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The Greatness of the Maccabee

Playing sports as a Yeshiva Maccabee can be a tremendously enriching experience. Athletes compete at high levels against other schools in sports in which they excel and love. Inevitably, the time and emotional commitment playing on a team requires, sets them apart from the rest of YU, dramatically changing student athletes’ experience. Athletes are forced to answer the tough question, indeed that all must answer, of the correct balance to strive for in sports, academics, and Judaic studies.

Athletes, Rebbeim, and coaches grapple with this question with two approaches: in one, they emphasize the multitude of positives that result, irrespective of a potential clash. In the other, they downplay any clash at all, highlighting the harmonious interaction achievable between sports and learning.

Within the former approach, Nathan Japhet (YC ’13), member of the soccer team, explains why he chose soccer. “I got to play on a NCAA team, have a great group of friends, and play the sport I love.” However, he immediately acknowledges that it negatively impacted his learning. “Because it was 8:30-11 PM each night, I missed night-seder here at YU, which certainly cut into my learning. I think, like all things, it is a tradeoff.” Indeed, the many gains of competing, each one distinct and important, caused Japhet to make his calculated decision, one for which he is thankful. “I am glad I made it.”

Explaining his ideal YU experience, Benjy Ritholtz (YC ’14), member of the basketball team, views academics, learning, and sports coalescing to a total greater than the sum of its parts, thus aligning with the second approach. “The team and basketball allow me to maximize the YU experience,” he explained. He does not feel basketball detract from his learning. “My ability to still learn intensely both qualitatively and quantitatively in YU, to be able to remain in YP and go to Seder and Shiur every day, and to be able to learn night-seder—given I may miss a Sunday Shiur because of a game sometimes—made the decision pretty easy to play ball.” Elaborating on what makes playing on the team so special, Ritholtz states, “I feel like I am taking advantage of all the unique opportunity YU provides. At the end of the day, while basketball consumes much time and energy, I feel most accomplished to have been able to excel at basketball, schoolwork, and learning.”

Rabbi Yona Reiss, Max and Marion Grill Dean of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), and Jonathan Halpert, coach of the men’s basketball team, portray two different further benefits to playing for Yeshiva.  When asked what is the Yeshiva’s attitude to students participating in athletics, Rabbi Reiss unequivocally states the positives. “It is very important for students to exercise and to get into the habit of keeping themselves fit throughout life. We should also bear in mind that part of a well-rounded Torah education is to promote good nutrition and exercise.” These benefits need not come at the expense of Torah learning, rather they are meant to enhance one’s religious lifestyle. One must “maintain a proper balance, so that physical fitness serves as a vehicle towards a robust Torah life, suffused with energy for Torah and Mitzvot.”

Coach Halpert immediately rejects the premise of the question, explaining how an athlete does not have to choose. It is not sports or learning, sports or pre-med. One’s day cannot be filled to capacity pursuing a one-dimensional goal. Too much of anything is detrimental. Rather, we must be fully invested in the learning for the time that should be spent learning, and the same during sports hours. “When you study Gemara in the morning, that is the most the most important thing for those hours. When you practice from 7-10, basketball is the most important thing in the world for those three hours. As soon as the whistle blows, it can become the least important,” Coach Halpert said.

However, his real focus is the special opportunity playing for Yeshiva gives the athlete. “We, Yeshiva, are known as the Jewish school,” Halpert continues. “We represent far more than a bunch of buildings on our jerseys. We represent a people, a concept.” Thus, perhaps even more than Maccabee wins, the Skyline Conference Sportsmanship award, given to the school that shows “outstanding team sportsmanship” and won by Yeshiva three times in the past five years, represents a true Kiddush Hashem.