Yeshiva embracing the spotlight

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The addition of Leifer this semester has helped the Maccabees reach unprecedented heights.
Yeshiva University athletics photo

By Adam Turer

This season is cemented as the most historic in Yeshiva University men’s basketball history.

The Maccabees won a program-best 18 games, won their first Skyline Conference tournament, and will appear in the NCAA Division III tournament for the first time in program history.

Yeshiva logo They are playing for their university, for the program, and for one another. But the Maccabees also understand that they are playing to deliver a message to the entire basketball world.

“At the end of the day, we know that we’re just a basketball team but we do carry the weight of the Jewish people on our shoulders,” said Simcha Halpert, the Skyline Conference tournament's Most Outstanding Player. “I hope we don’t get laughed at anymore and we get the respect we deserve. You don’t need to look a certain way to play a sport. All it requires is hard work and patience.”

This unprecedented run began four years ago, when Elliot Steinmetz was hired as head coach of his alma mater. It escalated two years ago, when a group of talented Jewish high school basketball players from all over the country converged on the Yeshiva campus for the annual Red Sarachek tournament.

In the championship game of the 2016 Sarachek tournament, the nation’s most prestigious for Jewish high school basketball teams, Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva High School defeated Shalhevet High School. DRS, from nearby Woodmere, New York, was led by Gabriel Leifer. Shalhevet, from Los Angeles, was led by Halpert. The players from across the country formed bonds and kept in touch. A group of them committed to Yeshiva. Two years later, their shared dreams are coming true.


Halpert paces the Macs with 21 points per game, knocking down 109 3-pointers this season.
Yeshiva University athletics photo

“Something that really helps us is that we all play in a tournament in March called the Sarachek,” said Halpert. “The whole year we’re looking at each other’s numbers during our senior [high school] seasons and we meet in March. We have a feel for each other’s games. It’s fun to go from competitors to teammates.”

A trio of current Macs spent the first semester of this season studying at Yeshiva’s campus in Israel. When Leifer, Sammy Mandel, and Michael Bixon joined the program in January, the Maccabees took a giant leap forward. They lost their first game after the holiday break, then won 12 of their final 13 contests. The only loss was in double overtime on the road against regular season Skyline Conference champ Farmingdale State.

“Early in the season, it was hard to really get on a roll. We got a whole new wave it felt like a fresh start. Those guys came in and fit right in,” said Halpert. “Those guys added to our environment. They really made the atmosphere a lot more fun and enjoyable.”

“That first game when we were playing, it felt like we were the better team, we just didn’t have the chemistry yet,” said Leifer. “As time started going on, we started to get more confident.”

There were some obstacles joining a team midseason. Thankfully, the Maccabees were already familiar with one another’s games thanks to the Sarachek experience.

“There were some challenges not knowing the system and some of the plays, but Coach Steinmetz really helped me out,” said Leifer. “When I came in, he really took me under his wing and a bunch of the guys really helped me outside of practice, making me feel comfortable. It’s a very warm team and there’s a family feel.”

Once Yeshiva started rolling, the dream of making program history gathered steam and grew closer and closer to reality. On Sunday, history was made.

“As soon as we started winning games we started realizing that anything is possible. Early in the season, we realized we had a special team and just needed a few more pieces,” said Halpert. “The system we have, we rely a lot on ball movement and chemistry. We knew if we played the way we were capable of, we would win.”

When Steinmetz arrived, he set a goal of winning the national championship. That may seem lofty, but at the beginning of the season, that should be every program’s goal no matter what obstacles lurk ahead. And for the Macs, there are always some obstacles. In addition to starting the season with three players in Israel, the program dealt with injuries that decimated the roster to just seven healthy players by December. The Macs cannot play or practice on the Shabbat, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. There was no postseason history to look to for guidance. That did not deter the Maccabees.

“There wasn’t really any pressure because our expectations were always to win. Anything less, we wouldn’t consider a success,” said Leifer. “It was motivation that the program has never done it and we wanted to be the first.”

With each game this season, the Macs earned the respect of opposing players and fan bases. The players are used to being the object of laughter or eye rolls when they walk into a gym, with several players wearing their kippah while they play.

“During a game this year, we walked in and a bunch of guys started laughing. We ended up beating them,” said Leifer. “Since we’ve won, we’ve started to get more respect. Opponents are starting look at us with a respect.”

The players derive additional motivation from their opponents taking them lightly before the opening tip.

“One of the best feelings is coming into a gym, being laughed at, and watching their smiles fade away. They change their opinion that Jews can actually play.”

— Simcha Halpert, Skyline Conference tournament MOP

“One of the best feelings is coming into a gym, being laughed at, and watching their smiles fade away,” said Halpert. “They change their opinion that Jews can actually play.”

The team has received an outpouring of international support since making history on Sunday. As they prepare for the first NCAA Tournament in program history, they understand that the world’s Jewish community is rallying around them. Steinmetz has heard from high school teammates he hasn’t spoken to in two decades. Yeshiva’s athletic director has received messages from every continent but Antarctica.

“It’s been amazing. It’s been an awesome experience,” Steinmetz told Dave McHugh on Hoopsville earlier this week. “It’s been overwhelming and it’s been a really cool thing.”

“I’ve been hearing from across America, a lot from Israel, England,” said Leifer. “It’s really special to see that everyone’s following.”

The players understand that they are now role models for young Jewish basketball players across the country.
“It’s been great to hear from former teachers of mine,” said Halpert. “It’s great to hear them compliment us on the way we act on and off the court, representing the Jewish culture.”

Halpert and classmate Bar Alluf earned first team all-conference honors, with Leifer making the second team. Five sophomores start for the Macs, likely the youngest team in this year’s tournament.

“Being the youngest, we know that we’re just tapping into our potential,” said Halpert. “There’s so much room to grow. It’s going to be fun to see how much we can do.”

The future is promising and this tournament experience is only going to strengthen a program on the rise.

“It’s really exciting coming in with a bunch of other young players. It’s exciting to look ahead and know that we have a bright future ahead of us,” said Leifer. “It’s going to be a fun experience and a learning experience.”

Another obstacle this week is the Purim holiday, which will prevent the Macs from practicing on Wednesday. They will travel on Thursday and will watch film and possibly practice on Thursday night after arriving in York, Pennsylvania. They will face the host Spartans at 1 p.m. on Friday afternoon.

With a talented, driven, and young nucleus, the Maccabees are not going anywhere. This was their first Skyline Conference title and NCAA tournament berth, but Steinmetz is prepared to make sure it is not Yeshiva’s last.

“It’s very surreal. You’re in a moment and you can’t believe that it happened, something you’re working towards and something you believed in. It’s awesome and it’s a moving experience,” he told Hoopsville.

“We’re happy to be in the national picture and we hope to stay there for a while.”