Israel-Hamas war strikes close to home for Yeshiva University players
NEW YORK — Members of the Yeshiva University men’s basketball team stood in the dark along the baseline of the school gym, waiting for the overhead lights to turn on so they could start practice. It was Monday, Oct. 9, two days after Hamas launched an unprecedented surprise attack by air, land and sea from Gaza on neighboring Israel, which subsequently declared war.
One of the players opened a prayer book and read aloud in Hebrew a message often recited in support of Israeli soldiers and their safe return. Part of the passage he read: My help is from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth; He will not allow your foot to falter; Your Guardian will not slumber — Tehillim (psalms) 121.
As they prayed on the court inside the Max Stern Athletic Center’s basement gym at the private Orthodox Jewish school in upper Manhattan, two teammates and their head coach weren’t yet home from Israel, where they had traveled for a Jewish holiday, Sukkot. That left two assistant coaches in charge of the impossible — focusing the players on practice drills and full-court scrimmages.
Some previously served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Many have loved ones, including parents, grandparents, cousins and friends, in Israel. One lost a childhood friend in the attack. At least one other knew someone he believed to be missing.
Joseph Schwartz, a sixth-year assistant, was born in Israel and moved to New York as a child. He also was in Israel during the Oct. 7 attacks but had made it home. In addition to the prayer before practice, Schwartz spoke to the players, telling them basketball was trivial but could be therapeutic.
Another assistant, Yoni Cohen, helps players with their academics and mental health. Since Oct. 7, he has been especially mindful of checking in with each, and says he’s been surprised at how well they have controlled their emotions.
Every player on the Division III Maccabees’ roster is Jewish, as are the school’s 2,200 undergraduates on four campuses in New York, which has the largest Jewish population of any city in the world. Most of the players are from the U.S., and six are Israeli. The school fields men’s and women’s sports teams, and the men’s basketball team drew national attention several years ago for its 50-game winning streak, which ended in late 2021. Last year, Yeshiva graduate Ryan Turell was chosen in the NBA’s G League draft.
With college basketball season opening and teams around the country heading toward exhibitions and home openers, the Maccabees face a different kind of moment early in their season, as players try to figure out how to balance their regular routines of going to class or practice while also coming to terms with the realities of war.
Several players wear kippahs (skullcaps), and Yeshiva plays Israel’s national anthem — “Hatikvah” — along with “The Star-Spangled Banner” before games. Among the Israelis on this year’s roster is Adi Markovich, a 27-year-old senior guard. Markovich served in the IDF for three years, stationed at checkpoints in Jerusalem and other parts of the country, before he eventually landed at Yeshiva. For the Maccabees, he said he takes seriously being a team leader. He also said he needed to step up for his teammates emotionally. Markovich understands because he’s going through it, too.
Asked whether he remembered what Schwartz said in that dark gym before practice, and how it felt then, Markovich was quiet.
“I don’t know,” he says. “My mind was on other things.”
AS OF LATE OCTOBER, the Hamas attacks left more than 1,400 dead, at least 4,600 injured and more than 200 held hostage, according to the IDF. The Palestinian Health Ministry said there are more than 5,000 dead and more than 15,000 injured after Israel’s retaliation in Gaza, where there has been limited electricity, food and fuel. The United Nations says more than 1 million Gaza residents have been displaced, and there is a humanitarian crisis. Some aid shipments have begun to arrive through the border with Egypt, but aid workers characterize it as insufficient.
Tensions have boiled over at protests and rallies, including on U.S. college campuses. Columbia University, just 4 miles from Yeshiva’s gym, closed to the public because of competing protests. While there’s debate over the conflict — among those weighing in is Yeshiva coach Elliot Steinmetz, who disagreed on social media with U.S. Rep. Cori Bush (D-Missouri), who called for a cease-fire — concerns are growing on all sides over the prospect of a widening war.
It’s a lot to digest for a college student. Dothan Bardichev, who was born in the United Kingdom, lived in Israel for a decade through high school and came to Yeshiva for academics and athletics. He was in Israel with family the day Hamas attacked, but he managed to find a flight out that night. He struggled getting on a plane back to New York, leaving his parents behind, as well as his sister and her four children. Bardichev says that his family remains in Israel and is safe — but that a disabled neighbor was killed.
