Return of an
Israeli Basketball Star
Sheffer, now 38, one of Israel's greatest basketball
players, shared his story of return to religious observance with a group
of Jewish educators. In a speech to a youth group in Jerusalem, Sheffer
recounted his years as a star, the frustrations of losing, the joy of
winning, his cancer, divorce, remarriage - and his long search for "meaning"
that has brought him to observant Judaism.
made his name in Israeli basketball history when he led the Upper Galilee
HaPoel team to the national championship and the European Cup semi-finals,
and he was chosen Player of the Year. In 1993, he played for Connecticut
University in the U.S., where he was named Rookie of the Year. His team
won the Big East championship three years running. In 1996, and he became
the first Israeli player to be chosen by an NBA team (the Los Angeles
Clippers), but he chose to play instead for Maccabi Tel Aviv, which he
helped lead to four consecutive Israel A League championships.
after he was diagnosed with cancer at age 29, Sheffer left basketball
- the first of three announced retirements from the sport. He was operated
on and cured, traveled to India, remarried, moved to Jerusalem, studied
in yeshivot - and now coaches youths in both basketball and Judaism.
return to Judaism began 15 years ago," he told his eager audience
in a quiet, calm voice, "when I read a book called 'Heavenly Prophecy.'
It was written by a non-Jew, and I don't remember much about it, and it
didn't change my life - but it filled me with a sense of peace, serenity,
completeness, and unity. I wanted to touch that point. Little by little,
I began my journey - a journey with no end - via my trip to India, dealing
with cancer, basketball, and ultimately, returning to myself, to Judaism
and to Torah.
grew up in a Kibbutz in a typical secular home," Sheffer recalled,
"with no Torah but with good character traits and manners
our team would lose a game, there was tremendous pressure, tension, difficulties,
frustrations and hurt, but little by little I learned to accept the losses.
Basketball is like music; it can unite and bridge between different people
with different ideas."
his unforgettable memories is "when we were playing in the Upper
Galilee, and at one point, the entire crowd - dati'im [Orthodox
Jews), kibbutznikim, non-Jews, everyone - stimulated by the Chabad Hassidim
standing outside the stadium, all broke out into the song 'Moshiach,
Moshiach, Moshiach.' I'll never forget that."
cancerous growth was discovered in his body, Sheffer said, "it enlightened
me. G-d doesn't give something to someone that he can't deal with. Little
by little, I learned what I can correct in my life. I got down to the
root of the matters; I looked to see what my part in life is. After a
number of months, they operated and removed the growth. I realized the
extent to which pressure and fear are cancers for our lives, and how joy
and patience can make us healthy."
taking practical steps towards Judaism about five years ago when he was
on a spiritual quest in India: "A few of us were sitting around with
guitars, singing Chanukah songs, and for the first time, something inside
woke up; I realized that there was more to it than just songs, and I really
began to connect to the meaning of the holiday. That was the point at
which the Jewish spark arose in me."
to Israel, met his future wife Talia, and moved to Jerusalem in order
to play with Hapoel Jerusalem. "The 'pshat' [simple explanation]
for our move to Jerusalem was basketball," he explained on a different
occasion, "but the 'sod' [deeper meaning] was that it largely channeled
us to a life of Torah. We felt that something big was happening, despite
various crises. I joined a yeshiva of Rabbi Ben-Porat, and I immediately
saw how Torah brought us blessing.
Sheffer sees himself as a disciple of the saintly, late great Rabbi Avraham
Kook, he does not wish to catalogue himself in any specific group. He
regrets the divisiveness that he sometimes sees within religious Judaism:
"The Torah is complete. It's like a tree that can branch off in different
ways, but we must not forget the trunk, the tree itself from which we
all are nourished."
there is a contradiction between Torah and a basketball career, Sheffer
said, "Where there is fear and tension, this could be a sign that
one should not be there. But the Torah is a Torah of life and can be taught
everywhere. There is no reason that one cannot do both,. Others should
be able to respect a religious player's Sabbath observance, as was done
[Adapted from an article by by Hillel Fendel on Arutz Sheva (IsraelNationalNews.com)
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