The sounds inside Ritchie Coliseum at the University of Maryland in College Park on Sunday were like any pressure-packed basketball game in April, what with shoes squeaking, balls smacking against the floor and fans showing their appreciation.
But this game was different.
The action belonged to a collection of Jewish college students from 35 Hillel student centers across the United States who gathered last weekend for the seventh annual National Hillel Basketball Tournament, organized by Maryland Hillel
“It looks very simple with this basketball game happening but there’s a lot of behind the scenes work that’s happening,” said sophomore Avi Schneider, a member of the tournament’s board.
Schneider said all a Hillel needs to do to participate is round up five to eight interested players — no athletic experience necessary.
“We had teams where best friends from high school are together and they go to the same college,” he said. “Some teams really don’t know each other but they go to the same school, so it’s really cool for them to all become friends over the weekend.”
Maiya Chard-Yaron, the assistant director of Maryland Hillel, said basketball and Judaism are a great recipe for forming friendships.
“There’s a huge social component for the players and there’s a huge community building aspect, and I think basketball’s just an exciting sport that people love playing and love coming together around,” she said. “And what’s amazing is that this is a chance for them to combine their Jewish identity with their love for sports and bring it all together.”
About 700 students attended dinner on Friday night, she said.
The experience of playing basketball among so many Jews his own age was “beyond words” for Justin Hod, a sophomore from Yeshiva University.
“The competition is great, but after the game we’re all friends,” he said. “We’re all Jews. We all love each other. There’s no fighting after we step off the court.”
Hod played on YU’s Sokol team, one of five the university sent to the tournament. In the men’s championship game on Sunday, the YU Ammar team defeated the YU Weiss team 51-48.
The friendliness of the competition was apparent during the women’s championship game on Sunday, in which the tournament’s Free Agent Team, composed of players from several Hillels, defeated Columbia University 22-12. Players on the court encouraged each other throughout a spirited 36-minute contest.
Despite losing the game, Columbia sophomore Sarah Senkfor said she enjoyed meeting fellow Jews and spending Shabbat together.
“It’s been really fun,” she said. “I’ve gotten to meet a lot of new people and just enjoyed being on a different college campus.”
On the winning team similar sentiments could be heard from Arlyn Goldberg, a junior at New York University.
“I think it’s so special to have everyone with the common bond of basketball and Judaism,” she said. “You get to celebrate Shabbos and play basketball right after Shabbos, so it’s a great time.”
The most satisfying aspect of the tournament for Daniel Rebibo of Potomac, a parent who informally coached the women’s Free Agent Team, was the interaction between players who didn’t know each other.
“Everybody seemed to know one person from a different team, so there was a feeling of family and knowledge,” he said. “Seeing everyone unite like this, they will meet again somewhere down the line.”