Shaken by War, a Jewish College’s Soccer Team Finds Peace on the Field

The Israeli flag fluttered in a stiff breeze behind the visitors’ bench at SUNY Maritime College in the Bronx last week. It was the first time this year that Israel’s blue-and-white standard had accompanied the Yeshiva University men’s soccer team to a game.

But this was also the first time the Maccabees had played since Israel was attacked by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7, and the players, some from Israel, some wearing kipas on their heads, yearned to demonstrate their patriotism and support for Israel and the Jewish people after a week of crushing rage, anxiety and sorrow.

“During the day I can’t study, I can’t think about anything but watch the news all day,” said Yonaton Reiter, a senior fullback from Sde Yitzhak in Israel. “But during practice, it is the best two hours of the day. It is important to do something different, to smile, at least for a few minutes.”

Like many groups, institutions and families of all kinds in the New York region, Yeshiva, an Orthodox Jewish university in Upper Manhattan, has been shaken by the war in Israel and Gaza. The men’s soccer team, with players from four continents and seven countries, spent the first week of hostilities grappling with their duties as students and athletes amid a flare of heightened emotions.

When news of the attacks broke, the Maccabees, a school nickname derived from the leaders of an ancient Jewish rebel army, were in the middle of a good season. Loaded with talented players from Argentina, Brazil, France, Italy, South Africa, New Jersey, Long Island and Israel, the Macs had a 5-1-2 record in the Skyline Conference, a Division III league made up of New York teams. After losing in the final last year, the Maccabees are bent on winning this year, and earning the school’s first invitation to the N.C.A.A. tournament.

When they met last Monday for practice, Alan Weiss, their first-year head coach, who is also Jewish, addressed the players. He asked how they were faring, and tried to ascertain if they were still capable of dividing their attention between their concerns for loved ones and soccer.

The overriding sentiment was a desire to play on.

“The mood was very serious,” Mr. Weiss said. “It is hanging over everyone. We recognized it, we said prayers, and then we got to work.”

Yonatan Reiter, one of several former Israeli soldiers on the team, has relatives in Israel who are sheltering from the fighting.

Practices and games have mostly provided a diversion from the distress. Some of the players were in Israel last week for the Sukkot holiday, and one could not get a flight back for more than a week. Even players on the team from other countries, a few not even Jewish, feel a strong connection to Israel.

“These guys took me in as their brother,” said Vinicius Giannacini, a graduate student in data analytics from São Paulo, Brazil. “I see what they go through and how they stay positive. It makes me proud to be a part of them.”

Practices have been an important diversion for players who are preoccupied with worry about the war.

Mr. Reiter, one of several former Israeli soldiers on the team, has been in regular contact with family members, who took shelter last weekend as rockets fell on their village, he said. They tell him about what is happening in Israel, and he tells them how the Maccabees, who enjoy a modest following in Israel, are doing. He purchased black armbands for his teammates, emblazoned with the words “Forever in Our Hearts,” and the players vowed to wear them for the rest of the season.

Attendance at practices and games has been strong, but last week two players were absent. One fasted in solidarity with the Israelis. The other, Kfir Slonimski, from Kibbutz Kinneret in Israel, asked for a day off to pray.

Many of the players, tired of being written off as “the Jewish team,” are determined to show that they are capable athletes.

Mr. Slonimski, a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces from 2015 to 2018, said he had considered returning home. For now, he is committed to the Maccabees and his school.

“I feel like I do a lot from here, to represent the university and the Jewish people,” he said. “But it hits really hard.”

A junior midfielder, Mr. Slonimski was recruited from Israel to play soccer at Eastern Oklahoma State College and then transferred to Allen Community College in Kansas before arriving at Yeshiva. Through all that time, he kept his army dog tags with him, but did not wear them. But after the attacks, he put them back around his neck.

Mr. Slonimski and the others say they now play for Israel, for the Jewish people and for one another. But that was mostly the case even before last week.

For many of the players, the team has offered a chance to showcase that they, too, are capable athletes, contrary to the perception of some of their opponents and, to a degree, the world at large.

“People didn’t take us seriously as a program,” said Gabe Einhorn, a junior midfielder from Teaneck, N.J. “‘Oh, they’re just the Jewish team.’ We all felt a chip on our shoulder the past few years. Last year, we went to the conference final and lost on penalty kicks. This year, we want it, badly.”

Some on-field incidents have raised concerns of antisemitism, like last year when an opposing player tried to knock the kipa off the head of a Yeshiva player after a close, heated match. A small scuffle broke out, but no real punches.

“We’re soccer players,” Mr. Einhorn said, “not hockey players.”

Alejandro Saul, a defender from Argentina.
Eli Cohen, Yeshiva’s goalkeeper, with his kipa and tzitzit.

After the final practice of the week on Thursday, Alejandro Saul, a stalwart defender and captain from Argentina, gathered the players in a circle. They draped arms over one another’s shoulders, their heads bowed and eyes watery, as they grieved the death and suffering. Two players mentioned people they knew who died in the attacks. Some players cried. Another led the squad in the appropriate psalms.

Then came the game, as the Maccabees traveled by bus to a field next to the Throgs Neck Bridge on a crisp, sunny day. They wore their blue uniforms and black armbands and some carried pieces of fabric, displaying handwritten slogans in support of Israel, which they intended to flash after goals.

Before the game, the players huddled for more prayers, and the Maritime College public address announcer, at Yeshiva’s request, asked for a moment of silence for those who had died in Israel. Then Josh Ziarno, a junior striker from Long Island and the leading scorer for the Maccabees, gathered the team for an emotional pregame speech.

“We play for the people of Israel,” he yelled to his teammates. “We are honoring them, and every good and decent person in the world who is joining us.”

During the match, Mr. Reiter, who was suspended after receiving a red card in the previous match, texted family members in Israel, who followed the game on their computers.

Alan Weiss, the team’s head coach, said the players wanted to carry on despite the anxious atmosphere. “We recognized it, we said prayers, and then we got to work.”

Mr. Ziarno scored the first goal on a driving long-distance shot, and Yeshiva won, 3-0.

“I’m proud of them,” Mr. Weiss said after Friday’s game. “There is obviously a lot of adversity. Guys with families, friends and comrades they are worried about in Israel. But they came out with a resolve to be focused and play as a tight-knit team, a family.”

The players shook hands with their opponents and then joyfully rehashed the game as they removed their cleats. Their coach called them into another circle and congratulated them. He urged the players to rest up and to continue their strong, inspired and team-oriented play.

Then he told them: “I hope everyone can get some rest and some peace of mind. I wish you guys well and your families well and, God willing, we’ll all come through this stronger on the other side.”

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