Decisive win puts Bulldogs in the history books
By Leah Vann
There are a lot of hurdles a Modern Orthodox Jewish basketball team has to face to even play high school basketball, let alone win a state championship.
On Saturday, Feb. 29, Yavneh defeated Rosehill Christian 50-35 to capture its first outright state title. It marked the first time in history a Jewish high school in the United States won a state championship in basketball.
“One of the things that drove me crazy growing up was hearing that Jews can be doctors, lawyers, but can’t play sports,” Yavneh athletic director and head basketball coach David Zimmerman said. “It was one of those stereotypes I went on to and now we’ve broken that stereotype forever. Now, young Jewish boys and girls can look at what we did and say, ‘Hey you can grow up and try to win the state championship in basketball. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re different from anyone else.’”
Yavneh Academy has been a member of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools since the 2013-14 season, following the Robert M. Beren Academy’s lawsuit with the organization which enforced that game schedules should accommodate Jewish schools which don’t play on the Sabbath.
Before that, Yavneh Academy played independently, challenging teams willing to fit the school in their regular-season schedule.
Being a member of TAPPS means that Yavneh is one of three Jewish schools in the state of Texas competing against mostly Christian schools. Many gyms the team walks into have never met a Jew before, and in a world where anti-Semitism is still present, Zimmerman emphasizes how important it is for the team to set an example.
“The Yavneh way is making sure our students needed to be ambassadors both on and off the court, representing not just the school but the community and our faith,” Zimmerman said. “We played Marble Falls’ Faith Academy in Waco and when the game ended we got an email from their head of school and our office was fielding calls from their parents about how amazing and classy our team and players were.”
But beyond walking into culture-shocked gyms across a predominantly Christian state, Yavneh also faced the dilemma of Shabbat falling in between its state semifinal and final games.
Following its 68-35 defeat of Midland Classical Academy at 11 a.m. Friday, the players, coaches and parents had to prepare to observe Shabbat in a Super 8 Motel in Hillsboro, Texas.
Rabbi Michel Lomner, a faculty member at Yavneh, drove a Torah scroll down to the hotel, while parents prepped a warm feast before sunset and made arrangements with the hotel to reserve a room for services. All electrical devices were turned off, and players held services Friday night and Saturday morning, not holding back on a feast of tuna, dairy and sweets just before taking the court.
“We’re not watching films or shooting around like other teams,” Zimmerman said. “The coach in me had to put that on hold for the Jew in me. It was magical to think that an hour and a half before the championship game, we were finishing the Sabbath, sitting with parents and our team and young siblings singing songs in Hebrew, celebrating Havdalah.”
But the evening service featured friends and family listening not only to prayers, but also to senior players expressing their gratitude for the families they had and the family they built through the team. Senior Jonah Eber was lucky enough to have his basketball family and real family collide, playing alongside his cousin Ben Rael and brother, Adam.
Both of his grandfathers and his grandmother attended the services and game.
“Coming together, sharing meals on a Friday night where all the seniors spoke built a sense of camaraderie,” senior Jonah Eber said. “I was a two-year captain this year and last year, a lot of leadership goals, it was great to have the whole Dallas Jewish community behind us.”
The players wore the family mentality on their practice jerseys, which read “brotherhood” on the back. That mantra showed when the team easily integrated two transfers, juniors Jason Prager and Avery Levy, into its lineup this year.
Yavneh had made the state tournament for three years in a row, falling short of the title in last year’s semifinal, and co-championing a state title with Our Lady of the Hills after falling to Faith Christian, which played ineligible players in the state semifinal and final games in 2018.
Eber and senior Mason Schwaber vowed to give this season all they had, even dieting to enhance performance.
“We were the two best players and scored the most and I don’t think we could’ve done it without changing our diet,” Eber said.
Eber reached 1,000 career points in the semifinal game against Midland Classical Academy while Schwaber reached that same mark in the final game against Rosehill Christian. Eber finished his career with 1,019 points while Schwaber finished with 1,003.
“The first game against Midland Classical Academy was the team that we played last year in the semifinal and if you go back on that stat line and look, it was my most nervous game of the year,” Schwaber said. “I was 0 for 7 and only had two points. [Basketball] teaches you what it takes to be dedicated to something, you’re in the gym almost every single day of the week, almost every single day of the year.”
Both graduate as longtime veterans to a team now sealed in history for years to come.
“I think it was a statement to face the stereotypes out there, people see us put a kippah on our head and play basketball, and there are for sure people who will doubt you,” Schwaber said. “To prove those stereotypes wrong — it’s a great feeling.”