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Division III Yeshiva didn’t get to finish its magical season, but the road to the tournament was remarkable in itself

There’s religion, and then there’s basketball. Meet Yeshiva University, which has melded Judaism and basketball to become a newly established D-III powerhouse.

Yeshiva athletics

Yeshiva University ended the 2019-20 season with a win. It just wasn’t in the round of the NCAA Tournament that the team was hoping for.

The Maccabees’ final game came against Penn State Harrisburg in the second round of the Division III tournament with no fans in attendance. That four-team opening pod, held in Baltimore, was one of the first sporting events in the United States played without an audience due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a weird distinction for the team to have and it might be what many remember them for.

It shouldn’t be.

200 miles away to the north and just five days before the tournament started, a cult-like following gathered at the Maccabees’ home gym, the Max Stern Center, in Manhattan. Tickets to the Skyline Tournament title game against Purchase College sold out in under four minutes and a gym that players say used to attract 30 to 40 people packed in 800 fans. 2020 Division III coach of the year Elliot Steinmetz paced in the corridor while his team shared a bit from the torah portion of the week in the locker room.

“The best way to describe it would be a European soccer game,” Steinmetz said. “Very, very cultural. A lot of loud fans singing throughout the game.”

Leading scorer Ryan Turrell described it feeling like 100,000 people watching him. He said that the most unlikely of fans came up to him after the game, detailing statistics that he didn’t even know existed.

Turrell isn’t the only one in awe.

The Maccabees are one of the most unconventional powerhouses in college basketball. According to Hillel International, 100 percent of undergraduates enrolled are Jewish. Though the level of affiliation varies, Yeshiva’s motto is “Torah and Secular Knowledge.”

To fully intertwine Judaism and basketball in the case of the Maccabees would be a disservice because religious affiliation on the team varies. Steimetz says that all biblical study with the team, including these chalk talks, are optional. In fact, the team boasts all sorts of characters, from an aspiring rabbi to a guy with tattoos on his arms, which traditionally prevents burial in a Jewish cemetery. However, inherently, the story of the Maccabees, and each character on the team, represents the story of the Jewish people. Continuously underdogs, time and again they’ve risen to the occasion. To this Jewish writer, the Maccabees represent more than religion; they represent a window into the potential of Jewish basketball.

The Maccabees were 29-1 this season, with their only loss coming in the first game of the season. They entered the D-III NCAA Tournament having won 29 straight games and finished ranked eighth in the Top 25.

The Maccabees’ resurgence is largely due to the man at the helm, Steinmetz. When he came to Yeshiva in 2014, the Maccabees were reeling from a 7-18 record and hadn’t had a winning season since 2006. In his six years as head coach, the Maccabees have had a winning record in all six.

To understand how one man has initiated such a turnaround for a religious school in New York, it’s crucial to understand his background.

Steinmetz is the son of a former high school coach, but did not plan to follow in his footsteps. And still, shockingly, coaching is only a part-time job for him. His day job lies in corporate law, as a partner for Rosenberg & Steinmetz PC. Nevertheless, basketball always maintained a steady grip in his life.

“In 6th, 7th and 8th grade, I got cut from the team every year, came home after tryouts every year and cried,” Steinmetz said.

He credits a sudden growth spurt in high school and a chance to play for Yeshiva from 1999-2002 for enhancing his interest. After coaching at North Shore Jewish Academy in Great Neck, New York, along with Team USA in the Maccabiah Games, Steinmetz’s burning desire to grow Jewish basketball maintained. He had coached stars like Princeton’s Spencer Weisz in those games. Weisz now plays for Hapoel Be’er Sheva of the Israeli Premier League.

Ultimately, it’s Steinmetz’s ability to trigger such a buy-in from his players that sets Yeshiva apart. Look no further than two of Yeshiva’s stars this season in Turrell and senior captain Simcha Halpert. Both were sharp-shooting assassins this past season, Turrell with an average of 23.9 points per game and Halpert with 16.7. They both shot better than 43 percent from three, leading to a team average of 40 percent from behind the arc. To put it in perspective, BYU was the only D-I squad to have a team-wide average that surpassed 40 percent.

Steinmetz’s players come from everywhere from Long Island to Dallas, via public schools and Jewish academies alike. Halpert and Turrell represent two completely different ends of the recruiting spectrum, even though both are from Jewish academies in Los Angeles. Both also first met Steinmetz at the Red Sarachek Tournament that 20 Jewish academies across the country attended at Yeshiva.

Though Halpert had a successful high school career, he didn’t push himself in reaching out to D-I coaches, and so he wasn’t recruited heavily. He is the first member of his family to go to college out of state, rather than taking the familiar route of going to Santa Monica Community College before transferring to UCLA or USC. In essence, Halpert remained fairly undiscovered before Steinmetz snagged him. Halpert’s coach now calls him the best three-point shooter in Division III.

Turrell, on the other hand, played AAU basketball with the likes of Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Cassius Stanley with Earl Watson Elite. He mulled D-I offers from Cal State Northridge, Southern Utah, and Army before heading to Yeshiva. Having attended a Jewish academy for most of his life, the decision was easy, and the unbounded camaraderie he’s found on the team has made it worth it ever since.

“Nobody cares who scores,” Turrell said. “We care about letters, not numbers. All we care about is the W.”

With that said, playing basketball at arguably the most outwardly Jewish university in America hasn’t been smooth sailing. The amount of anti-semetic acts of violence rose to 1,879 nationally in 2018, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Steinmetz recalls several instances of fans hurling epithets at games, and mentioned these on his Instagram.

Opposing players aren’t excused either. Senior forward Daniel Katz mentioned being called “dirty Jews,” and having coins dropped while entering the court, according to a recent interview with the AP.

“People will scoff at our kippahs, or yamakas,” Halpert said. “They don’t really respect us as athletes or as competitors.”

The Maccabees have time and again won on the road against quality opponents, at home in the Skyline Championship, and even when the stands are empty due to COVID-19. With their shot at NCAA Tournament magic snatched from their grasp, make no mistake: The Maccabees will have a chip on their shoulder as next season approaches.

“The hardest part of the whole situation was dealing with everyone who was saying, ‘Oh at least you’re winners, at least you won this,’ Halpert said of the team’s unfinished business. “I hate that crap. I’m a competitor.”

Though Halpert won’t be among the players returning for Yeshiva next season, the dream of a D-III trophy going to a small Jewish institution nestled in New York City is still possible.

“That would be the coolest thing in the world if you see someone down the line with a yamaka in the NBA,” Turrell says of the potential of Jewish basketball. “That would be inspirational.”

Back in New York, Steinmetz continues his work with the Maccabees with an eye toward next season. He says he’d love to schedule a Division I opponent one of these days, though he’s been unable to find anyone willing to play his team.

“I probably would be mistaken or cocky to say we wouldn’t be a huge underdog,” he said of Yeshiva’s chances against a Division I opponent.

Maybe. But Yeshiva has overcome long odds before.