Coach Bruce Pearl addresses students at Neville Arena at Auburn
Students from eight Orthodox high schools from across the country held a Shabbaton and basketball tournament — at Auburn University.
The National Council of Synagogue Youth, a division of the Orthodox Union, and Athletes for Israel, organized the weekend to show appreciation to Auburn basketball coach Bruce Pearl for his advocacy on behalf of Israel, and to the university for organizing a trip to Israel for the basketball team in August.
“Auburn’s trip to Israel this summer was an unforgettable experience for everyone involved,” AFI founder and Chairman Daniel Posner said. “This weekend was about showing our appreciation to the Auburn University community and Coach Bruce Pearl for sending the team to Israel, especially at a time when antisemitic incidents are playing out on campuses across the country.”
The Auburn team was the first Power Five program to do an overseas trip to Israel. They played three games in Israel, including against the Israel national team, during their “Birthright for College Basketball” trip. The games were broadcast back to the United States on ESPN’s SEC Network.
After the game against the national team, Pearl spoke with about 350 NCSY students who were on a summer program in Israel and had attended the game, in a discussion that went viral online.
Pearl is an outspoken advocate for Israel, and hopes to see many other universities replicate the trip in the coming years.
After Auburn’s successful trip, “Athletes for Israel wanted to generate further goodwill by recognizing the Tigers’ trip back on home turf this past weekend and NCSY were the perfect partners to help make it happen.”
“This was an unmissable opportunity to use basketball to create a Kiddush Hashem,” said Rabbi Gideon Black, CEO of New York NCSY. “In a part of the country that is not used to seeing observant Jews, it was a teachable moment for our teens to be ambassadors for the Jewish community.”
There were five schools from the New York-New Jersey area, and Kohelet Yeshiva High School, Merion, Pa.; Robert M. Beren Academy, Houston; and Katz Yeshiva High School, Boca Raton, Fla. About 130 teens participated, temporarily doubling the campus’ Jewish population.
After arriving in Auburn on Nov. 4, the delegation headed straight to Neville Arena to tour the Tigers’ facility and enjoy an hour-long question and answer session with Pearl about Israel and Jewish leadership. That evening, Auburn Hillel students joined NCSY and AFI for a spirited Shabbat evening, and at the post-dinner gathering, five of the Tigers’ leading players joined the group to share their experiences in Israel.
Rabbi Jordan Silvestri, head of Beren, told the Jewish Herald-Voice in Houston that “it was the largest Shabbos experience the Auburn campus has ever experienced. Our students connected with them and helped contribute to a great experience.”
The weekend included the establishment of a kosher kitchen for the delegation.
After Shabbat, the eight yeshivas began tournaments for the boys and girls teams at a local high school, after watching an Auburn practice. The Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva High School in Woodmere, N.Y., beat Katz for the boys championship, and Hustle and Heart of Hewlett Bay Park, N.Y., defeated the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway, from Lawrence, N.Y., in the girls final.
The next day, Boca Raton Synagogue’s Rabbi Efrem Goldberg and NCSY’s Rabbi Moshe Benovitz spoke about Kiddush Hashem, actions that sanctify God’s name. After that, the students packed essentials for the Food Bank of East Alabama, and volunteered at Storybrook Farms, which helps children affected by adversity “to reclaim the wonder of childhood through relationships with animals and nature.”
Before Auburn’s season opener, a ceremony was held at center court, as Daniel Posner led a group from the delegation in making a presentation to Pearl. An oversized check from Athletes for Israel for $100,000 was presented, with the memo line “Once in a Lifetime trip to Israel.”
The teens danced and sang courtside in the Auburn student section throughout the game. “The regular Auburn fans were elated to see our group creating unbelievable ruach throughout the game,” said NCSY Regional Director Rabbi Aryeh Wielgus, his voice still hoarse from the game. “And when the players who we spent Friday night with joined us in the stands, the place just went wild.”
“Being at the game and breaking out into Jewish songs was an amazing experience,” Beren senior Alex Yellin told the Herald-Voice. “It was so much fun to be a part of. The whole experience was much bigger and impactful than most of us had seen before.”
The Tigers won their opener, 70-52.
In his press conference following the game, Pearl spoke about the delegation. “Most of the kids were from the Northeast,” he said. “But I guarantee you they got a look at Auburn, Alabama, and they’re going to leave here and they’re going to say, ‘guys you can’t believe how nice it is, and how nice the people are,’ and how welcome they felt. I thought our crowd responded really well to their being here.”