Sports can evoke change at a grassroots level, inspiring the next generation of government officials, CEOs, teachers and everyday citizens to be friendly neighbors who desire friendship and partnership to further our joint future.
Bruce Pearl coaches Auburn University’s basketball team and inspires them with, “You have to represent the name on the front of your jersey, Auburn. You have to represent the name on the back of your Jersey, your family. But you also have to represent your people with what kind of neighbor you are.”
This summer, Pearl partnered with Athletes for Israel to bring his predominately black Auburn University basketball team to Israel for a 10-day Birthright-esque trip. The team played scrimmage games against Israel’s national teams, participated in a basketball clinic for Israeli and Palestinian youth with Tamir Goodman, and visited historical sites such as the Kotel, the Dead Sea and Yad Vashem.
For Pearl, the goal of the trip was to create good neighbors and dismantle fences through education, culture, history and religion. “We saw both Jewish and Christian sites. I took my players to Israel because I wanted them to see that there is not much of a difference between my Jewish upbringing and their Christian faith,” Pearl said.
It was important to Pearl that, while visiting Israel, the players had the opportunity to honor their Christian roots. The team visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, had the opportunity to be baptized in the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized, and walked through the Garden of Gethsemane and Via Dolorosa, two important locations in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion.
The misunderstanding between groups comes from being unaware or misinformed. From believing the stereotypes portrayed in the media. Since the beginning of October, there has been an upswing of antisemitic comments by athletes, musicians and celebrities. Trips like this fight the misconceptions that lead to public declarations of antisemitism.
Pearl hopes that this trip, which he dubbed Birthright for College Basketball, will become trendy and grow into the Abraham Accords Cup. Pearl hopes this tournament will foster peace in the Middle East through basketball. It will include trips to the United Arab Emirates and Israel to enable Israelis, Americans and Arabs to play basketball together, promoting coexistence, partnership and the importance of being good neighbors.
“I’m a basketball coach. I bring people together. Israel, Jerusalem and basketball should bring everyone together. Not separate us,” Pearl said. “I don’t care what color they are. If they go to church or synagogue. I care if they can guard somebody and make a shot. But the rest of the world doesn’t care about that. They care about race and religion much more.”
With the recent upswing of celebrities and athletes promoting antisemitic theories and the wide-reaching and impactful influence their comments have, the need for trips like the one Pearl took his basketball team on hits you like a ball in the face.
Not many Jews in sports express their Jewish identity when they are friendly with their neighbors. Sadly, there are fewer who will respond when their neighbors are no longer friendly and the Jewish community is attacked.
Pearl is not one to shy away from responding to antisemitism. His responses come from a place of love and wanting to educate people to create a better future.
In November, Kyrie Irving, a basketball player for the Brooklyn Nets, promoted an antisemitic movie that denies the Holocaust and blames Jews for the American slave trade. His comments incited antisemitic events across the country. In response to these antisemitic events, Pearl said “The hatred of others has to stop. We are all God’s children. America, we are better than this … teamwork, togetherness and love can defeat hate.”
Trips like Pearl’s allow students to meet Israelis and Arabs, witness the life and culture in Israel, and learn that Israel is a diverse and vibrant country. Experiencing Israel firsthand equips students to respond to falsities about Israel based on their personal experience that the information being shared about Israel is untruthful and distorted.
Pearl hopes that trips like this—focusing on similarities instead of differences—can access the infinite amount of untapped potential, create partnerships and learn how to be good neighbors. Hopefully, other universities and students will learn from the example of the Auburn Eagles’ flight to Israel.
Auburn’s basketball team currently* holds an 8-0 record and is in second place in the NCAA Southeastern division. Pearl’s coaching accomplishments include coaching Auburn to the regular-season SEC championship in 2022, reaching the Final Four in 2019 and coaching the USA Men’s Maccabiah basketball team to gold in 2009. Pear co-founded the Jewish Coaches Association, which hosts an annual breakfast for Jewish NCAA basketball coaches during March Madness.
Danielle grew up in Teaneck, and made aliyah to Jerusalem following her graduation from Rutgers University. Danielle teaches English at colleges in Jerusalem and has been involved in both formal and informal education for a variety of organizations. Danielle believes that important life skills and lessons are often not ones learned in the classroom, but can be learned from team sports.