Hillel hoops tournament builds Jewish common ground


Emily Jacobs
Washington Jewish Week

More than 300 students from over 20 universities came together this past weekend for the third annual National Hillel Basketball Tournament hosted by the University of Maryland, College Park Hillel.

Sponsored by New York-based philanthropists, Jonathan and Dina Leader, as well as BodyArmor and Klipped Kippas, the Friday-Sunday event featured Shabbat dinner, a post-services kiddush and lots of basketball.

With seven girls teams and 25 boys teams comprised of five to eight players, the games were played at the university’s Reckord Armory and Ritchie Coliseum. John Jay School of Criminal Justice’s team came out on top for the men. One of three University of Maryland teams came out victorious for the women.

Attendees at this year’s tournament also heard from ESPN’s “The Sports Reporters” host Andy Pollin at a tournament-wide luncheon, and NBA Commissioner David Stern who addressed the crowd in a special video message at the start of Saturday night’s games.

“Hello, I’m NBA Commissioner David Stern, and I want to welcome all of you to the third annual national Hillel basketball tournament at the University of Maryland and I especially want to congratulate the tournament organizers at the Maryland Hillel because they have put together this extraordinary event,” he said in the video. “Also remarkable is the fact that the tournament has hosted teams from more than 30 universities across the country and that this is one of the largest social gatherings of its kind. It brings together Jewish college students around a sport they love. It’s great to see groups of young people like you coming together around the great game of basketball and celebrating your heritage. It is also gratifying to know that the proceeds of your tournament will go towards enhancing Jewish life on college campuses across the country.”

Mike Shrager, a junior psychology major who co-chaired the tournament with senior Eliana Geller, explained that having a sports authority like Stern really legitimized the tournament.

“We were really lucky to have him address us. I think it added to the integrity of the tournament and the seriousness of the basketball played here,” he said.

Geller, who became involved with the tournament in its inaugural year after living with its founder and UMD alumna, Rachel Epstein, said that the tournament is also great way for Jewish college students to meet one another.

“I think it’s hard to find another event like this that attracts so many different kinds of Jews and different kinds of students,” the 22-year-old nutritional science major said. “Basketball is a great common thread and really promotes camaraderie on and off the court and is a fun way to meet people.”

The tournament, which the co-chairs and a 17-student=member board began to plan in October 2012, also served to raise nearly $10,000 for the university’s Hillel.

Ari Israel, executive director of the University of Maryland Hillel, marveled at the students’ hard work in planning the three-day event.

“I think the best part of the whole thing is the student ownership piece. Students are connecting to other Jews across the country, and the organizers here are not only doing the logistics but working to build these relationships. There is a real beauty in the Jewish community that they’re building not just on the court,” he said. “An event like this is so important because we’re not simply building one-offs, we’re building lifelong relationships, and it’s critical that students see Judaism through a social lens. There was just a beautiful array of diversity from Orthodox students to Reform students, the pluralistic conversations that were happening took place because of the diverse basketball arrangement.”

“When it comes down to it, basketball is just amazing in that you’re all doing the same thing and it doesn’t matter your level of observance, it’s a common ground in something as simple as a sport,” said Shrager. “The diversity of the tournament was unbelievable and Jews from all schools had that camaraderie in a truly Jewish atmosphere, it was really special.”

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