David Blatt, an American Jew who made aliyah to keep playing basketball and one of Israel’s most successful basketball coaches, stood on the most central stage during Israel’s Independence Day ceremony on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
He was chosen to be one of the 12 Israelis who annually light a torch during this prestigious ceremony. Speaking in Hebrew with a slight American accent, he said he was lighting the torch “in honor of the State of Israel, which gave me, as a new immigrant, a home and the opportunity to establish a proud Israeli family.” He emotionally added, “I have so much gratitude for this opportunity.”
David Blatt, 63, is an Israeli-American professional basketball executive, former coach and player. He played point guard at Princeton University and later made aliyah. Blatt is one of the most successful Israeli coaches in European basketball history, winning multiple Coach of the Year awards. He has coached Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel); Efes Pilsen (Turkey); Benetton Treviso (Italy); Dynamo Moscow (Russia); Aris Thessaloniki (Greece) and others, and led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the 2015 NBA Finals. In 2019, he announced that he has primary progressive multiple sclerosis (MS). In 2022, he rejoined Maccabi Tel Aviv as its chairman of the Professional Committee.
A few days after this ceremony, Blatt, who has coached Maccabi Tel Aviv’s basketball team and other prominent European clubs and national teams, as well as the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, met with Mark Wilf, a philanthropist, co-owner of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, and chairman of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel. They were both born and raised in the US, but one of them made aliyah and became an Israeli hero, while the other followed in his family’s footsteps and succeeded in business, as well as becoming one of the most senior lay leaders in the organizational Jewish world. The two of them spoke to The Jerusalem Post as part of a joint project on Israeli-American Jewish relations, with the Ruderman Family Foundation recognizing the 75th anniversary of the State of Israel.
Wilf said that one of his first connections to Israel as a child was through his cousin Avi Schiller, who played for Maccabi Tel Aviv – one of the many teams that Blatt coached. “There was a year when Maccabi won the European Championship, and I remember going on a promotional tour around the country with the trophy, and I thought that was really cool as an American kid. I was helping out and doing all kinds of stuff. Even today, my kids also participate in Maccabi sports and all that.”
He smiled and said, “I’m not going to say that I’m a die-hard on Israeli sports, but I’ve touched on some of the areas where moments for Israeli sports have been really exciting. When we were kids, my father would always say we should root for the teams that had owners or a coach who was Jewish, so when David was a coach in the NBA, we were, of course, rooting for him.
Mark Wilf, 60, is the chair of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency. He previously served as chairman of the Board of the Jewish Federations of North America. Wilf is an attorney, partner in a real estate development firm, and co-owner of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. He is a major supporter of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and Yeshiva University in New York.
“I believe that as part of my Jewish Agency roles, we have to connect Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews and learn about each other together,” Wilf said, adding that sports is a “tremendous platform that can unify and bond us all.” He said that at the Minnesota Vikings, “we addressed the George Floyd murder [an African-American killed by a police officer], and on the heels of that, we do a lot with social justice. These are the causes that are important to all of us, whether it’s bringing high school kids to the Holocaust museum and the African-American museum or just educating and teaching each other. This is where sports provides a platform to bring people together, in which some maybe aren’t that educated about the Holocaust or about the Jewish community and, of course, about Israel.”
Blatt said that his connection to Israel and to Judaism came from his love for sports. “I myself was in the Maccabiah Games in 1981 and then made aliyah, where I began my career as a professional player. I grew up in a very fine, Reform household in America. No one in my family ever thought to make aliyah or had any real inclination to even visit Israel at that time. My very strong connection to Israel began through playing basketball.
“I always felt that wherever I was playing, wherever I was coaching, the fact that people identify with me as an Israeli a lot more than as an American was great. I lived and coached in seven countries, including Russia, Turkey, Italy and Greece.”
Blatt added that he “always made a point to be identified as an Israeli because I wanted people to know and to understand where I was coming from; that I was an Israeli Jew. I just felt that it gave me the opportunity to enact my lifetime goal, which was to be a type of ambassador for Israel to the outside world or from America to Israel.”
Wilf said that in his opinion, connections between the different parts of our nation through sports can also happen on a lower or non-professional level. “We have a program that the Jewish Agency helped start called Hagal Sheli [My Wave]. It’s a surfing program that takes disadvantaged kids and empowers them around surfing. So as we discuss sports, we’re talking at the highest level. Whether it’s NBA or NFL, I just think sports in general is a great unifier.”
Blatt stated, “I couldn’t agree with Mark more. I want to take that one step further. Obviously, the value of the messaging that we can do as sportsmen or the platform that we can offer younger people at an earlier stage in their life really frees them up to being open-minded and having a sense of connectivity with other Jewish people or with people around the world. We live in a day and age where the opportunities are so much greater than they once were, due to the Internet. Making a connection as Jewish people through sports is an invaluable tool. It offers us an incredible opportunity to spread the idea of communication and connectivity, which will serve everyone very well.”
The two were asked how knowledge and connections between Jews in the Diaspora and in Israel can be promoted. Wilf answered that the Jewish Agency is working with the government “to ramp up dramatically” the connections of Israelis with Diaspora Jews.
