YU’s Sarachek: March Madness for Jewish athletes

Sarachek is the country’s most prestigious tournament for Orthodox high school basketball teams.
The Sarachek 2023 Tier I Championship game, (2) Valley Torah vs (5) SAR, March 27, 2023. (YouTube Screenshot: MacsLive)

For many, the annual Red Sarachek basketball tournament is more than just a sports game. 

It’s also an opportunity for Jews across North America to come together in a spirited and lively environment through a shared passion for basketball. For student-athletes, it’s a platform to showcase their basketball skills in a large-scale tournament. 

Hosted by Yeshiva University in New York City, Sarachek is the country’s most prestigious tournament for Orthodox high school basketball teams. Hundreds of student-athletes participate in the four-day competition, as well as hundreds of fans who attend either physically or virtually.

I had an opportunity to attend Sarachek for the first time this year, and spoke with some of the athletes to learn more about the significance of the biggest Jewish high school basketball tournament. Here’s what they told me, but first, let’s explore the history of Sarachek.

How did Sarachek start?

The tournament was named for Bernard “Red” Sarachek, who was YU’s basketball coach and athletic director from 1940 to 1969. He was also a famed mentor of many legendary basketball coaches, of teams like the New York Knicks and St. John’s University.

Sarachek was a highly innovative coach, renowned for his groundbreaking coaching techniques. He designed many creative and effective schemes and plays, which have been implemented by coaches around the country. 

In 1949, as coach of the Scranton Miners, he was the first coach to break the standards of the time and play three African-American all-stars on the court at the same time. For his coaching ability and moral leadership, he was inducted into the NYC Basketball Hall of Fame in 1991. 

To learn more about Red Sarachek (and other well-known Jewish basketball players and coaches), check out “The First Basket,” a 2008 documentary on how professional basketball influences Jewish culture: 

In 1992, YU coach Jonathon Halpert created the Red Sarachek Basketball Tournament to honor Bernard “Red” Sarachek’s legacy and the everlasting imprint he left on the greater Jewish community. 

The tournament began as a recruiting tool to introduce prospective YU students to the Modern Orthodox university. However, Halpert confessed that he only really used this idea of a recruitment tool to convince YU to pay for rented gym space.

His real motivation was to give Jewish high school students the ability to participate in a competitive tournament just like other secular high school students do, he told The Forward

Is Sarachek connected with March Madness?

It is no coincidence that the Sarachek tournament occurs every year right around the same time as the NCAA Division I basketball tournament, March Madness. 

“It feels like March Madness for Jews,” graduated YU basketball legend and current player for the Detroit Pistons’ G League Team, Ryan Turell, explained

While Sarachek is not nearly as large as March Madness, the prestige and honor that comes with winning the tournament is still extremely significant.

Teams spend months practicing for the games, exerting long hours training and discussing strategy, even after their school’s basketball season has ended. 

The games are broadcasted in 4k on YU’s live-streaming platform — MacsLive — with commentators reviewing each game as well as post-game interviews with the athletes. 

In the tournament, each team is placed into one of three tiers, depending on their ranking prior to the games. However, teams have the ability to move up into a higher tier based on the outcome of their first game. 

What does Sarachek mean to players?

When asked about the significance of Sarachek, players had different responses. For some, like Ari Saffra, star point guard for Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva High School, it represents the grand finale of their season, where they can compete and have a good time.

“This is my last dance for basketball as a senior,” Saffra, who helped lead his team to the Tier 3 Championships this year, told Unpacked.

“My goal is to make amends with my whole season. However your season went, you kind of forget about it in Sarachek, and this is an opportunity to end your basketball career how you want it,” he added.

Other players see it as a chance to showcase their skills to recruiters and potential future coaches.

“It’s an opportunity to show all the future coaches and people what kind of player I am and prove all the hard work I put in,” Noam Mayouhas, the star point guard of the Valley Torah Wolfpack in Los Angeles, explained. 

“The atmosphere was so amazing, with so many people watching you play and cheering you on. Being able to represent your school is a great feeling,” he added.

Do girls’ basketball teams take part in Sarachek?

No. Sarachek is a boys-only tournament. I asked some girls who attended the games or are student-athletes themselves if they had anything to say about it.

Talia Tibi, star point guard of Shalhevet High School’s girls basketball team, said she had never thought about girls competing at Sarachek “because throughout my four years in Shalhevet we’ve had our own separate tournament with just girls.” 

The all-girls basketball tournament hosted by Hebrew Academy in Miami “is an alternative to and balances the guys having Sarachek,” she explained. Even though she claimed the girls tournament is “not as hype or as big as Sarachek, it’s definitely still something.”

This year, the Shalhevet girls basketball team made history by becoming the first Jewish school to win a CIF championship:

Mia Kogan, senior point guard on the Katz Yeshiva High School girls basketball team, saw it differently: “A part of me wishes that girls could be involved.” 

Mia said she is grateful for the girls tournaments but that she would love to get the chance to play in a tournament at YU, especially since she is set to attend the university next year.

“YU really takes pride in this tournament and being able to host hundreds of students. So, just as the boys are given an opportunity to be showcased at YU and get involved with their possible future school, I wish that Stern had some sort of similar opportunities for the girls,” she explained.

What happened in the championship game?

Ranked the second seed out of 24 teams, Valley Torah High School (Los Angeles) took home the tier I championship trophy, beating New York City’s SAR Sting, the fifth seed, in a 56 to 48 win. It was Valley Torah’s second consecutive win in Sarachek.

The SAR Sting maintained a steady lead for the first half of the championship game led by the dynamic offensive teamwork of Benny Neuwirth and Akiva Schanzer, even with commendable efforts from Johnny Dan and the rest of the Wolfpack. 

However, with help from Ethan List and Gabriel R’Bibo, Valley Torah were able to pull ahead in the second half of the game. Ariel Kohanteb set up a layup for R’Bibo layup as the final play of the game.

Dan and Mayouhas were named co-MVP’s of Tier I, the first time in the tournament’s 30-year history that the Sarachek committee has given the award to two players.

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