When 21-year-old Leila Deluty steps onto the basketball court, she is playing for more than just the Ramat Hasharon team she represents in Israel’s professional female basketball league. The Englewood native is playing for her dream to be a professional athlete and a proud observant Jew at the same time. And she is living out this dream in Israel.
It was only towards the end of her studies at The Frisch School in Paramus that the 5”10 Deluty began to realize she had “something special” and decided to pursue her passion for basketball more seriously. She began playing at her local gym with what she describes as “big men” who would give her one quick look and wouldn’t take her seriously. But when they realized she had talent, they invited her to play with them and she proved she was real competition. When one of the players asked her where she was going in life and if she was going to make a career out of basketball, she thought, why not?
During the height of the pandemic Deluty signed up for a basketball camp with renowned NBA skills coach DJ Sackmann. She was the only female participant among a group of teenage prodigies who had their eyes on NCAA’s Division I men’s basketball league. During the training camp she worked on polishing her skills and shortly after, she was accepted to the Division III women’s basketball team at MaCaulay Honors College of Baruch.
Being a collegiate athlete and an observant Jew was a challenge for Deluty who missed out on practices and competitions due to conflicts with Shabbat and holidays. Deluty was becoming increasingly frustrated and started contemplating trading in her jersey with an American flag for a jersey with an Israeli flag. She mustered the courage to tell her coach that she was planning to quit the team. “I said I want to play professionally in Israel. I want to be Jewish. I want to live there,” Deluty said. Her coach responded that she was making the biggest mistake of her life and is giving up on something amazing. “But I stuck with it and here I am,” Deluty proudly stated.
Deluty made aliyah this past September and is living in Herzliya where she is pursuing a degree in psychology from IDC. In addition to the difficult balancing act she is juggling between life as a full-time student and a professional basketball player in a country that provides limited financial assistance to athletes, she is also navigating life in a new country and learning the language. She has basketball practice every day with the Ramat Hasharon team and is competing against women who are full-time athletes and who have more years of experience—and more inches to their height. “It’s not easy here. I’m not getting so many minutes. I’m not the star player of my team, but I’m working my way up,” Deluty said. “It’s a challenge but I’m definitely happy that I quit the Baruch team and took this leap.”
Israel’s female basketball league consists of 10 different teams that compete against each other. In the short time Deluty has been with the Ramat Hasharon team, she has also had the opportunity to play internationally in the EuroCup. The experience of traveling to different countries representing Team Israel has been exhilarating for her. In Greece, the team experienced anti-Israel chants from the local fans. “People were just spitting and booing,” she recalled. “But we are going to go and win a game and we are going to raise an Israeli flag and people are going to know this is our country.” It is moments such as these that make the sweat and tears worth it. A few weeks ago, Deluty lit Chanukah candles with her team on national TV ahead of their match. “I’m pursuing my dream in a country where it’s my country, it’s my holiday,” she added.
Deluty’s short-term goal is to represent Israel on the women’s national basketball team at the Olympic games or to win a championship as a starting player. She doesn’t plan to have a long basketball career but would like to eventually work in the sports world in Israel.
Deluty is very aware of the unique path she has paved for herself as an observant woman who made aliyah in order to pursue her basketball passion. “I don’t really think there is anybody who’s done this kind of move that I’ve done in order to be able to play,” she said. “Sometimes I stand on the court and I think this is the coolest thing ever, that I am going to tell my kids that I had a dream and I was like, ‘I’m going to do it’—and I’m doing it.”
Alisa Bodner is a Fair Lawn native who immigrated to Israel a decade ago. She is a nonprofit management professional who enjoys writing in her free time.