“Class started, and the teacher starts talking about algorithms,” he recalled of the Wednesday after the attacks, “and my brain is completely … how can I speak about algorithms when babies were …”
He shook his head.
Early some mornings before practice, he calls to make sure his family is safe. His parents were born in Israel, and he said his paternal great-grandparents founded a moshav, an Israeli farming community.
“… I’m privileged,” he says. “I’m in New York. I’m safe. But hearing this is heartbreaking and it hits you anywhere. You can be in the middle of class and then your thoughts go, and it’s how do I continue studying about algorithms while my friends are dying and risking their lives?”
Bardichev, a sophomore majoring in computer science, can’t serve in the military because of a medical condition but says he’ll represent Yeshiva proudly on the court. He says that takes his mind away from the war. Still, it’s hard for him to weigh the importance of a game versus what’s happening at home.
“This is a place we can talk about things,” Bardichev says. “And all our Israelis, we come from different places in Israel, and everybody can tell their story and kind of vent out. And it’s a good place to … talk with someone who understands you better.”
FOR TOM BEZA, thoughts of war come during water breaks. Beza, a sophomore guard, said he uses basketball to escape reality, getting immersed during practice like it’s a fantasy world.
“It’s like my safe place,” he says. “Sometimes when I’m in the middle of a drill or something, I’m forgetting everything. It can be two minutes [off the court and it’s], Is everyone OK? What’s happening now?”
He often puts his phone somewhere near the court during practice, if he can, so he can check the news. The day after Beza finished mandatory military service in Israel, where he had been for nearly three years after high school, he took off for Yeshiva.
Although Beza is no longer in the military, many of his loved ones are. His sister is a tank instructor. He fields calls from his heartbroken mother about her. Many of his close friends, people he described as brothers, are in combat positions.
Being so far away from his family, Beza has created a new one at Yeshiva, where he leans especially on his fellow Israelis. They talk about the war and its toll, and distract themselves with other topics.
“It’s like a support group,” he says.
FOR OR SUNDJYVSKY, thoughts of his home country come while he’s on the George Washington Bridge. In his first year at Yeshiva, he moved with his immediate family to Fair Lawn, New Jersey, when his father’s job was relocated eight years ago. Along with Markovich, who also lives in New Jersey, Sundjyvsky gets a ride to campus over the bridge from Schwartz, the assistant coach.
The three don’t talk much in the early morning, but Schwartz checks in on the pair’s well-being. Markovich, who has friends in the army, was worried about their whereabouts when the war began. Sundjyvsky’s grandmother was living in a big house by herself.
“[My dad] flew my grandma to here,” Sundjyvsky says. “She landed a couple of days ago. [She] didn’t feel very safe.”
It’s the confluence of Sundjyvsky’s new life in the U.S. and his old one in Israel. One of Sundjyvsky’s cousins was visiting from Israel, and they were at a movie theater in New Jersey to see “Oppenheimer,” a film about the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. When they arrived home after the movie, their phones surged with alerts. After that, they couldn’t sleep.
Sundjyvsky hasn’t been able to do much else but think about Israel. He said he was in a business class, multitasking. He took notes as the professor spoke and kept one eye on his laptop for news, waiting for updates on potential hostage releases. He kept his phone’s ringer on in case of an emergency or an urgent message in his family’s 25-person group chat. The constant worry isn’t healthy, but he has a plan.
“[I try] to talk to my parents and my teammates as much as I can about it to see what they’re seeing in their side to make sure I see the whole picture and not just what I see on social media and what my parents are telling me or see on the news.
“You have to talk because you can’t let it stay in your stomach,” he says. “It’s going to blow.”
JOSEPH SULTAN THINKS of Israel when he thinks of his childhood friend. Sultan, a junior forward from Brooklyn, went to school with Ariel Eliyahu from pre-kindergarten until fifth grade, when Eliyahu and his family moved back to Israel. Eliyahu’s father was Sultan’s rabbi. Sultan and Eliyahu stayed in contact as best they could. When Sultan went to Israel to study, he went to Eliyahu’s house for Shabbat.
Sultan said that Eliyahu was killed on the first day of the attacks while serving in the IDF.
“May his memory be a blessing,” Sultan says.
