Yavneh basketball will have heavy presence in Mexico
By Leah Vann
The dates for the Pan-American and European Maccabi games have been set, and Dallas will send some of its best ballers to compete in both.
Of the 22 participants from Texas, Dallas will send four basketball players, one basketball coach and one swimmer as a part of the Maccabi USA team to both the Pan-American and European Maccabi Games this month.
Maccabi USA, a multi-sport organization recognized by the U.S. Olympic committee, fosters an athletic environment that goes beyond the game, providing a community for Jewish teens to connect. It is both a sponsor of the USA teams traveling abroad this summer, and the annual JCC Maccabi Games in North America.
David Zimmerman, athletic director for Yavneh Academy of Dallas, will travel with the under-16 basketball team as its assistant coach.
“When I started at Maccabi in 1999, it really was an East Coast-West Coast deal, where all the Jews were, and the head office is in Philadelphia,” Zimmerman said. “Part of me getting involved, being originally from New York, was I really wanted to expose it to people from around the country. Here in the Southwest, we have an unbelievably supportive community. We’re really putting Dallas on the map.”
Zimmerman has been involved with Maccabi as a coach at the national level, but this will be his first international appearance. The International Youth Maccabi Games are hosted every four years in Israel, while the Pan-American and European Maccabi Games take place every two years around the world, being held in Israel every four years. In 2017, Israel hosted the 20th World Maccabiah. This year, the Pan-American games will be held in Mexico City, July 5-15, and the European Games will be held in Budapest, Hungary, July 28-Aug. 7.
The first Dallas-area basketball athlete to attend the games in Israel was Griffin Levine, a Yavneh basketball player who now plays for the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Levine’s USA team went on to win gold in 2017. The games in Israel host a formal tryout in a designated city, but the Pan-American and European game players and coaches are recruited remotely, through word-of-mouth and exchanging highlight videos.
Jonah Eber, an incoming senior at Yavneh Academy, will travel with the under-18 basketball team to Mexico City. Eber said he was recruited after playing for Team Dallas in Irvine, California, last year. The team’s coach for this year saw him play, and asked if he would be interested.
Eber is no stranger to success on the court, as a member of Yavneh’s state-championship team in 2018. In Texas, the picture of Eber wearing a kippah with a Star of David carved in his hair made The Dallas Morning News as the team neared its championship. At Maccabi, Eber expects this to be the norm.
“I think it’s important. It’s getting the best kids together who have a good amount in common, and getting to know other people from other countries who have the same passions as we do,” Eber said. “I always wear my kippah when I play, and there’s definitely a sense of pride and honor representing Team USA, but there’s a lot of pride in honor and representing Texas’ Jewish community.”
Eber travels with his younger cousin, Benjamin Rael, who will play under Zimmerman on the under-16 team in Mexico City. Rael hasn’t competed in the Maccabi Games before, but is also a Yavneh basketball player. He learned about the opportunity through Zimmerman.
“I’m a big guy on winning, so I’m excited to win,” Rael said. “I think it says something about us, our religion, and we’re not different. We can do whatever anyone else can do, we have as many opportunities as anyone else.”
Unlike Rael and Eber, Jason Prager has turned to the Maccabi games for years as his sole source of Jewish community. Prager represented Team Dallas for the past two years in California and Alabama at the national games, and will not only compete in Mexico City this year, but also in Atlanta on Team Dallas.
Prager said that the Maccabi Games usually hosts group outings, where members of different teams will explore the area they’re in. This can include going to amusement parks or seeing the sights outside of the tournament. He’s excited to travel out of the country for the first time, while experiencing the same community atmosphere he remembers from previous games.
“It’s super-easy to make friends, and I think that’s a lot different than just regular basketball tournaments,” Prager said. “I met boys and girls through basketball, and we watched soccer and baseball games. It’s an environment that is safe and fun for teenagers to talk and meet people.”
Prager grew up in Plano, but moved to Frisco for high school. Going to high school in a place without a large Jewish community was a change. His mother encouraged him to try out for the Maccabi games during his freshman year.
“I play a lot of competitive basketball, so it’s hard for me to find time to go to a longer summer camp,” Prager said. “In Frisco, there’s really no Jewish people. There’s nobody I can really relate to.”
The Maccabi games have inspired Prager to transfer from Frisco Centennial to Yavneh Academy this fall. He’ll be playing under his future head coach, Zimmerman, and with teammate, Rael at the Maccabi Games.
Yavneh Academy has been to the state finals for three years in a row. In 2018, they were named co-state champions after the team that won the tournament was disqualified. Part of the recent success, Zimmerman thinks, is because of the growing interest his athletes have to be more competitive through the Maccabi Games.
“We’re the only Jewish school in 3A classification,” Zimmerman said. “We are the minority in the Metroplex, and through athletics we are able to build up that reputation and camaraderie with neighboring Christian schools. Before I started coaching Maccabi, we couldn’t get out of the preliminary rounds.”
Zimmerman came to Yavneh in 2012 for the same reasons as Prager. He grew up coaching and playing basketball at the JCC, then went to Southern Methodist University for college, where he served as an assistant coach. He’s coached at all levels, including other high schools, including St. Mark’s. He found, however, that there was nothing like coaching kids that share the same faith.
“Getting to coach people from your own faith and try to see them through life — I think that that’s what really speaks to me,” Zimmerman said. “Sports is a great way to do that because it’s a universal language.”
Rockwall’s Rebecca Weiss, juniors swimming, will be the North Texas-area’s lone female representative at the international games in Mexico City.
Grant Bulmash, a rising senior at Greenhill School, completes the Dallas contingent as the final basketball player traveling to the Maccabi Games, competing in Hungary starting on July 28. Bulmash elected to play in the Budapest games because it works better with his AAU basketball schedule this summer. He’s been playing in the Maccabi Games for four years at the national level on the JCC’s Team Dallas, but never internationally.
“I heard about [Maccabi USA] a few years in, but not initially,” Bulmash said. “It’s really important because Jewish athletes in general are sometimes overlooked.
Bulmash, like Eber, was recruited at the games last year in California.
“Not only do I get to represent Dallas, but the entire U.S.,” Bulmash said. “I’m really excited to have an opportunity to win a gold medal.”
As North Texas athletes travel across the globe this summer to compete on the international stage, Zimmerman hopes that they keep in mind why continuing this tradition remains important.
“In our current climate, it’s really important to have teenagers who are hearing the same things we’re hearing and for them to be able to become friends and have relationships with people from all around the world. What we’ll find is we have a lot in common,” Zimmerman said.