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Community On The Court

In the inter-denominational Jewish Basketball League, hoop dreams and values come into play.

Westchester Correspondent
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Jeffrey Kapelus was on the verge of stepping away from his intense involvement with the Jewish Basketball League in Westchester about five years ago, when his twin son and daughter were about to age out of the program. That was his intention, until the then-rabbi of his Young Israel of Scarsdale synagogue, the late Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein, took him aside after services one day and said, “You get it. Don’t ever stop doing this.”

What Kapelus, a resident of New Rochelle and executive recruiter, has developed during the past decade is a hoops league for young children that focuses as much on identity, good sportsmanship, learning the sport and developing friendships as on the games themselves. There aren’t too many leagues where a professional referee takes a timeout to tie a player’s shoelace, or gently turn around a youngster who’s heading towards the wrong basket.

“We’re one big community,” said Kapelus, who views his mission as much about building a countywide Jewish community as developing a love of basketball. “I want [the young players] to be good sports, and to have a positive social message. This is one of the only places that bring everybody together. If you’re a Jewish kid in Westchester, this is where you want to go. This is part of the fabric of Jewish life.”

The program is open to children from kindergarten through fourth grade, for boys, and from kindergarten through sixth grade, for girls, before the synagogue league starts. The league plays at the Hartsdale Solomon Schechter school Sunday mornings from mid-November through mid-March, and includes students from Schechter, SAR in Riverdale, Westchester Day School, Windward (an independent school for students with language-based learning disabilities) as well as local public schools.

Kapelus, whose older son had also participated in sports, wanted to offer a different experience from the usual youth sports program. Instead of having parents as coaches, he hired professional coaches who run instructional classes, as well as high school and college students as coaches. Children usually have two or three friends they already know on the team, for their comfort, said Kapelus. “I want to make the teams fair, so there’s a competitive balance of weak and strong players, as well as a mix of kids from different schools.”

Danielle Lerner, whose 6-year-old son attends Westchester Day School, enrolled him in the Jewish Basketball League when they moved from the city last year.

“He wasn’t such an athletic boy,” she said, adding that her 4-year-old daughter can’t wait until she’s old enough to participate. “This is teaching him the fundamentals. The social piece is great. Why should it just be Westchester Day School? There’s no reason not to be social with other Jewish children.”

Given the high-pressure environment of so many suburban sports leagues and travel teams, with intense and competitive parents, there’s something distinctive about a league where “they’re learning how to play basketball, and see parents cheering for the other team,” said Leslie Levin of White Plains. Levin’s elder son, Nathaniel, aged out of the Jewish Basketball League this year, but his second-grade son is involved in the program. “It’s a really great environment. Parents know this is not going to be the training ground for the NBA. They want them to have fun, and to have Jewish values.”

There were other specific benefits for Nathaniel, who had started at Schechter before switching to Windward. By being part of the Jewish Basketball League even after he left Schechter, “he could maintain his friendships with the Schechter kids,” said Levin. “He got some of his Windward friends to join, and both were integrated on the basketball court. Playing with other Jewish kids is important. He could see that he didn’t need to be at a Jewish school to have a Jewish identity.”

Even more heart-warming was seeing Nathaniel shine as a basketball player. As Levin said, “He excelled on the basketball court. For him to have that role, his self-esteem shot through the roof.”

For Kapelus, developing positive values is a major mission. To a large degree, he’s continued his work with the JBL in honor of the late Rabbi Rubenstein and his wife, Debbie Rubenstein. Each year the JBL gives a Rubenstein Memorial Coaching Award to the coach in each division who exemplifies such core values as teamwork, character, patience, sportsmanship, integrity and inclusiveness, among others.

As Levin said, “Jeff comes at it from a menshlicheit point of view. I think it’s warm and nurturing and supports Jewish values. It brings together the whole Westchester Jewish community.”

For more information about the league, check out:

Last Update:

04/09/2014 - 14:28
Jeffrey Kapelus, Jewish Basketball League
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my daughter's trophy broke on trophy day and Jeff assured us he would get her a replacement. well, he just called to say he's dropping by to deliver it in person. what a nice guy, what a nice gesture , he really does care. kol hakavod

Trophy Day was fantastic. My son loves his trophy and loved his final day of playing..he is a much better player now than when the season began. he also has more confidence. Jeff's touching and humorous speech drove home the true meaning of the league, especially his reference to the Rubenstein Award. Jeff handed out a lot of thank-yous, but I want to use this opportuntity to thank him..Great season, wonderful program

Great article. A league like JBL led by a guy like Jeff is needed in every Jewish community. Some of the other comments hit the nail on the head: It's well-run, brings all types of Jews together, and Jeff CARES and works his butt off. Last year and this year, JBL added new bonus clinics; theyre fantastic..thanks for the article

Hi- My nephew has been in JBL for 4 years. Ive met jeff a bunch of times and witnessed about half of the games over the past 4 years. Yes, he seems like a good guy and yes, im sure the values and Jewish connection and tribute to Rabbi rubenstein etc are all wonderful and found nowhere else. But what struck me is the basketball portion. Even if these other things didnt exist at JBL, the games are exciting and fun. My nephew had a bonus instruction hour with his team, and it was run by 2 professional coaches who were doing all types of drills that were unbeliveably cool. Kids were zigzagging up and down the court, cones and colored markers were used, it was like a professional basketball camp. It was great, it was organized it was fun and he came out a better player.Yes, great story, great values, but dont let it overshadow the basketball!! My nephew loves this program-for the basketball!!

This sounds like a great program. Does anyone know when the seasons ends, I would love my kids to join. my neighbor has kids who play in JBL, she loves the drills and the close games. Powerful article

Great article..Jeffrey seems to be a wonderful role model and like the Rabbi said to him" he gets it"

What a terrific story. Its nice to know that our young athletes are in good hands and learning valuable life lessons and good midot while learning basketball and playig a sport. So much is wrong in our society and so many coaches and leagues are going about things the wrong way and setting poor exampples.. Thanks for the article, thanks for the story, thanks for restoring my hope..I wish my kids were still young enough to play for jeffrey

As a longtime participant in JBL- 4 kids over 9 years- I appreciate the article. Jeff runs a well-organized league, perhaps the tightest ship Ive ever seen in kid sports leagues. In a nutshell, he CARES. The instructional clinics are great, the drills are professionally run, and the games are competitive and fun. a few of the coaches are professional coaches all year round and do this for a living. Jeff and the coaches have put a great program together..The league is great for beginners to learn fundamentals, but its also great for the talented kids who are strong players. If youre a parent in Westchester and want a great environment for kids to learn basketball and play basketball under the watchful eye of Jeff, JBL is the place..congrats to jeff, the positive press is well-deserved

In addition to the positive social values, the basketball portion of the program is top notch. The professional coaches run superior clinics,and the drills and pre-game instruction are great and professionally run.

Some JBL participants also attend Carmel Academy, Ramaz and public schools in Purchase and New Rochelle as well as the schools listed in the article.

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