Jewish academies get rivalry on big stage

Posted: February 23, 2014

The tiny gym at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy doesn't have any bleachers. Truth be told, there would be little use for them anyway.

The crowds for basketball games at the school's Bryn Mawr campus often can be counted on a few sets of hands.

One Saturday night a year, though, they ring the floor with chairs two-deep, and the referees look the other way as a throng crams in behind the baskets. Even then, there's usually not enough room for everyone who wants to see.

The occasion that transforms this small, academically rigorous school into a scene out of Friday Night Lights is a visit from its neighbor, religious cousin, and constant rival, Kohelet Yeshiva.

"The Barrack-Kohelet game is a spectacle unto itself," Kohelet Yeshiva athletic director Josh Friedman said.

When the schools meet Monday, however, no one will worry about being turned away. Their boys' and girls' basketball teams will play at the Wells Fargo Center in a doubleheader beginning at 1:30 p.m.

The game originally was scheduled as part of the 76ers' Jewish Heritage Night. Even though that promotion moved to mid-March, after the high school season, the schools were able to keep the original date.

Like all good rivalries, this one is built on familiarity.

The schools overlap in the Jewish community, and many of the players attend synagogue together or have family and friends on the other side. But they also have distinct identities.

Barrack Hebrew is older and larger, with nearly 350 students in grades six through 12. It's a pluralistic school, accepting students from many Jewish denominations.

Kohelet Yeshiva, which occupies Barrack Hebrew's old campus in Merion, is a Modern Orthodox institution of about 150 students in grades nine through 12.

"If you're looking to go to a Jewish school in this area, you typically choose between these two," Barrack senior basketball captain Jacob Reich said.

Neither is a traditional athletic powerhouse, and that only magnifies the importance of their contests against one another. This is their version of a state title.

"As Jewish schools with sports teams that play non-Jewish schools, we feel like we have to prove ourselves," said Sophia Shoulson, a senior on the Barrack girls' team. "So when we play each other, we feel that even more so."

And it couldn't be closer. The boys' teams split their first two games this season. Reich, who has been going to the games since sixth grade, believes the series is tied over the last eight seasons.

"For the boys, it's very similar," Reich said. "We're all vertically challenged. We don't have too many dunkers. It's fundamental basketball."

Monday's turn on the big stage comes when both schools are working to beef up their athletic programs. Both schools have recently hired young, ambitious athletic directors.

Friedman, 26, who is also the boys' basketball coach, is a California import via Yeshiva University in New York.

Justin Cooper, 30, came to Barrack from Doane Academy in Burlington, N.J., where he spent seven years as athletic director. When the former Temple baseball player arrived at Doane, the athletic programs were basically at an intramural level. Today, its boys' basketball team routinely knocks off larger public schools in South Jersey.

Cooper believes Barrack Hebrew can make a similar leap.

Monday's games might not be as bitterly contested as most between the schools. With a crowd of nearly 1,000 expected - Kohelet Yeshiva plans to bring its entire school - Cooper would like to see everyone get a chance to play.

"It's such a healthy rivalry. We're all friendly, it's tradition, and we have a lot in common," Shoulson said. "It's a win-win no matter who loses."

That made Reich nearly jump from his chair in Cooper's office.

"No, no," he protested. "We want to win."


tmcmanus@philly.com

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