Maccabi Ra’anana gets lift from U.S. crowd

Before tipoff, those gathered observed a moment of silence, after which Israeli singer and actress Noa Kirel gave an emotional performance of “Hatikva,” Israel’s national anthem

When the Maccabi Ra’anana basketball team landed in New York City two weeks ago to kick off its preseason exhibition tour across the U.S., all minds were on Israel; making their country proud, representing the skill of Israeli basketball, improving on their game and maybe even recruiting a few American players to join the league. 

Eight days later, as the team readied to play the Brooklyn Nets in their first of three NBA matchups, their minds were still on Israel; this time on the family, friends and neighbors who had been killed, taken hostage or otherwise terrorized since Hamas’ plunged the country into war on Oct. 7 with an attack deadlier than Israel had seen in its 75-year history.

Under normal circumstances, the trip was to serve as a sort of diplomatic excursion, giving American audiences the chance to see how far Israeli basketball has come while also allowing the Maccabi players to test themselves against NBA-caliber talent. But it was transformed into a mixed bag of emotions for the Israeli team, whose players felt split between worlds; still determined to do what they set out to, yet longing to be with their loved ones.

“If I can just describe it in the best way, it’s [like] your body [is] in the States and your mind and your heart is in Israel,” head coach Yehu Orland told Jewish Insider ahead of last Thursday’s game against the Nets. “The mood is really, really sad and tough. It’s hard to focus on basketball at [the] moment, but we are representatives of Israel also, not only our club, and we’re going to do the best out of it.”

No one in Israel has been left untouched by the war, including those with Maccabi Ra’anana, some of whom had been called up as reservists.. One of Orland’s close friends, Eli Ginsberg, was among those killed in the days before the game, during which he wore a shirt that read “R.I.P. Eli. Forever in my Heart.”

Earlier in the month, the team’s chairman, Dror Grabinsky, was anticipating a decent reception come Oct. 12.

Lonnie Walker IV #8 of the Brooklyn Nets drives to the net against Jason Siggers #1 of Maccabi Ra’anana during an exhibition game at Barclays Center on October 12, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

“There’s gonna be a lot of crowds, a lot of Jewish crowds, Israeli crowds, so it’s going to be [an] honor for us to play in front of all these people,” Grabinsky told JI. Speaking before the attacks happened, he couldn’t have sensed what a comfort the assemblage would turn out to be.

Leaving the locker room last  Thursday evening at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the team was met by a sea of supporters. Fans brandished Israeli flags and “New York Supports Israel” signs were passed out by staffers from the American Jewish Committee. Sections of the arena had also been purchased by donors so that as many seats as possible would be filled by Jewish fans.

Before tipoff, those gathered observed a moment of silence, after which Israeli singer and actress Noa Kirel gave an emotional performance of “Hatikva,” Israel’s national anthem. Even after the buzzer sounded, as the game commenced in earnest, Israeli music blared from the loudspeakers between every play.

“It was a nice change of pace from the vigils and the rallies that we’ve been going to for a day or two before, and it was a good change of energy. It was good to support in other ways,” said Nadiv Panitch, who, along with some friends, felt it important to be in attendance.

At first, the idea of taking in a basketball game raised a “moral question” to Panitch, who has family in Israel and who was unsure about going to such a fun and recreational event while the situation abroad was so dire. Once the players decided to continue with the game, however, he saw it as a way to “show that we can’t let terror and fear stop us from living our lives.”

Maccabi Ra’anana lost in the end,135-103, but the scoreboard seemed of little consequence. Much of the team waited around afterwards, waving to the crowd and thanking those closest to the court for their support. Outside, a large group of fans formed a circle at the entrance to Barclays Center. Together, arm in arm, they sang “Am Yisrael Chai” and “Hatikva” among others, wearing the Israeli flag and dancing, creating an impromptu vigil for Israel. 

“There were people with tzitzit and payes, then on the other side of the circle were young girls in crop tops and pants, just like clearly very different kinds of Jews and very different kinds of ideologies and halachic practice coming together to be unified by a shared tragedy,” Sara Heckelman told JI. “All of us were quenching this kind of thirst for community and comfort, and I think we were all just really happy to be there, supporting Israel.”

Maccabi Ra’anana’s final game was played Tuesday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves — before which they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday — but it was that first crowd at Barclays Center that provided the team with a much-needed emotional lift.

“The only support that you can get now that you’re overseas is with each other,” Orland said, “so we are going to do our best to stay together all the time, as much as we can, and support each other.”

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