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Menschic Warriors

by David Suissa

July 20, 2010 | 7:06 pm

Month after month, a few years ago, my little boy would nudge me. “Daddy, I want to try out for Kaplan,” he’d say. I knew Kaplan was a basketball program in the Hancock Park area, but I knew little else. My boy Noah was already playing for his Maimonides team in his school league, which meant practice every week and a game every Sunday — so why add a whole other layer of practice and games? It’s tough enough to juggle after-school activities for three busy kids; who needs another carpool headache to the other side of town?

Obviously, I hadn’t done my homework. If you’re a Jewish kid in a Jewish day school in Los Angeles, especially an Orthodox school, and you love to play basketball, the name “Kaplan” is like the name “Harvard” to an aspiring MBA candidate — hard to get in, but a dream destination. It’s like in those movies where a player toils in the minor leagues for years and dreams of one day going to “the show” — the major leagues.

Kaplan is the major leagues — in more ways than one.

First, it’s a Jewish team that plays in a non-Jewish league. Which means, forget about the haimish atmosphere of the Jewish leagues, where everybody knows everybody and “the Jews always win.”

Second, it’s really serious. Kaplan basketball isn’t recreation. It’s a passion. This is a reflection of the man who started the program more than 10 years ago.

Beinish Kaplan is a Charedi Jew who grew up on the Lower East Side of New York in the 1950s and 1960s; studied in yeshivas and was a student of the renowned Rabbi Moshe Feinstein; joined the U.S. Army and became a first lieutenant; started a successful garment business in New York before moving to Los Angeles in the 1970s and working in the finance industry; became an active member of Agudath Israel and a volunteer jack-of-all-trades organizer for the Orthodox community; and, through it all, was and remains an absolute, unequivocal basketball nut.

He started his love affair with the game as a kid, playing with his Jewish buddies and African American and Puerto Rican kids on the cement courts of the Lower East Side, rain, snow or shine.

Fifty-some years later, he hasn’t lost one twinkle of that love.

Today, on a strictly volunteer basis, he recruits and coaches seven Jewish teams each year, the kids ranging in age from 8 to 18, in a city league called ARC Basketball. From September to May, covering three different seasons, he runs practices every school night from 6 to 9 p.m. and coaches most of the games himself every Sunday from noon to 7 p.m. in locations as far away as the Santa Clarita Valley.

Catch him on any given Sunday pacing the sidelines during a game, and if not for that black yarmulke on his head, you’d think this was your typical tall, imposing, ultra-serious college coach during the Final Four tournament.

As you might expect, Kaplan puts a lot of emphasis on Jewish midot. He doesn’t tolerate trash talking, arrogance or swagger. His players are competitive but always well behaved or they don’t survive in the program.

There’s another midot Kaplan is known for: his intensity. Kaplan is so intense that he’s been known to scare off some parents. What’s funny, though, is that he rarely scares off the kids. He taps into their love for the game, so they don’t just tolerate his intensity, they see it as their ticket to becoming better players.

And while they do become better players — more often than not, his teams are consistent winners — the coach is after something bigger than basketball. He sees the program as teaching lessons for life. For overprotective parents who worry that their kids might be getting a little soft and could use a little toughness and discipline — in other words, most of us — this is a dream shidduch.

Someone will make a movie one day about Kaplan’s Yiddishe adventure in the inner-city world of serious basketball. I often wonder what goes through the minds of other coaches and players when they hear Kaplan call out plays in Hebrew (“Purim!” is for a high post play, “Cohen 2!” is for a screen and roll, and so on) or when the Kaplan players yell out “hazak ve’ematz!” (“strength and courage!”) before getting on the court.

I can’t tell you what it felt like the day my boy guarded the son of Arsenio Hall. I think I texted half of my family members in Montreal.

It’s all part of the Kaplan experience — never a dull moment. While the program is made up mostly of Orthodox kids, Kaplan welcomes Jewish players from all schools. Some players wear a kippah while playing, others don’t. There’s no controversy here between observant and nonobservant Jews, because all Jews at Kaplan observe the same rules: the coach’s.

Ultimately, Kaplan says, he wants to build “menschic warriors.” These are Jewish boys who will work hard to succeed in life, who will be proud to be Jewish and will defend the Jewish state, who will learn the rules of life and follow them, and, most of all, who will do it with confidence but without swagger and arrogance.

Some of his favorite phone calls are from former players, who are now in college or are married with children, and who call him just to keep in touch or ask for his advice.

“That’s when I know I’m winning,” he says.

David Suissa is the founder of OLAM magazine and OLAM.org. You can read his daily blog at suissablog.com and e-mail him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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