’t eat pepperoni and both teams agreed to order a plain cheese pizza. Skelton recalled, “I think someone asked what was someone’s favorite fast food, and I heard someone say, ‘Well, you know, I don’t really eat fast food, because my rabbi, and then I think one of my players asked, ‘What’s a rabbi?,’ and then the quick translation was ‘my teacher.’” This student then explained how the rabbi certifies his food, and determines which foods he can and cannot eat. “That was brilliant,” Skelton exclaimed, “I’ve never heard Jewish dietary law explained in two sentences.”
Akiva Schanzer, SAR senior point guard, said the Fannie Lou players were surprised and curious to hear about how religious Jews require a six-hour waiting period between eating meat and dairy. “They were talking about wanting to know more about the Jewish religion because it’s pretty unique, a lot of the things that we do…. They thought it was pretty cool that we’re able to follow these laws.”
They also wanted to know about observing Shabbat. “There was an appreciation from them, from their perspective, of separating yourself from your phone,” Berkowitz said. “They appreciated that it might be nice to, you know, spend time with the family…and really focus on living in the moment, which was very nice to hear. Not religiously, but practically, how Shabbos might be appreciated by other people.”
Schanzer said that when Kanye West and Kyrie Irving came up in the conversation, members of both teams who had been fans of theirs expressed their disappointment. The Fannie Lou players said to them, “You guys are Jews, you seem like cool people. I don’t know why Kyrie and Kanye would go out of their way to shame you guys. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Schanzer added, “It was just nice to talk with them…they happen to be great guys. Antisemitism, it’s obviously going around…. It doesn’t really mean anything, at least not to us. The conversations we were having were, it doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish, it doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic, we’re all just people…. It felt good to meet these kids and brush antisemitism aside. We’re basically telling antisemitism, ‘We don’t care about you.’”
Coaches Halpert and Skelton have already discussed plans to organize another game between the two teams in the spring. They would like to see this become an annual tradition.