A unique defense

For Yeshiva University basketball coach Jonathan Halpert, recruiting from Israel is his way of saying thank-you to those who have served in the IDF.

Jonathan Halpert 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jonathan Halpert 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
To the average fan, it is no more than another mediocre basketball game in Division III of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. However, for Dr. Jonathan Halpert it means a whole lot more. For Halpert, the Yeshiva University team he coaches represents not only a private Jewish school from New York, but the entire Jewish people.
Halpert is in his 40th season as the basketball coach of the Maccabees, who currently have seven players from across Israel on their roster. Halpert, 67, comes to Israel twice a year to recruit local talent, hoping to find players worthy of representing not only Yeshiva University, but Jews everywhere.
“When Maccabi Tel Aviv plays in the Euroleague they are not only representing Maccabi, they are representing Israel and the Jewish people,” Halpert said during his recent visit to Israel.
“Whether Israelis want it or not, in the eyes of the world Maccabi is representing the Jewish state. When Yeshiva University goes out on court we are ‘the Jewish school.’ We are ‘the Jewish players.’ “There’s an opportunity to represent much more than yourself and the name of the school. For me to be able to represent the Jewish people 25 times a year is an opportunity I couldn’t get any place else. In Israel you can coach different teams and have that opportunity, but in America there is only one place I can do that so that is pretty special.”
Halpert played for YU between 1962 and 1966 and coached its high-school basketball team for six years before taking over the varsity roster in 1972.
For most of that time, he combined his commitments at YU with his full-time job, from which he recently retired, as a CEO of a company that takes care of mentally disabled adults.
However, despite already being the longest tenured men’s basketball coach in New York City history, Halpert has no intention of retiring from coaching as well.
“At the end of every year I decide if I want to come back,” said the two-time coach of the year in the Skyline Conference (1999/2000 and 2009/10), who at one stage compiled a streak of 15 seasons without a losing record (1987/88 through 2001/02).
“I enjoy the kids a lot. I enjoy coaching. I like the competition. The kids seem to still want me. As long as the kids want me I’ll keep coming back. The players will tell me when it’s time to go. When the players stop listening I’ll know it is time to go home.”
Halpert admitted that he considered moving on to different coaching jobs over the years, but ultimately always decided to remain with the Maccabees, despite the limited talent pool and the inadequate practice time.
“You want to see if you can do better at a higher level with more talent and more practice and I’ve had opportunities, but in the end I thought about it and came to the conclusion that I’ll never have what I have here,” he said. “We are competing against players and teams who are practicing six or seven times a week while we practice four times a week. It makes the job much harder. We practice eight hours a week and something has to give. These kids start class at 9 a.m. and we don’t start practicing until 8 p.m., so considering that, we have done really well.”
Halpert began the 2011/12 season needing just seven wins to reach 400 victories for his career, but at the midway point of the campaign his side has only amassed a 2-12 record, taking his career total to 395 wins and 507 losses.
“This has been a particularly difficult year,” he said. “It is the first time since 1974/75 that we don’t have 10-11 wins at this stage. In the early years it was very difficult, but since I’ve started to recruit Israelis we have had winning years in 20 out of 27 years and have gone to four post-season tournaments.”
Halpert is happy to recruit both secular and religious players, including everything in between, but he will not bring aboard an Israeli who hasn’t completed his IDF service.
“I’ve had players who are religious, traditional and secular,” he said. “That was never an issue as long as the players understood that they had to be respectful. If you ask them one of the things they enjoyed the most about Yeshiva University is the religious studies classes. This may sound strange because I live in America, but Israel every day protects me and I tell these kids when they come that I don’t care if they sat in a chair in an office in the IDF, you protected me and protected my family in Israel and I owe you,” he added. “So if I can help them get their college degree and give them a chance to play basketball it’s my little way of saying thank-you.”
He may have lost more games than he won and he may never claim the conference championship he so desires. But Halpert has achieved so much more in his 40 years in YU and he isn’t planning on going anywhere soon.
“From a religious perspective there is no conflict between Judaism and sports,” Halpert commented. “The religion, tradition and learning is perfectly consistent with sports, business or medicine because it is a way of life.
All the laws and rules and traditions are guidelines to live a certain life and therefore there’s nothing inconsistent.
You have to live in the world. The question is how you live in the world and what values you are going to use.
That’s what YU teaches you. It teaches you values from a religious perspective and those values can be applied if you are in business or sports.
“I think that one of the great lessons of playing in Yeshiva University is that it constantly reminds you who you are. You can’t forget who you are, that’s the most important thing. If you know who you are there’s nothing you can’t do.”