(JTA) — The clock has run out on 2021, and in the world of Jewish sports, it’s been an exciting year.
From a very Jewish World Series to inspiring performances in the Olympics and Paralympics, Jewish athletes and teams accomplished impressive feats across sports and around the world.
For the Jewish Sport Report, we scoured through a year’s worth of highlights, news and kvelling to pick our top 10 moments. It wasn’t easy, and some big milestones — like Marvin Miller’s Hall of Fame induction on Rosh Hashanah and Dolph Schayes’ being named one of the NBA’s best ever — didn’t make the cut.
We would also be remiss not to mention a few important Jews who hung up their cleats — or sneakers, or microphones — in 2021.
- In April, three-time Super Bowl champion and Super Bowl LIII Most Valuable Player Julian Edelman retired from the NFL.
- In May, broadcasting legend Marv Albert retired after decades as one of the NBA’s most well-known announcers.
- In July, Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the NBA, retired from basketball after a long and successful career in both the NBA and in Israel.
- In September, Ryan Braun, who slugged more home runs than any Jewish player in baseball history, announced his retirement.
Now here are the top 10 Jewish sports moments of 2021.
10. Greg Joseph’s game-winning kick against the Green Bay Packers
With seconds to go in a tied game between the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings, Greg Joseph stepped up and made a clutch field goal, winning the game. Joseph, 27, is the NFL’s only Jewish kicker, and is having something of a breakout season in his third professional season.
He grew up in South Africa and Boca Raton, attending Jewish day schools until high school. The week before his game-winning kick, Joseph chatted with JTA about his love for the Jewish community.
– Emily Burack
9. Deni Avdija becomes a defensive force
Deni Avdija earned many American Jewish fans when he was drafted ninth overall by the Washington Wizards in the 2020 NBA draft, the highest ever pick for an Israeli basketball player. But although he showed flashes of promise in his rookie season, it was cut short by an ankle injury.
So far this season, the 6-foot-9 20-year-old has started to turn heads with his play, in an unexpected way: on defense. He’s been described as “one of the most versatile defenders on the Wizards” and a “defensive stopper,” and has been called on to defend some of the league’s biggest stars, such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James.
And as a bonus for Jewish fans, he has become a proud ambassador of Jewish and Israeli culture throughout the league.
– Gabe Friedman
8. Adam Fox wins the Norris Trophy
The NHL has a historically good group of Jewish players right now. From top-draft-pick brothers Jack and Quinn Hughes to the proudly and publicly Jewish Zach Hyman, there’s a lot to be excited about right now as a Jewish hockey lover. But the Jewish highlight of last season goes to New York Rangers Jewish defenseman Adam Fox, who in June was awarded the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the league’s best at his position. Fox earned the honor by leading NHL defensemen with 42 assists and finishing second in total points with 47. He also was recognized as first team all-league.
– Evelyn Frick
7. Ian Seidenfeld’s upset at the Paralympics
At the 1992 Barcelona Paralympic Games, Jewish athlete Mitchell Seidenfeld won the gold medal in table tennis. This past summer, his son Ian Seidenfeld followed in his footsteps to take home the table tennis gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games, upsetting defending champion Peter Rosenmeier of Denmark.
Ian’s gold medal was part of an incredible showing for Jewish athletes at the Paralympics. Israeli swimmer Mark Malyar won gold in the 400-meter freestyle race in the S7 category and in the men’s 200-meter individual medley in the SM7 category — breaking his own world record in the latter race; para rower Moran Samuel, also from Israel, took home a silver medal in the arms only single sculls event; and Australian swimmer Matt Levy won a gold medal in the Men’s 4×100 m Freestyle 34 pts event and a bronze in the Men’s 100 m breaststroke SB6.
– Evelyn Frick
6. Diego Schwartzman won his hometown Argentina Open
Argentine Jewish tennis star Diego Schwartzman won his hometown Argentina Open for the first time this year, and it clearly meant a lot to him.
“I’m very happy, I wanted to play well today, the atmosphere was spectacular,” Schwartzman said while crying after the match. “I haven’t words, just emotion and happiness.”
It was an emotional year overall for Schwartzman. He grew up playing at the Hacoaj Jewish community center in Tigre, a city in the Buenos Aires province. In December, the center named their center court after him. The sign there now reads “Born and raised in Hacoaj. Top 10 tennis worldwide (2020). Olympic representative. Member of the Argentina’s Davis Cup team. Talent, perseverance, Jewish values, humility. A symbol and the pride of Hacoaj.”
Schwartzman, the world’s best Jewish tennis player right now, had a strong season, ending the year ranked at no. 13 in the world. He won $1.7 million in prize money this year, and made it deep in the French Open (before losing in the quarterfinals to Rafael Nadal). He also played in his first Olympics.
