Aidan Korish, 15, never imagined he would be playing basketball and spending Shabbat in a Jewish college community as small as the one in Auburn, Alabama.
The varsity basketball player, a sophomore at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, was among 150 day-school students who converged on Auburn University for a fall weekend of tournament basketball, inspirational talks, volunteering, and experiencing Jewish life in the Deep South.
“It was such a random place to bring Judaism to, but it was a great experience to meet people from other schools and to come together from all around the country to play in Auburn,” he said.
The Orthodox Union’s National Council of Synagogue Youth and Athletes for Israel, a nonprofit that brings athletes to Israel, sponsored the November 4-7 gathering of five schools from five states.
The four-day weekend was billed as a follow-up to the Auburn Men’s Division 1 basketball team’s 10-day summer trip to Israel with its Jewish coach, Bruce Pearl. He is the founder of the Jewish Coaches Association, a former Maccabiah games coach, and an outspoken advocate for Israel.
At Shabbat dinner at Auburn Hillel, Mr. Pearl spoke to the students about the team’s Birthright for College Basketball trip this past summer. He also talked about being a Jewish coach in a Division 1 program, facing antisemitism, and why Israel is so important to him.
Rabbi Richard Kirsch, a guidance counselor at Kushnerand its director of athletics, said, “We got to see Coach Pearl in action, speaking publicly about the importance of a strong state of Israel and doing it in a place like Auburn, which is predominantly non-Jewish.”
The players participated in a panel discussion and talked about the highlights of their trip to Israel. Mia Raskin, a shomer Shabbat women’s college basketball player at SUNY Binghamton, also spoke.
“It was very inspiring,” Scarlett Mandil, 17, said. She’s a senior varsity basketball player at RKYHS and one of 24 students who flew there from New Jersey. “It was really cool that we were able to meet so many different players and teammates.”
The RKYHS students got an inside look at the Auburn Tigers as they prepared for their season opener at morning practice. They also took a tour of the athletic training facility.
RKYHS and other day schools from New York, Houston, Philadelphia, and Boca Raton, Fla., faced off in a tournament at a local high school starting Saturday night; there was an awards banquet on Sunday night.
On Monday, RKYHS students volunteered at the Food Bank of East Alabama and Storybrook Farm, which provides animal therapy to disabled children.
On Monday night, they had the chance to cheer on the Auburn Tigers against the George Mason University Patriots at their season opener.
“Going to opening game night was my favorite part, just because everyone there was super welcoming and we had front seats.,” Aidan said. “It felt like I was a college student rooting for Auburn.”
At the end of the game, Coach Pearl walked over to the section where the day school teens were sitting and chanted “Am Yisrael Chai.” The teens broke out in song and concluded the four-day trip by davening Maariv together in the basketball arena.
“This was an opportunity to really experience a whole different aspect of what Jewish life is like outside the New York metropolitan area, to see what Jewish life is like on campus and meet the Jewish community there, which is very small to begin with,” Rabbi Kirsch said. “It’s a very big learning experience for them.”
“It was such a meaningful Shabbat, and I truly felt like I made a difference in the Jewish life in Auburn over the weekend,” Kushner senior Alexis Sohnen, 17, said.
“It was an opportunity to bond and to meet other schools from around the country,” Rabbi Kirsch added. “And it was an opportunity to really express our deep appreciation for Coach Pearl, who is very outspoken in his support of Israel, and does it in a place that is predominately non-Jewish.”