SMU’s Berkovitz scores in classroom, on pitch
Photo: Courtesy Rabbi Heidi Coretz
SMU Hillel members showed up with Israeli flags to support Niv Berkovitz and his SMU Mustang soccer team as they played their conference championship against Temple University Nov. 1, 2023. From left, Keilah Eletu, Rabbi Heidi Coretz, Nathan Pupko Ginsberg, Berkovitz, Jonathan Kalach Chelminsky and Olivia Ratiner.

By Deb Silverthorn

“The truth shall set you free” is the motto of Southern Methodist University. For rising sophomore Niv Berkovitz, a vital member of the Mustang soccer squad from Israel, the truth is that the school’s community has kept him close.

Berkovitz’s first year at SMU is one he couldn’t have imagined. He was named AAC Offensive Player of the Week and Rookie of the Week; chosen for the AAC All-Rookie Team and as AAC Rookie of the Year; and cited as a member of the College Soccer News Top Drawer Soccer National Team of the Week.

“I’ve wanted to play soccer professionally since I was a little kid. I can’t remember it not being my dream,” said the midfielder. “I came to SMU because of its top soccer team and high academic reputation. It’s proven to be strong in both areas and many more.”

Berkovitz is the son of Nava and Israel; he is the brother of Dana (Doron) Avraham and Lihie (Tomer) Gillmore. He was raised in Hod HaSharon. As a young child he played for Hapoel Hod HaSharon and at 11, he was recruited by and played for Maccabi Tel Aviv Academy and later for the Israel Youth National Team and Hapoel Petah Tikvah.

Recruited last July, Berkovitz made the move to Dallas less than a month later.

“I came in an ‘old man’ to my teammates,” Berkovitz said, smiling. “Here I am a freshman, 21 years old. The army comes first for Israelis, so I did my three years in the Israel Defense Forces.

“I was a freshman but with experience of playing with much older players on Israeli teams and then with the maturity that comes from time in the army,” he added. “I love feeling the new fight and determination, the optimism and dreams in front of my teammates.”

Less than two months later, as his parents were visiting Dallas, the whole world changed.

When the first sirens rang in Israel on Saturday, Oct. 7, it was late Friday in Dallas. Berkovitz was getting spotty texts, finding little online  but enough for concern. In those first six weeks, absorbed in classes and soccer, Berkovitz had yet to meet up with the local Jewish community. In the moment of Oct. 7, it was obvious where to turn.

“Through Mustangs for Israel, I found Hillel. I found ‘home’ and Rabbi Heidi is now like my aunt,” Berkovitz said of Rabbi Heidi Coretz, director of SMU’s Hillel and an SMU campus chaplain. “She invited me and my team to many programs.

“Our game right after the attacks was against Florida Atlantic University and they also have a player from Israel. I found the Israelis in Dallas Facebook page and Assaf Mor brought us Israeli flags which we carried onto the field,” he said. “I’ve coached kids from the Israeli community; I met Mor Silver, who cooks me Israeli dishes; and Rabbi Heidi and others came to cheer on the team.”

Coretz, celebrating 20 years at SMU, says Hillel has always been there for the students, but this year the connections deepened.

“I hadn’t met Niv before Oct. 7 but we’ve made up for it. He’s become an important member of our community. The respect for one another is mutual,” she said. “He’s impressive, humble and overall an outstanding person.

“Niv has been a part of SMU’s ‘Empty Shabbat Table,’ which represented the hostages last fall; at our March for Remembrance for Yom HaShoah; at our ‘Bring Them Home Shabbat’ dinner; and at many other get-togethers,” said Coretz. “I’m so glad he’s here and that we’re here for one another.”

Tracey and Chris Kennedy and their family have been here for Berkovitz as well. Their son Zachary, now a rising senior at SMU, met Berkovitz while working as SMU’s director of soccer operations. The two became fast friends and Berkovitz has spent holidays with the family, traveling with them to Utah and Mexico.

Photo: Courtesy Kennedy Family
The Kennedys have become a second family for Niv Berkovitz. From left, Ethan Silverstein, Zachary, Zander, Chris and Tracey Kennedy and Berkovitz in Cancun for spring break in March 2024.

“Niv is spectacular, he’s just a doll and he will forever be part of our family,” said Tracey. “We miss each other already but yeah, he’s one of our own.”

Kevin Hudson, SMU’s head soccer coach, says the entire team and staff have been impacted by Berkovitz’s being a part of their crew.

“We recruit those who are well-rounded, academically ambitious and athletically talented. Niv fits in every category. He has meant so much to our team and I know we have been the same for him. I’m so proud of his teammates. With their varied faiths and backgrounds, they have shown so much care and love for him.

“After the attacks I asked Niv if he was OK. He said for the 90 minutes he’s on the field, his head is in the game,” said Hudson. “The other 22½ hours of that day, his heart and mind were in Israel. It’s been very emotional but he’s remained stalwart.”

In addition to the awards for his athletic success, Berkovitz was also recognized for his academics. He is a 4.0 student and was named to SMU’s Honor Roll. Berkovitz is a Cox School of Business finance major, minoring in real estate; his immediate plans are to play professional soccer.

Photo: Courtesy Niv Berkovitz
Niv Berkovitz, right, in September 2018 with his friend Amit Hevrony, center, who was injured in the current war, and Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Leon Mizrachi.

With many of his friends still serving or called to return to the IDF since Oct. 7, his heart is embedded with his compatriots.

“It’s very hard. I lost a best friend, Eden Provisor, zichrono l’vracha (may his memory be for a blessing); a teammate and good friend, Amit Hevrony, was badly injured; and my brother-in-law has just come out of service,” he said. “No matter what I’m doing, I’m thinking of them and everyone there. When I received my awards, my speech was about the inspiration I get from those fighting to protect my family and all the Jewish people.

“When I got home for summer break and went to the beach with a friend, while there were definitely signs of the war, this was just a quiet day and then from nowhere rockets started flying overhead,” said Berkovitz. “You can’t plan anything. Nothing can be explained.

“I’ll be back in Dallas soon and I feel like an ambassador, someone people can connect to so Israel isn’t ‘over there’ or just a news item,” said Berkovitz. “SMU has stood for us. Even though our voice as Jews isn’t as loud as some others, we have to stand up louder.”

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