This article was produced as part of JTA’s Teen Journalism Fellowship, a program that works with Jewish teens around the world to report on issues that affect their lives.
(JTA) — After a crushing loss last year in the state championship round of 16 to Caprock Academy, the Denver Jewish Day School boys’ basketball team began the 2022-23 season hungrier than ever and ready to prove themselves. That drive paid off in March when the Tigers became Class 1A state champions, the first-ever crown for the pluralistic Jewish community K-12 day school.
But to get there, they had to pull off a 15-point comeback against the reigning state champions, battle through antisemitism on and off the court and travel more than an hour and a half each way for their final three games.
Winning the state championship was not only a monumental moment for the school, but it was also only the third time ever that a Jewish day school had won its state basketball championship.
The Tigers dominated the regular season, ending with a 22-3 record and becoming the number two ranked team behind the Belleview Christian Bruins. Going into the playoffs, the Tigers were on the lookout for the Bruins, who had delivered them one of their few regular-season losses. However, during the playoffs, the Tigers outplayed the Bruins twice in both the district and state championships, delivering Belleview their only two losses of the season and securing the championship.
Last year’s playoff loss against Caprock Academy, located 250 miles west of Denver, only provided them with more motivation. “We had a four-hour bus ride home of pure sadness and anger” on the way home, said starter Andrew Zimmerman, 18. “Everyone except the seniors were back in the gym the very next day to start getting ready for this season.” With a starting five composed of four seniors and one junior, everyone on the team knew that, for many of them, this was their last chance to win the state championship.
To add to this pressure, several players on the team experienced antisemitism from fans and players during the tournament. Some were called slurs, while others found posts on social media complaining that the game was moved because of the team’s Sabbath observance and saying that they should be forced to forfeit instead. However, the Tigers ignored what people were saying and focused on what they were best at: playing basketball.
The two other Jewish schools that have won their basketball state championships were Shalhevet, an Orthodox Jewish high school of about 260 students in Los Angeles that won the California women’s Division IV basketball state championship only a few days before the Tigers, and the Yavneh Academy of Dallas, a Modern Orthodox school, whose boys’ basketball team won the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools’ 3A title in 2020.
Winning the state championship as a Jewish day school is “just incredible for the whole Jewish community, and the fact that it’s so rare for it to happen makes it even more special,” said Coach Michael Foonberg. “There’s also a stereotype of [there being very few good] Jewish athletes. And you can overcome that with hard work and commitment and dedication. To stay the course and do it with this Jewish school and being Jewish myself, it was something that I just dreamed about, and to fulfill it is just incredible.”
Jews value athletic achievement as a statement of minority pride, according to Howard Megdal, a Jewish sports writer who covers basketball and specifically women’s sports, especially if a team wins a championship. “It is always significant, particularly in athletics, to see Jewish people excel,” he said. “At a time of rising antisemitism, this is especially important to the Jewish people.”
For DJDS, winning was about more than just bringing a trophy back to Denver. They were playing for something bigger than themselves.“Winning is just such a big accomplishment, and it’s something that we did for our school and for the Jewish community,” said starter Jonathan Noam, 17. “In the huddle, we always break it with ‘Mishpacha’ [family] because that’s the idea that we play with in our heads. DJDS is like one big mishpacha, along with the Jewish community in Denver. Everybody knows each other. Everybody is so tight-knit. It’s like we’re one big family. [We won] it for everybody.”
Fans and team members worried that DJDS would not be able to compete in the Colorado High School Activities Association’s state championship tournament due to the team’s Sabbath observance. However, according to Josh Lake, the athletic director of DJDS, “The changes to the tournament this year were in place for well over a decade. [CHSAA Associate Commissioner Bethany Brookens] and I meet yearly to make sure the accommodations are kosher for the particular season based on when the tournament is scheduled.”
Recently, the state association has been much more accommodating of DJDS’s Sabbath observance. “CHSAA respected the fact that we were Jewish and that we keep Shabbos and are not allowed to play on Shabbos,” said Noam. The team was able to play games typically scheduled for late Friday or Saturday afternoon on Friday afternoon and Saturday night, so the team could avoid violating the Sabbath.
According to Brookens, the Sabbath accommodations for DJDS have “been in place and communicated well before this year.”
While CHSAA respected the team’s Sabbath observance, fans and parents of opposing players were unhappy with the scheduling changes and expressed antisemitic sentiments against the team from the stands and on social media, according to starter Gavin Foonberg, son of Coach Foonberg, 18, and starter Elan Schinagel, 17. “We always run into [antisemitism]. It happened in the playoffs against McClave. “There were some people calling our fans ‘dirty Jews,’” said Schinagel, “You just have to be the bigger person when that type of stuff happens. It happens generally once or twice a season.”
Fellow starter Gavin Foonberg also experienced antisemitism at the tournament. “After we beat McClave, there was a bunch of talk, all over Twitter and CHSAA Instagram, about how [DJDS] is cheating because we had the game moved back farther because we can’t play on Shabbat,” he said. The team also experienced antisemitism during the regular season at a game against Lyons. “At Lyons, there definitely was [antisemitism]. [The fans] called our JV team “K*kes” at one point.”
DJDS prepares the players to deal with antisemitism. According to school policy, if they encounter antisemitism, they are taught to tell their coach or a school administrator immediately. “It’s not a great feeling knowing that we have to prepare for that, but it is a good feeling knowing that our kids know what to do,” said Assistant Coach Matan Halzel.
Despite the protocol, the athletic director of DJDS, Josh Lake, did not receive any reports of antisemitism directly. “No one has shared with me any [reports of ] antisemitic behavior at the district, regional, or state tournament this year,” he said. One of the players only discussed the antisemitic experiences he witnessed within the team and said he did not report it because he was used to such behavior.
Officials at McClave said that no one had contacted them about any alleged antisemitism. ”No one from the Denver Jewish Day School contacted myself or any other administrator during or after the tournament, so this is the first I am hearing of any issues,” said Maggie Pacino, principal of McClave. However, ”Had I or any other school administrator heard such comments we would have immediately dealt with those involved.”
Administrators at Lyons said they could not comment on the specifics of the antisemitic incident reported by Tigers players due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, even though that federal privacy law only covers personal information on a student’s record. “What I can share with you is that whenever our school receives a report of conduct outside of the very high standards we hold for our students, we conduct a thorough investigation and take appropriate disciplinary action as necessary,” said Christopher Frank, principal of Lyons.
Tiger center Zimmerman said an adult fan supporting McClave walked past and called him a “dirty f–cking Jew.” A DJDS fan who saw it happen told him that the man had been saying similar things the entire game. Zimmerman did not respond to the comment and walked away.
Notwithstanding the antisemitism, the state championship win is still a bright spot for the Jewish community and a huge win for Jewish athletes around the nation.
The win “is history and is something that you’ll never forget,” said Halzel. “It’s etched in stone. We have a trophy, we have a banner, we have a signed ball that’s already in the trophy case. These are memories that will never be taken away from us.”