The first National Hillel Basketball Tournament ended two weeks ago in spectacular fashion, with a 53-51 triple-overtime victory for Washington University over Yeshiva in the men's final at Ritchie Coliseum. It began two years earlier as an afterthought.
The seed was planted after Maryland's intramural Dribbler on the Roof three-on-three tournament in 2009, when a playful discussion among friends yielded the idea of inviting Jewish groups from other schools to Maryland for a weekend of basketball.
"Honestly, we thought we could maybe get 10 teams," tournament organizer Rachel Epstein said of the early planning stages. The event far exceeded her expectations, with nearly 250 players from 28 schools competing in 77 games over the weekend of April 9 and 10.
"If I was a freshman looking into the future right now, I would have fainted," Epstein said. "I knew that the idea was going to be something that people were going to be receptive to. The idea is great, but why should they trust us? We're just a bunch of students."
The student-run tournament was envisioned as a fundraiser from the beginning, and in the end it raised more than $23,000 for the participating Hillels and Netanya Hoops for Kids, an Israeli sports-based youth development program that aims to teach life-skills lessons to children through basketball.
Epstein says that the Hillels, Jewish campus-life organizations at colleges around the world, are chronically underfunded and would benefit from greater assistance from the students who use their services.
"I walk into the Hillel all the time," Epstein said. "I use their facilities, I use their programming, but do I ever pay a fee? Do I give dues? No. You know, that's not how Hillel works. They don't really ask us for anything in return, but they need money to operate."
Earlier this year, the tournament organizers were approached by Maryland alumnus David Lasday, the founder of Bring It In — Israel and program director for Netanya Hoops for Kids. He thought his organizations would be appropriate causes for the tournament to support, and Epstein agreed.
"I think it's great for us as American Jewish 20-year-olds to play basketball in this tournament and raise money for Jews in Israel playing basketball," Epstein said. "Bringing kids off the street and into basketball clinics and basketball camps — it's really the ideal cause for this type of event and for all these players that came from across the country."
For Jordana Weinberg, a member of both the tournament board and the victorious Maryland women's team, channeling a portion of the proceeds to Netanya Hoops for Kids was an important factor in her involvement.
"That was a huge part of having the tournament," Weinberg said. "We really wanted to raise awareness about the organization and see what we could do to help out."
Weinberg's Maryland team won the women's side of the finals doubleheader with a 52-19 rout over New York University, but before that game was played, the Ritchie floor was the site of a slower-paced matchup featuring a younger set of players. Judging from the smiles on the faces of the players from KEEN (Kids Enjoy Exercise Now) as they competed, they enjoyed their time on the court at least as much as the tournament participants.
KEEN, which provides free recreational activities for children and young adults with disabilities, was brought into the tournament through the organizers' desire to add a community service element to the proceedings. That the tournament happened to be held during Maryland's Terps Service Weekend made recruiting volunteers to play with the KEEN kids even easier.
On the final day of the tournament, the KEEN kids took in the action as spectators and met some of the players before taking the court for their own game. After they played, each participant received his own MVP certificate in a ceremony on the steps outside the Reckord Armory.
Lisa Rothstein, the tournament representative who ran the KEEN event, said the joy that the KEEN kids displayed was shared by the volunteers who assisted them as they played.
"They loved it," Rothstein said. "I had a great time, and the players who were watching, they wanted to be involved, too. Everybody though it was so fun. It was awesome, and I hope we do it every year when we do the tournament."
Plans are already in the works for next year's event. The second-annual tournament will be played without its founder, as Epstein will be graduating after the fall semester. Even without her guidance, she is sure that the success of next year's tournament will at least equal that of the inaugural event.
"We joke that we can't wait to come back in 30 years and watch our kids play in it," Epstein said. "Hopefully by then it will be in Comcast with over 50 universities playing and raising more money for charity than we can even imagine."