A Jewish Basketball League of Their Own

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The B'nai B'rith Basketball League in Jenkintown has forged a strong community since it was founded more than 30 years ago.

Three generations of one family are busy working a B’nai B’rith Basketball League game at the Abington Friends School gym on a recent Sunday.
 
Granddaughter Cara Scatena, 17, jots down fouls and game statistics; her father, Carl Scatena, manages the clock and scoreboard; and grandfather Harvey Felt soaks it all in, offering a running commentary on the action.
 
“Bad shots, Eric, bad shots — your team isn’t too good,” Harvey Felt says to his 57-year-old son, Eric, who is coaching from the sideline.
 
Just then, CJ Scatena, Cara’s brother and Eric’s nephew, pushes the ball up the court looking for an open man. He finds a teammate streaking to the hoop and hits him with a precise pass that results in a two-point layup before hustling back to play defense.
“Come on guys, let’s pick it up,” Eric Felt shouts to his team.
 
The advice didn’t do much good as they ended up losing, 58-48. But the final score isn’t as important to the Felt/Scatena clan as the weekly routine of showing up for Sunday morning games — a tradition that started when Eric Felt helped found the adult recreational league in 1980.
 
“Every Sunday, I pick up my father, I pick up his bagel and his coffee, and he watches the game for four-and-a-half hours with me,” says Felt, who lives in Dresher and works in insurance and financial planning. “My nephew happens to be on my team by luck.”
 
Felt started the league at age 23 with Bruce Lefkoe when some of the guys from their B’nai B’rith softball team expressed interest in playing basketball. Hal Bailer came in to help get things running during the league’s first 25 years, and what started as an afterthought morphed into a successful adult league that has managed to keep a high level of enrollment over more than three decades. They currently have eight teams playing in their Sunday league, run by Felt, and six teams apiece in their evening and summer leagues, which are run by Joshua Waters.
 
Participants pay anywhere from $350 to $450 each year to play, $150 of which goes toward lodge dues to the local B’nai B’rith chapter — even though most of them aren’t otherwise involved with the organization and a few aren’t even Jewish. The lodge, one of few remaining local chapters of what was once a dominant Jewish fraternal organization in America, has about 180 members and currently runs its main endeavor, Project Hope, a mitzvah project that helps feed those in need, according to Felt. The rest of the fee covers expenses for renting the high school court and hiring professional referees.
 
From blacks to Israelis, players in their early 20s to their mid-50s, the league has been very inclusive, Felt says.
 
“Our whole concept here was that even though it’s a Jewish organization, the community playing together and hanging out together, to me, is just what the world could be like, and it’s a shame they can’t follow what we do here,” he says.
 
Some of the players, such as CJ Scatena, have literally grown up in the league. Scatena used to help work the scoreboard as a child and now the 24-year-old law student at Widener University is one of the league’s best players.
 
Even though he competes against players he grew up watching as a child, Scatena says he doesn’t feel out of place.
 
“It would be weird not to play,” Scatena says. “I watched these guys in their primes and now I’m having fun playing against them.”
 
Many of the league participants are old-timers. Danny Gross and Al Russ have been player-coaches almost since the beginning of the league, and it was only a couple of years ago that Felt restricted himself to just coaching.
 
And the Felt/Scatena clan isn’t the only one to boast multigenerational connections.
 
Like Scatena, Brett Merves, 32, worked the scoreboard as a child or would play ball outside while his father, Brian Merves, competed. Now, Brett is a core player in the league and says that soon, his 2-month-old son, Matthew, will join the onlookers.
 
“I can’t wait to bring him here,” the Lafayette Hill native says before jumping off the bleachers to warm up for his game.
 
As Felt surveys the league he has built and helped maintain over 34 years, it is clear that he feels at home on the court. But more important, he says, is the role the league has played in building community. Last summer, 150 people showed up to a reunion for anyone who had ever played in the league.
 
“It’s incredible, if we never had this league, how life would have been different for everybody — for all the people who became good friends with each other,” Felt says. “The league is going to be my legacy." 
 

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