The Yeshiva men’s soccer team did not earn its first-ever NCAA tournament berth this fall. The Maccabees did not win the Skyline Conference championship, falling in the semifinals to No. 2 seeded Farmingdale State College, 2-1, earlier this month. But what they did over the second half of the season was far more impressive than attaining postseason glory.
Against the backdrop of the horrific situation in Israel that continues to haunt many team members, players, and coaches alike, the Maccabees demonstrated steely resolve in reeling off one of the better regular seasons in program history (5-4-3) this fall under first-year head coach Alan Weiss, who was hired in August when a last-minute opening popped up, merely weeks before the season kicked off.
“It’s a combination of the fact that we have very talented players and there’s a very impressive level of commitment,” Weiss, formerly a four-year starter for Tufts University who went on to serve as head coach of the Frisch School Boys’ Varsity Soccer program, commented when speaking to the Atlanta Jewish Times after Yeshiva beat St. Joseph’s University Long Island in the opening round of the Skyline Conference championship, their final win of the 2023 season.
Being a Yeshiva varsity soccer player presents considerable challenges in and of itself. Weeknight practices – held in New Jersey on the other side of the George Washington Bridge from the school’s Upper Manhattan campus — typically don’t wrap until 11 p.m. (Even at this late hour, interstate traffic on the bridge can prove cumbersome.) The exceptionally late practice times are a function of the exceptionally long school days comprised of a rigorous dual curriculum. Often, the players don’t return to their dorms until midnight with the hopes of catching a little shuteye before repeating the same routine.
“It’s a very tough schedule and they’re on board. They’re really happy to do it,” added Weiss.
Then came the Oct. 7 attacks. Several of the Yeshiva players who hail from Israel personally know members of the Israel Defense Forces; others know of neighbors and townsfolk who have been abducted and murdered. Some have relatives and friends living in Israel, trying to keep a semblance of normalcy in their cherished, war-torn homeland. Everyone has been glued to CNN for the past five-plus weeks.
“There’s a lot of sadness and sleepless nights,” acknowledged Weiss, whose two daughters had been in Israel but have since returned home. “I think many of us as Jews are heavily emotionally affected by what’s happening in Israel. Many of the guys on the team are affected by this.”
Last month, the New York Times ran a profile of the Maccabees’ perseverance and ability to find solace on the soccer field. One of the most poignant remarks came from Yonatan Reiter, a senior fullback from Sde Itzhak, who once served in the Israeli army.
“During the day I can’t study, I can’t think about anything but watch the news all day. 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.”
For their on-field achievements, the Maccabees had reason to smile this autumn. Following a 3-0 drubbing of The College at Old Westbury on Sept. 21, the Maccabees had a sparkling 5-0-2 conference record and were bent on punching the program’s first-ever ticket to the NCAA tournament.
Though Yeshiva was ultimately derailed from achieving the lofty goal — according to Weiss, “for me, it’s a very big goal to be the first team to make the NCAA tournament” — a scrappy team with members from Argentina, Brazil, France, Italy, South Africa, New Jersey, Long Island, and Israel came really close to avenging last year’s loss in the championship game of the Skyline Conference tournament.
“We know that the Jewish people are going through a lot right now,” said Weiss, who went to a Tenafly, N.J., high school, an alum of which was taken hostage by Hamas. “The soccer team has just given us an opportunity to escape that a little bit and unify as a team of Jews from all around the world and feel that bond and connection during these tough times.”
Naturally, the connections to Israel and the global Jewish community run deep for the Maccabees. While all of the undergrad players identify as being Jewish – leading scorer Josh Ziarno is a junior striker from Long Island, starting goalkeeper Eli Cohen is a graduate of Beth Tfiloh (Pikesville, Md.), veteran midfielder Kfir Slonimski grew up on Kibbutz Kinneret in Israel and was a soldier in the IDF from 2015-18 – there are three grad students (all starters) who do not belong to the Jewish community, one of whom is Vinicius Giannacini, a native of São Paulo, Brazil, studying data analytics and visualization when he’s not holding down Yeshiva’s midfield.
During the day I can’t study, I can’t think about anything but watch the news all day. 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.
“We care for one another,” reiterated Weiss about his team, one represented by seven countries, four continents, and one overarching mission. “If we have family that’s in Israel – it doesn’t always even have to be Israel, it could be a family member who’s sick or something like that – we will daven mincha together as a team. We’ve definitely drawn strength from each other that way.”
Though Yeshiva did not end up playing deep into November, as had been the hope, Weiss is looking ahead to the Maccabees contending next autumn – a development that will hopefully play out amidst a vastly different geopolitical situation in the Middle East.
“G-d willing, we will make that tournament and once we do, we are definitely not done,” Weiss made a point of saying. “Making the [NCAA] tournament is the first stage of the goal, but we also want to have success on that level as well.”
- NCAA soccer
- David Ostrowsky
- Yeshiva men’s soccer team
- Skyline Conference
- Farmingdale State College
- Alan Weiss
- Frisch School
- Tufts University
- St. Joseph’s University Long Island
- Israel Defense Forces
- Yonatan Reiter
- Sde Itzhak
- The College at Old Westbury
- Josh Ziarno
- Eli Cohen
- Beth Tfiloh
- Kfir Slonimski
- Kibbutz Kinneret
- Vinicius Giannacini