– Emily Burack
5. Linoy Ashram becomes the first Israeli woman to win gold
Also in Tokyo, Israeli gymnast Linoy Ashram made history, by the narrowest of margins.
The 22-year-old won gold in the all-around rhythmic gymnastics competition, breaking a streak of Russian gold medalists since the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Ashram narrowly beat out her Russian competitor, scoring just .15 of a point higher than Dina Averina. The Russian Olympic Committee called the result an “injustice” and submitted an official inquiry. But the International Gymnastics Federation dismissed any allegations of unfair judging.
Ashram became the first Israeli woman to ever win a gold medal, and an instant celebrity in her native country.
“I was especially proud of the fact that I could prove to others that even though this sport [has been] dominated by Eastern Europeans, I could win it and I could bring something new to it,” Ashram told JTA.
– Emily Burack
4. Yeshiva University’s winning streak
It’s the longest current winning streak in college basketball, and, at least on paper, one of the unlikeliest: The Maccabees of Yeshiva University, a Modern Orthodox school in New York City, have won 50 straight games, dating back to 2019.
Several COVID pandemic waves and one cancelled NCAA Division III tournament later, the Macs were finally recognized throughout the sports world this year, from ESPN to the NBA — to their own campus, where the words “basketball” and “powerhouse” used to never be used in the same sentence.
“Games were pretty much empty. Now, with the win streak, if you’re not there a half hour before gametime, you’re not getting a seat,” one fan recently told the New York Jewish Week.
– Gabe Friedman
3. The first two Orthodox Jews drafted into the MLB
“Why can’t I be the first?” Jacob Steinmetz asks.
Steinmetz, 17, made history in July when he became the first observant Orthodox Jewish player drafted into Major League Baseball. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound pitcher was selected 77th overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the third round.
Just a day later, he was joined by Elie Kligman, who was taken in the 20th round by the Washington Nationals. The 18-year-old switch-hitter can play catcher and shortstop, and has thrown the ball 90 miles per hour as a pitcher.
Steinmetz keeps kosher and observes Shabbat, though he does pitch on the Sabbath. To avoid using transportation on Shabbat, he has booked hotels close enough to games that he can walk to them
Kligman does not play on Shabbat, telling The New York Times, “That day of Shabbas is for God. I’m not going to change that.”
The two prospects had not met prior to being drafted, but have since gotten to know each other. Earlier this month, the pair attended a Yeshiva University basketball game. Steinmetz’s father happens to be the team’s coach.
– Jacob Gurvis
2. Sue Bird wins her fifth Olympic Gold medal
Jewish basketball legend Sue Bird headed to her fifth Olympics this summer in Tokyo, and took home her fifth gold medal — becoming, alongside teammate Diana Taurasi, the only basketball players (men’s or women’s) ever to achieve that feat.
Bird, 40, also became the oldest basketball player to win gold. She said in a post-game interview that this Olympics would be her last.
If that wasn’t enough, Bird also served as the Team USA flag bearer at the opening ceremony.
The ceremony was big for Jewish athletes in other respects: for the first time, the ceremony honored the Israeli athletes murdered in Munich.
Bird was one of many Jewish athletes who competed at the Olympics, and one of six Jews who won gold. Other notable wins included Ashram; Australian paddler Jessica Fox, who won gold in canoe slalom, an event that was newly open to women because of her advocacy; Israeli gymnast Artem Dolgopyat won gold on the men’s floor exercise; and American volleyball star Alix Klineman clinched the gold with her partner April Ross in women’s beach volleyball.
– Emily Burack
1. Jews in the World Series
The 2021 World Series between the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves was historically Jewish, and no moment better encapsulated that fact than a seemingly mundane sequence in the second inning of the Braves’ decisive Game 6 victory.
Astros slugger Alex Bregman stepped up to the plate, slicing Braves ace Max Fried’s second pitch to right field, where Joc Pederson easily caught the ball for out number two. On the scorecard, the flyout was insignificant. But to Jewish fans, the play showcased three Jewish players performing on the sport’s biggest stage.
Backup catcher Garrett Stubbs also made Houston’s roster, bringing the total number of Jewish players in the Series to four.
Fried stood out with his performance, dominating a talented Astros lineup and overcoming a potentially serious injury to pitch six shutout innings in the Braves’ series-clinching victory. Just days later, Fried won his first Silver Slugger award and second Gold Glove.
Throughout the postseason, Pederson, nicknamed “Joctober” for his track record of playoff success, took the league by storm with his clutch hitting and his flashy pearl necklace. Pederson has now won two straight World Series.
– Jacob Gurvis