The chasidic rabbi who made his name in Israel’s schoolyards and discotheques is reaching out in another arena.
This time it’s basketball. Again.
Seven months after Migdal Ohr, a network of educational programs in northern Israel, sponsored a successful fundraising exhibition game in Madison Square Garden between the New York Knicks and the perennial champion Maccabi Tel Aviv team, the institution is returning to basketball. Migdal Ohr will bring a small group of supporters, mostly men in their 40s and 50s, to Israel on a week-long VIP tour that will include two NBA hall-of-famers, retired forwards Rick Barry and Julius “Dr. J” Erving.
The fundraising mission, which will include corporate sponsorships, has the blessing of Rabbi Yitzchak David Grossman, the founder of
Migdal Ohr, who earned the nickname of “Disco Rebbe” three decades ago for his work in untraditional venues with at-risk Israeli youngsters. Over the years, Migdal Ohr, based in Migdal HaEmek, a development town that once had the reputation of being dominated by crimes and drugs, has become one of the country’s biggest charities, with some 6,000 students — many from orphaned, abused and underprivileged backgrounds — under its aegis.
Basketball is introducing Migdal Ohr to a new generation of potential students and supporters here and in Israel, says Robert Katz, executive vice president of the American Friends of Migdal Ohr. “This is the branding option we’ve chosen. Sports is a great unifier, especially with kids.”
Barry and Erving will join the other mission participants May 25-30, followed by an NBA film crew, at basketball clinics and shoot-arounds and the Israeli Basketball League championship game and a tour of Migdal Ohr. (For information call  397-3700; www.migdalohrusa.org.)
“It’s not a fantasy basketball camp” for middle-aged wannabe jocks, says Barry, who has played an active role in promoting the “Legends Mission” because of his longtime friendship with Tal Brody, Israel’s U.S.-born basketball legend. “It’s an opportunity to do something worthwhile,” says Barry, who will visit Israel, for the first time, with his wife and youngest son. “I love kids. I’ve been blessed. I have six healthy kids.”
Ari Schonbrun from Cedarhurst, L.I., and his soon-to-become-bar-mitzvah son, Avrumi, will be part of the mission. Avrumi’s parents gave him a choice: the Israeli trip or a big party here. When Avrumi learned that each mission participant would donate several sets of tefillin to young Israelis, “that hooked him,” Schonbrun says.
Avrumi will mark his bar mitzvah, and officially put on tefillin for the first time, the week after the Schonbruns return from Israel.