Sultan and his family received the news from a family friend, who visited in person during the holiday, when they were disconnected from technology. Sultan was overcome with emotion. The school they had attended held a memorial. Sultan has had to balance mourning his friend with worrying about loved ones — two other friends and a rabbi — who are currently serving.
Sultan says his teammates check with each other, even if they don’t talk in depth about their feelings. They all know the rigors of being a student at Yeshiva, where an athlete’s day can start at 6 a.m. and end at 7 p.m. — with practice, prayer, Jewish studies and other classes. After his friend’s death, Sultan missed the first three days of practice, acknowledging that he needed a mental break. His coaches understood.
“I’m very grateful, actually, for the understanding of Yeshiva University, and many of the professors,” Sultan says. “They addressed the situation. We had several events here. They made the transition easy, and they’re offering a ton of help to students who are struggling, so I think that’s amazing on their part.
“Personally, you have to move forward, not move on. Remember everything, and keep everyone in mind, but life moves forward.”
ELEVEN DAYS AFTER the attacks began, the lights were on and Coach Steinmetz was back. He walked into the gym for a 6 a.m. practice. He had been home for about a week, flying from Israel to Greece to Newark, New Jersey, then taking an Uber home.
Steinmetz says he wasn’t himself. Days earlier, he was in a Jerusalem synagogue when sirens went off several times — forcing him into the safety of a stairwell. He heard explosions overhead. The service was canceled while in progress. When he arrived at the apartment where he was staying with family, he went to the roof with his daughter to watch the remnants of missiles intercepted by Iron Dome, Israel’s air defense system. Steinmetz’s 17-year-old son, in a gap year between high school and college, remains in Israel.
Steinmetz wondered how he could transition from sirens and missiles to X’s and O’s.
“When I got [back with Yeshiva’s basketball team], we called everybody together,” Steinmetz says, “and the first thing I said is, ‘Hey, I don’t even want to be here right now, guys. I want to be with all you, but I don’t want to be on a basketball court.”
But he went, in T-shirt and sweats, and fell into a rhythm of pointing and clapping and trying to make it look normal. His players swung the ball around the perimeter, instructed not to attempt a shot, as their teammates practiced defensive rotations and closeouts.
When a 5-on-5 scrimmage began, players attempted layups and 3-pointers on the basket on the far end of the court, behind which there’s a framed jersey with “Tree of Life” and a No. 11 on the back. It is in memory of the 11 people killed in 2018 at a synagogue in Pittsburgh — a reminder of how the feelings being processed by the Maccabees in this gym are not new. Across the street from the athletic building stood several uniformed NYPD officers, an increased presence noticeable to several coaches and players.
LATER THAT AFTERNOON, a “Stand With Palestine” rally was to be held on Fifth Avenue between 34th and 35th Streets, near one of Yeshiva’s four campuses. As the week went on, there were other demonstrations in New York City that railed against Israel’s retaliatory bombing of Gaza and U.S. support of Israel, while pro-Israel rallies in the city decried the Oct. 7 attacks and called for decisive action against Hamas.
Amid this, Yeshiva is about to open its season. The Maccabees have two scheduled scrimmages before their regular-season opener Nov. 8 at the University of St. Joseph. Steinmetz has said he plans to give this season more meaning than wins and losses, perhaps through donations to the IDF or by bringing Israeli high schoolers to play in the U.S.
But what’s to come is unknown. Markovich and Beza, who already have served in the army, are willing to return if called. Beza contacted his commanders to see if they needed him.
“Some things are bigger than basketball,” he said.
Bardichev doesn’t expect to serve. Sundjyvsky and forward Roy Itcovichi came to the United States for high school, which means they could be eligible for a deferment while living abroad. Itcovichi was in Israel, at his mother’s house near the airport, on Oct. 7. He heard sirens in the distance. Itcovichi was supposed to fly home that night, into the next day, but couldn’t leave for another week.
He said the streets of Tel Aviv were empty. It made him sad. Mentally, he said, it’s very draining. He doesn’t go to Israel often and doesn’t want to see his country this way. And there’s something else: When he left for New York, his mother’s emotional goodbye wasn’t out of the ordinary. But his father? He’s normally stoic. This time, it was different.