Yeshiva Wrestling Falls to Budget Cuts
On June 8th, Yeshiva University’s Director of Athletics Joe Bednarsh sent an email to the members of the Maccabees Wrestling team: “It is with regret that I inform you that YU will not be sponsoring Wrestling this upcoming season. Please know that this was a difficult decision and part of a larger effort to streamline the operations of the Athletic Department.” To the shock and dismay of all those associated with it, the Yeshiva Wrestling program had become the latest victim of budget cuts and was suddenly discontinued.
Maccabees Wrestling has a long and storied history at YU, arguably more so than any other sport in the school. Henry Wittenberg founded the team 65 years ago after winning both gold and silver wrestling for the United States in the Olympic Games. One of his top wrestlers was Neil Ellman (‘68YC) from Tennessee, who lost only one match in his YU career. Ellman took over the team’s coaching duties after Wittenberg retired in 1970 and held that position until being dismissed in the summer of this year.
Reflecting on his many years at YU, Ellman says “I wasn’t doing it for a legacy. I was doing it because I loved wrestling and loved teaching it at YU, because I really believed in Torah U’Maddah.” This belief was not limited to his activities on the mat. According the Yeshiva Wrestling Association (a non-profit organization that supports Jewish wrestling programs throughout the country), Ellman personally had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to YU through his various family foundations, and only a small amount of that money was earmarked towards wrestling.
Ellman was informed about the decision to terminate wrestling in a ten-minute phone call from Bednarsh. “He said he was under a mandate to save money,” Ellman recalls, “and that he would save $35,000 by getting rid of wrestling. Then I asked to just be a club, but he said no that would cost too much. A club doesn’t cost anything though, because it has to be independently funded.” The conversation concluded shortly thereafter, and with it Ellman’s four-plus decades of coaching wrestling at Yeshiva University.
The decision to cut wrestling has ramifications that extend far beyond its student-athletes and coaches. Every February, YU hosts the Henry Wittenberg Wrestling Invitational through the Office of Admissions with hundreds of Jewish wrestlers from 15 different yeshiva high schools competing. This significant event has now been cancelled and will instead be taking place at The Frisch School without any YU affiliation. In addition, there is an active group of wrestling alumni who were fundraising for YU, but the cancellation of the wrestling program has left them angry at the university’s administration, particularly about the way that Coach Ellman was fired. The Athletics Department has previously faced heavy criticism over the way it handled the dismissal of longtime basketball coach Jonathan Halpert, and many alumni felt that the institution again disrespectfully parted ways with a longtime employee who passionately dedicated himself to YU and his students.
Now that a few months have passed since the termination of the wrestling program, Bednarsh admits that mistakes were made in the process. He states, “Cancelling wrestling was, in fact, the right decision. But, I must say, we implemented the decision in the wrong way. I wish we could have a do-over. We should have done a better job discussing this with Coach Ellman and the students. On behalf of YU, I apologize for not taking more time to review and consult with the Coach, and rushing to communicate this news to the YU community. Truly, we cherish Coach Ellman and revere YU’s wrestling’s history. However, out of our 16 NCAA teams, it was the smallest program and affected the fewest students.”
Of course, those affected the most by the cancellation of wrestling at YU are the students who can no longer compete for the Maccabees. Daniel Gordiychuk (‘19SSB), an accomplished high school wrestler from Ukraine, was recruited to wrestle at YU. He arrived on campus this semester as a true freshman with fellow recruit Alan Mashkovich (‘19SSB), only to find out that they would not be able to participate in the now-defunct wrestling program. “[Alan] and I were both extremely excited to be a part of YU this year in addition to representing YU on the wrestling team which has been around for decades,” Gordiychuk said, “We are immensely upset that the team has been cut from the athletic program.”
Yonah Stromer (‘18YC) started YU a few months ago in the Post-Pesach Program and immediately began practicing with the team. He echoed the frustrations of the other wrestlers about never getting the chance to wrestle at the NCAA level, saying “I came to YU intent on having a full college experience; to me, part of that experience meant being a Student-Athlete. When wrestling was cut, I felt as if part of my potential YU experience was taken away from me.” First-year students were not the only wrestlers who saw their dreams of victory fall apart. Last year there were seven wrestlers on the Maccabees, none of whom were seniors. This season would have been Chaim Metzger’s (‘16YC) fourth on the wrestling team. He also expressed his disappointment with the decision, saying, “I am upset the administration failed to communicate with the wrestling team at all, cutting the team without warning.”
Taken aback by the loss of the wrestling team, its former members have regrouped in an attempt to form a wrestling club instead. Collegiate wrestling clubs are quite common in universities without an NCAA team, and the wrestlers at YU want to be able to practice so they can maintain their skills and perhaps compete elsewhere. However, as was the case with Coach Ellman, lobbying the athletics department for a club has thus far been unsuccessful and the wrestling room remains locked without any student access.
At this point, the future of wrestling at Yeshiva University is unclear. No one can say for certain whether it will be able to continue as a club or even brought back fully as a team in the years to come, but at the present time the once-proud program has unquestionably been decimated. All that remains is a departed tournament, an angry group of students unable to wrestle, and a longtime coach forced to ponder the legacy he never cared to create.