(JTA) — When Auburn University basketball coach Bruce Pearl disembarks his flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi next week, he said he will be kissing the ground of the Emirati capital.
Pearl, one of the more outspokenly Jewish and pro-Israel coaches in all of sports, will be accompanying the men’s basketball teams from the University of Arizona and Kansas State University — two of the nation’s best teams — on part of a 10-day trip to Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
Though his Auburn team is not part of this summer’s trip, Pearl said he felt strongly that he should be on the flight from Israel to the UAE, to “feel very much a part of the Abraham Accords,” the series of normalization agreements between Israel and some of its neighboring Arab countries.
Organized by the nonprofit Athletes for Israel, the program is an expansion of the “Birthright for College Basketball” trip that Auburn experienced last summer. As its name suggests, the group works to bring athletes to Israel in an effort to combat antisemitism and “change the narrative about Israel,” said founder Daniel Posner.
This month’s trip, which runs from Aug. 9-20, will feature a number of tourist highlights in both countries, including stops at the Dead Sea, the Western Wall, Bethlehem, Yad Vashem, the Shuk and the beaches of Tel Aviv. In the UAE, the teams will visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the largest mosque in the UAE, and the country’s Abrahamic Family House, which features a synagogue, a church and a mosque on its grounds.
While in Israel, the schools will also play an Israeli Select Team, an all-star team of sorts that will feature Jewish basketball star and current NBA G League player Ryan Turell.
“When we talked about the trip for this year, our dream was to do an Abraham Accords-like trip,” Posner told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We were able to make that happen this year, traveling to both Israel and the UAE, really showing that in today’s modern day and age, there can be peace in the Middle East. And we want to support that.”
Pearl, who cites his experience coaching the Maccabi USA basketball team at the 2009 Maccabiah Games as a career highlight, said his dream is to create a full “Abraham Accords Cup,” with an Israeli team joining the U.S. teams on a trip to one of the Arab countries, and vice versa.
As he was looking to put together Auburn’s Israel trip last year — likely the first of its kind for a full Division I college or professional team — Pearl said he received an assist from none other than Tamir Goodman, the former Jewish basketball star once known while a college recruit as the “Jewish Jordan.” Goodman would go on to play professionally in Israel.
Goodman helped put Pearl in touch with a number of Jewish donors for potential funding, including Posner.
“It was almost like God put us together,” Pearl said. “He knew what my plan was, and he knew exactly who I needed to meet to make my dream a reality.”
With an eye toward expanding this year’s trip beyond Israel, Pearl said he traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with the UAE’s ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba, to help get the country on board. He also worked with AFI to help find other schools who would be interested in participating. The sports marketing agency Complete Sports Management has also been involved in the planning of AFI’s trips.
NCAA teams are currently allowed an overseas trip once every four years. The University of Connecticut men’s team visited Israel in 1998, and the Toledo women’s team and Wheaton’s men’s team followed suit in 2011 and 2016, respectively.
After the success of Auburn’s trip last year, Posner said AFI looked for top basketball teams “that we thought would be fantastic in being able to relate to their student athletes, not just as coaches, but also as leaders and as people who can be ambassadors for the State of Israel.”
Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd, who said he has been to Israel a few times, called the trip “the opportunity of a lifetime” for his players.
“I think the opportunity to get out there and show them different parts of the world, especially a place of such rich history and culture as Israel, is fascinating,” Lloyd said in a pre-trip Zoom call with reporters.
Neither Arizona nor Kansas State have any known Jewish players. Pearl — whose team last year featured one Jewish player, Lior Berman — said visiting Israel with mostly non-Jews provided a “different impact, but an important one.”
“The best way, in my mind, to battle antisemitism is the truth,” Pearl said. “By our players visiting, they’re going to make their own opinions about Israel.”
Posner and Pearl also collaborated last fall on a Jewish basketball program at Auburn for high school students, as a follow-up to the team’s Israel trip. Posner said AFI is hoping to replicate the experience this year, either with this summer’s teams, or again with Auburn.