“We have the Israel Fellows program with emissaries on over 100 campuses, where they dispel some of the myths and some of the things that are propelled in the media about Israel on our campuses [in the US.] We have the Shinshinim program, where young Israelis before their army service volunteer for 10 months in a Jewish community in the US while living in a Jewish community.” Wilf also suggested that there should be textbooks in Israel about Jews in the Diaspora, since “learning about the Diaspora in Israeli schools is very important.”
Blatt said that the disconnect is “really unfortunate” and that “these are the types of things that we should be encouraging because there are so many beautiful American Jewish families that do indeed live a very substantial part of their lives through the eyes of Jewry.” He added that “the people that come from Israel, going there [to the US] for a visit, that’s the last thing they even want to hear about, and that’s the problem here [in the US].”
Many Israeli emissaries of the Jewish Agency throughout the years, mainly from a secular background, use a phrase stating that they left Israel to the US “as Israelis” but “returned” as Jews, since for many of them it was the first substantial Jewish endeavor they had experienced in their lives. Asked how he related to this statement as chairman of the board of the agency, Wilf said that he would like to “take the positive” and relate to what he sees as a “powerful thing.”
He explained that “obviously, textbooks [about Jewish peoplehood] in Israel” are a positive thing, as well as being exposed to the fact that “there are other ways to be Jewish than just being in Israel. So I take those as beautiful stories but yes, we can do more. We can prepare young people earlier and more thoroughly, and we’re working on all those things. Those stories you mentioned are those points of light. It’s about experience-learning and there’s a multi-front effort, and it’s never going to stop.”
WILF MENTIONED the famous Look Magazine cover story in 1964 titled “The Vanishing American Jew.” He said that “every generation has been saying, ‘What’s going to happen with the Jewish community?’ Or ‘The young Jews aren’t engaged and won’t continue [to be Jewish].’” But Wilf has a positive attitude. “I have great faith that it’s a powerful force, the thousands of years of connection and experiences, and it’s a beautiful Jewish religion that we have.” He added that “whenever things were challenging, and they’re challenging now in Israel, I like to remember what my dad, a Holocaust survivor, would say: ‘Look where we were 80 years ago.’ I keep on reminding myself of that perspective.”
Many people, even in sports, hide their Judaism outwardly. David, how do you relate to this phenomenon as someone who is very outwardly Jewish?
It’s very indicative of what kind of person you are. Everyone has a choice as to how they want to wear their Judaism or not. How strongly that you identify with your Judaism or how important you feel it is to you in your daily life that is going to determine, I think, how you wear your clothes, so to speak. That’s a personal choice. I try not to judge people as far as their personal choice is concerned. I do, however, recognize that if we want to continue to survive and thrive in the Diaspora, and good people like Mark are helping us to do that, then I think it’s upon us to wear it [our Judaism] proudly.
Wilf commented on antisemitism in relation to Blatt’s thoughts. “I use the rubric of the concept of social justice. After the murder of George Floyd, the playing field is a melting pot, and you have players from all backgrounds, all walks of life. On the Vikings, we got our players together with our coaches and created a social justice committee. I shared our family story about my parents and what they went through years ago [in the Holocaust]. Some of these players and coaches went through very traumatic experiences in their own childhoods, and they shared them. We also created a fund to which our players and coaches determine where the funds go based on their own dialogue and conversations. Therefore, we have to keep fighting about tolerance and where words go... You can’t throw words around loosely. They have an impact; they’ve had a horrible impact over generations in many fields of sport recently, and it has to be called out.”
Both Wilf and Blatt said they’ve experienced antisemitism firsthand, but Wilf said that his incident was subtle. “There was a columnist who wrote right around Yom Kippur that ‘the Wilfs have a lot to atone for.’ It’s not overt, but it’s in some people’s minds; hopefully less over time.”
Blatt said that he’s lived in many countries while working as a coach and recalled an incident he experienced while serving as the coach of the Pallacanestro Treviso basketball team in Italy in the 2005-2006 season. “The president of my team was upset with me because I asked not to coach during the Italian Super Cup game because it was Yom Kippur. I never made a big issue of it publicly. I wasn’t going to be like Sandy Koufax, who wouldn’t pitch during a baseball game on Yom Kippur in the 1960s and created lots of headlines, but I didn’t do the Super Cup game. The team president didn’t fire me, although I think he wanted to, and still, we won the game,. But as a punishment, he didn’t pay me the bonus for the game. He had to make me feel like I had been remiss in my responsibilities, even though obviously Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year for us, and I wasn’t going to coach on that day, regardless of what the repercussions were.”
At the end of the conversation, Wilf said, “We have to unify and strengthen our unbreakable bonds, and I think that sports is a great unifier.”
Blatt also concluded with a substantial message. “There’s nothing wrong with taking a stand for something, but you sure as heck better understand what you’re talking about.”
The interview is a joint project of the Ruderman Family Foundation and The Jerusalem Post in honor of Israel’s 75th Independence Day, recognizing its special connection with US Jewry.
For more information: Ruderman Family Foundation
A special project of the Ruderman Family Foundation