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Thursday, December 08, 2022
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NCSY and Athletes for Israel partnered to bring students to spend Shabbat on Auburn’s campus and attend the Auburn Tigers’ season opener to thank the team for visiting Israel.

(Courtesy of NCSY) Jews and basketball were trending again this weekend, but not for the reason you may think. As basketball fans worldwide reacted to Kyrie’s roller coaster—posting a link to an antisemitic video, his muddled apology and subsequent suspension—NCSY and Athletes for Israel (AFI) led a four-day mission of 130 yeshiva day school teens from across the United States to Alabama to celebrate the Auburn Tigers’ historic visit to Israel this summer.

The students volunteered at the East Alabama Food Bank, led a ruach-filled shabbaton on Auburn’s campus for the university’s small Jewish community, competed in an inter-yeshiva basketball tournament and attended the 15th-ranked Auburn University’s men’s basketball team’s opening game against George Mason University, which the Tigers won 70-52.

“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.”

The Auburn Tigers spent 10 days visiting Israel this past summer, touring historical sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Galilee and Tel Aviv. The student-athletes swam in the Dead Sea, ran a basketball clinic for Jewish and Arab children, and learned about Israel’s innovation ecosystem. The team scrimmaged against three Israeli basketball teams, highlighted by a thrilling exhibition against Israel’s National Team, led by Israeli NBA star Deni Avdija. Coach Bruce Pearl and Athletes for Israel conceived of the trip, and anticipate other Division 1 college teams following suit.

“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.”

“When you join young people visiting Israel for the first time, there is an unmistakable energy that propels such a whirlwind trip forward,” Posner said. “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.”

Upon landing, the NCSY/AFI delegation headed straight to the Neville Arena to tour the Tigers’ facility and enjoy a riveting, hour-long Q&A with Coach Pearl about Israel and Jewish leadership. On Friday night, Auburn Hillel students joined NCSY and AFI for a Shabbat of ruach, and at the post-dinner tish, five of the Tigers’ leading players joined the group to share their experiences in Israel with the teens.

After Shabbat, the inter-yeshiva tournament kicked off, featuring boys and girls teams from Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (Livingston, New Jersey), the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway (Lawrence, New York), Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva High School (Woodmere, New York), Kohelet Yeshiva High School (Merion, Pennsylvania), Hustle and Heart (Hewlett Bay Park, New York), Yeshiva University High School for Girls (Central) (Hollis, New York), Robert M. Beren Academy (Houston, Texas) and Katz Yeshiva High School (Boca Raton, Florida). The team prepared for the next day’s play by sitting in on a Tigers’ practice session. After 24 hours of intense competition, DRS defeated Katz in the boys final, and Hustle & Heart defeated HAFTR in the girls final.

The final day of the mission centered around learning about Jewish ambassadorship, with Boca Raton Synagogue’s Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, and NCSY’s Rabbi Moshe Benovitz, headlining a series of inspiring talks on making a Kiddush Hashem. The teens then packed essential goods for underprivileged families at the East Alabama food bank, and volunteered at a Storybrook farm, a special center that offers therapy for children facing adversity.

Back at the Neville Arena, the trip reached its apex at the season’s home opener in front of nearly 10,000 fans. Prior to tip-off on center court, Coach Pearl welcomed a delegation from the group led by Daniel Posner, who made a presentation to show gratitude to the players and fans. A unique courtside experience for the teens followed as they danced and sang their hearts out all evening in support of the Auburn Tigers as they faced Virginia’s George Mason University. “The regular Auburn fans were elated to see our group creating unbelievable ruach throughout the game,” said NCSY’s 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.”

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