Spirituality and Basketball: the ‘Jewish Jordan’ Israel Summer Camp Playbook

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Jeffrey F. Barken/JNS.org

For years, Jewish basketball aficionados have adored Tamir Goodman. The same can now be said for Jewish summer campers.

Nicknamed the “Jewish Jordan” by Sports Illustrated magazine in 1999 for the combination of his on-court prowess and his observance of Orthodox rituals despite a busy secular game schedule, Goodman earned the respect of his teammates and fans alike. After a storied high school career, Maryland-born Goodman played for a decade between college (Towson University) and Israel’s professional basketball leagues before a knee injury forced him to hang up his jersey.

Since retiring, Goodman has worked as a coach and a motivational speaker. In 2013, he published his memoir, “The Jewish Jordan’s Triple Threat.” One of his crowning achievements to date is the Jerusalem-based basketball camp that he founded in 2016. This intensive sports camp invites a class of 30-40 boys, ages 13-17, to train for two weeks every summer in the world-class facilities located at Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Lerner Campus. Campers receive expert instruction from professional players and soak up the spiritual vibrancy of the holy city.

Initially, the program was only available for day campers. But in 2017, Goodman is expanding that vision. Now, players have the opportunity to stay overnight in affiliated accommodations located in southern Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood. In addition to inspiring increased camaraderie between teammates, Goodman hopes to blend a unique element of cultural immersion and spirituality into the training course.

Tamir Goodman (in center, holding basketball) with his summer campers in Jerusalem. Credit: Courtesy of Tamir Goodman.

“There’s something majestic about Jerusalem, it’s a city that unites,” Goodman tells JNS.org. “We’re excited to help them reach their potential on and off the court and to connect them to Israel.”

Goodman has devised a rigorous training course for the camp. Each day, drills and discussions will be structured around an educational theme. Professional players, yoga instructors and physical therapists will lead intense warm-up sessions. Guest speakers will illuminate game theory, and then the group will scrimmage before breaking for lunch.

In the afternoon, the course is repeated. When day campers depart, the overnight campers will participate in charity events, bowling and other evening activities. “Basketball is much more than being in a gym these days. You really need to know how to take care of your body,” Goodman says. He has enlisted nutritionists to impart healthy eating, sleeping and other lifestyle skills at the camp.

The campers are predominately observant Jews, but Goodman pushes back on the notion that this is a camp specifically for religious athletes.

“The message is not to let society dictate what you can or cannot do in this world….I was lucky enough to work with some of the greatest basketball minds in the world,” he says. In the Jerusalem camp, therefore, Goodman says he takes “all that world-class basketball and I give it to our players in an atmosphere where they don’t have to sacrifice their Judaism or be the only Jewish person.”

Tamir Goodman (at left) with his summer campers in Jerusalem. Credit: Courtesy of Tamir Goodman.

Given his childhood and adolescent experiences as a camper, Goodman is well aware that having kosher food available, as well as a culture and schedule that accommodates religious priorities, removes the considerable social and logistical hurdles that campers otherwise face.

The camp, therefore, is an opportunity for players to embrace the awareness for faith and ritual that Goodman brought to the game, in addition to underscoring the meaning of the Jewish day of rest.

“We really want the players to connect to Shabbat in a unique way,” Goodman says. “After working so hard all week on their bodies, physically, it will be nice to spend some time working on their spirit.”

Rabbi Aaron Goldsheider, Goodman’s friend and colleague, has offered to host the overnight campers for Shabbat dinner.

“Goodman not only teaches the skills of ballplaying—he has a unique ability to convey spiritual messages of kindness and sensitivity,” Goldscheider tells JNS.org.

Goldsheider believes that the opportunity to tour the Old City, and to pray at the Western Wall before sharing dinner together, will have a lasting impact on the campers.

“Jewish Jordan” Tamir Goodman (left) and Omri Casspi, the first Israeli-born player in National Basketball Association (NBA) history, are pictured on the court of the United Center, home of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls. Courtesy Tamir Goodman.

Donna Cohen, whose 13-year-old son Itamar participated in the program last year and is returning this summer, provides a parent’s perspective.

“Regarding the price, I feel that it is very fair,” she tells JNS.org. Day camp costs $500 per week, and the overnight camp is $1,000 weekly.

“When you are looking for a high-level sports camp that has professional coaches, you are going to pay a bit more than a regular camp. But I feel that what the kids get out of two weeks will carry them through the entire year,” Cohen says. She praises Goodman’s ability to “hone in on a player’s strengths and challenges and to push them to reach new potential that they never thought possible.” Her son echoes that assessment.

“Through the camp, I feel improved both mentally and physically,” Itamar says. “Playing with others who are better and older made it challenging and gave me the opportunity to improve.”

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