Earlier this summer, Bruce Pearl made headlines in Jewish media with his “Birthright for College Basketball” tour in Israel.
The Jewish head coach took his predominantly Black Auburn University men’s basketball team to his people’s homeland, where they competed in exhibition games against Israeli teams, held a basketball clinic with Tamir Goodman, the “Jewish Jordan,” and visited historic sites.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency described it as “a 10-day Birthright-style trip.” Pearl called it a way to bring people together and, since ESPN aired the games, an “infomercial for Israel.”
On Sept. 13, Pearl, one of the biggest names in college basketball, will visit Philadelphia to talk about the trip.
The coach, who led Auburn to the regular-season SEC championship in 2022 and the Final Four in 2019, will be the keynote speaker at the 5th Annual Athletes Against Antisemitism Gala at the Hilton City Avenue. The event is a fundraiser for StandWithUs, a nonprofit that promotes a pro-Israel agenda and combats antisemitism, according to Paula Joffe, its executive director for the Mid-Atlantic region.
Pearl also is on the board of advisers for Alliance of Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that tries to “improve Black-Jewish relations through programs to combat racism and antisemitism,” according to its website. StandWithUs is a sponsor for Alliance of Trust’s educational series on using sports to fight racism and antisemitism, said David Edman, the Alliance’s co-founder.
“I’m going to open up my heart. There are a lot of things that should bring the Black and Jewish communities together,” Pearl said. “One of the basic ones is we both have survived slavery.”
Pearl took his players to Israel because he wanted them to see that there was not much of a difference between his religious upbringing and theirs in the Christian faith. The group saw both Jewish and Christian sites.
It was an idea that the coach developed when he led the U.S. men’s basketball team to a gold medal at the 2009 Maccabiah Games. But due to COVID and other events, the timing was never quite right, he said.
In 2022, though, it finally was.
“I’m a basketball coach. I’m trying to bring people together. Israel, Jerusalem, should bring everyone together. Not separate us,” Pearl said. “We got something started here.”
Pearl is working with a company called Creative Sports Marketing to bring more teams to the Holy Land in the future. He hopes to include a stop in the United Arab Emirates to teach a lesson about the Abraham Accords, the 2020 treaty organized by the United States between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain that normalized relations between the countries.
The coach’s grandparents were Orthodox. He went to shul with his grandfather in Boston until he was 13 or 14 years old, when his grandfather died. As a college basketball coach, Pearl cannot really be Orthodox today, as it’s hard for him to observe the Sabbath when it happens to be college game day.
But his four kids had b’nai mitzvahs, and he still lights Shabbat candles on Friday nights. He also believes that it’s vital for American Jews to support politicians in both parties who support Israel.
“That’s got to be No. 1. Near or at the top of the list of what matters in American Jewry,” Pearl said. “Without Israel, we could be in trouble.”
Joffe believes that Pearl can provide insight into how to promote Israel to groups outside of the Jewish world, like his team. The Jewish community is finite and small, so it needs allies.
“The cause of fighting hate against Jews, against other minorities, against Israel, cannot rest on a small community,” Joffe said. “We need other people to stand on our shoulders.”
Pearl’s relationship with Edman’s organization began in 2019 when both men were at an educational session with political leaders in Washington, D.C., about U.S.-Israel relations. Edman showed him the proposal for Alliance of Trust, and “he was on board,” Edman said.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2021, Pearl participated in a discussion at an Alliance of Trust event. He talked about how in sports, the color of a person’s skin does not matter. What matters is whether they can play.
“That’s why he’s such a perfect fit as the keynote speaker for an event called Athletes Against Antisemitism,” Joffe said. “These are natural alliances.”
The Sept. 13 gala is StandWithUs’ “major event,” according to Joffe. It is also its first big gala in the region since 2019 due to COVID. StandWithUs is raising money by selling tickets and sponsorships, as well as by holding an auction. JE