After Fasting and Before the Sabbath, Yeshiva Debuts in N.C.A.A. Tournament

The men’s basketball team at Yeshiva University overcame a bumpy start to its season to become champions for the first time, beating teams from its conference of small colleges in and around New York City and earning a berth in its division’s postseason tournament. The opportunity was one Yeshiva had chased for decades.

But already, there was a complication: First-round games in the tournament are typically scheduled on Friday evening, after the start of the Sabbath, a time when the team cannot play.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has moved the game up several hours to accommodate Yeshiva. Even so, it was another reminder of the unusual circumstances that its players face.

Their competitors, for instance, do not have hours of Jewish studies every day stacked on top of their other academic coursework. There was also a day of fasting this week before Purim, a holiday celebrating Jewish deliverance, that limited practice time. Beyond the religious obligations, players said they have noticed a certain level of pride that has been stirred in the broader Jewish community by seeing athletes from their faith succeed on the basketball court, many of them wearing skullcaps as they do it. In the final seconds of the Skyline Conference’s championship game, as Yeshiva outscored Purchase College, a crowd of hundreds sang in Hebrew.

“Every Jew feels like they’re a part of it,” said Justin Hod, a junior guard whose younger brother Tyler is a guard on the team as well. (His older brother, Jordan, also played for Yeshiva, and his father and uncle were called the “Twin Towers” for their record-breaking career for the team in the 1980s.)

“It feels like you’re a celebrity on campus,” Mr. Hod said of the attention, which, he noted, has spread beyond Yeshiva even to his hometown, Teaneck, N.J.

The Yeshiva Maccabees, named for the ancient band of freedom fighters, are unfamiliar with this level of spotlight. A New York Post headline blared“YESH’ THEY CAN,” and the online Jewish publication Tablet declared that the team’s making the N.C.A.A. tournament was “one of the most unlikely Jewish sporting feats ever.”

“It’s exhilarating!” Rabbi Ari Berman, the president of Yeshiva, said when he stopped by the team’s practice on a recent morning. “It’s electric!”

It is safe to say that the century-old university, with a main campus in Washington Heights neighbourhood of Manhattan and more than 6,000 students, has not established itself as an athletics powerhouse, with religious studies and secular academics traditionally overshadowing sports. Still, the men’s and women’s tennis teams have advanced to national championship tournaments in recent years. The university’s roller hockey team has as well. And university officials said the basketball team’s success this season, culminating in a spot in the N.C.A.A. Division III tournament, reflects Yeshiva’s loftier athletic ambitions.

“The goal, as weird as it sounds, is for this to be normal,” Elliot Steinmetz, the head coach since 2014 and a former player on the team, said of winning N.C.A.A. berths. “Nobody’s writing about it. Nobody’s talking about it. It’s just expected.”

The team’s rocky play through the first half of the season gave way last month to an eight-game winning streak, the longest in the team’s recent history.

On Feb. 22, Yeshiva narrowly beat Farmingdale State College, 77-75, clearing the way for the team, which entered the Skyline Conference of about a dozen schools in the New York metropolitan area in 1998, to play in the championship game for the first time. On Sunday, the No. 4 seed Maccabees defeated the No. 2 seed Purchase College, 87-81.

Yeshiva, with a record of 18-10, will face York College of Pennsylvania on Friday. The winner will play again on Saturday evening. (If Yeshiva wins, the game will be pushed back to 8:30 p.m., after the Sabbath has ended.)

It’s actually funny to see if a yarmulke falls off on the court and an opposing player picks it up,” said Joe Bednarsh, the university’s director of athletics and recreation, referring to the Yiddish name for the skullcap. “Is it a holy object? Like, do I put it down gently? Do I fling it to the bench?”

The players — who, like other Division III students, do not receive athletic scholarships — also have obligations that many of their counterparts on other teams do not. Practice begins most days on the university’s Washington Heights campus before 6 a.m., finishing in time for religious studies that start around 9 a.m. and continue until the early afternoon. Then, their other courses can stretch until late in the evening. Beyond that, players cannot play or practice from Friday evening to Saturday evening.

Mr. Steinmetz said the requirements mean that players have less time for shooting practice, lifting weights and reviewing film. This week, the team has had to adjust its schedule around Purim, traveling on Thursday and having a holiday feast at their hotel in Pennsylvania.

But the religious component extends beyond scheduling issues, with players saying that their faith informs the way they approach the game. This season, the team has started studying passages from the Torah before games. They see their faith as an advantage, and if anything, with many of the players coming from Hebrew high schools, they consider themselves to be well practiced at balancing their religion with their athletic pursuits.

“We’ve been living with this our whole lives,” said Eli Mamann, a senior forward and the team’s captain. “It’s not really a burden at all. It’s how we live.”

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