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Tamir Goodman’s Unorthodox Journey in the Jewish Faith

By Jspace Staff on 2/25/2013 at 4:57 PM

Sometimes, You Just Know

People say life is all about the journey. That each of us is here for a reason, and that we are supposed to learn lessons along the way to becoming who we are meant to be. Tamir Goodman is the epitome these values, in both his basketball and Judaism. He has been through a very interesting journey so far.

Sometimes, a person is born with a certain passion, one that is present at such an early age it cannot be ignored. When Goodman was about six, he watched his older brother play basketball on the way home from school. He fell in love with the sport immediately.

Around that same time, Goodman realized that basketball was more than just a hobby. He was playing against his brothers, and they lost. Goodman got so upset, that his brothers had asked their mother, Chava, to talk to him. They said it was “just a game.” Goodman disagreed. “I told my mother it wasn’t just a game,” he recalls.

Both parents did what they could to allow their son to pursue his dreams, while teaching him that Jewish values were just as important, combining the physical with the spiritual. “They always showed us by example,” he remembered.

At one game, little Goodman scored the winning shot, and celebrated by running around, and jumping up and down. He was later instructed by his father to be more humble, as Jewish people should be. “It’s not you, it’s Hashem,” his father told him. Goodman says that if anything, basketball made him closer to his faith, and agrees with his father that it was given to him “as a gift.” “Judaism taught me how to deal with things in life, and it came alive through basketball,” he adds.

14 Years Ago, This Month

By the time Goodman was a teen, his passion and dedication paid off in a feature in Sport Illustrated. Tamir was dubbed the “Jewish Jordan” by the magazine. Fourteen years later, he looks back: “You can’t really understand it at 17, cause you don’t that much about life, the world, and media. Back then, right before the Internet, an article really meant something. Even today, people come up to me and recognize me from the article.”

But true to his father’s words Goodman remained humble. “It was never about me. I thought, ‘How can we do something good with this? How can I inspire people?’ I never thought I was a great player, I was just as simple as can be.”

Goodman had always wanted to play college ball, but he kept his faith by not practicing or playing on Shabbat or Jewish holidays. Though it was not an easy task, Goodman made it happen at Towson University, where he made history as the first Jewish player to play D-I basketball without playing on the Sabbath or other holidays.

The team’s head coach, Mike Jaskulski, chose to make Goodman the team’s starting point guard, which was the first time in 11 seasons that the starting spot was filled by a freshman. In a September 16, 2009 interview with the Baltimore Sun newspaper, Coach Jaskulski reflected on this decision: “I don’t think I ever had as much confidence in a player running the team as a freshman as I did in Tamir.” Tamir won the Coach’s Award for best performance on and off the court, but he still had his sights set on playing ball in Israel.

Another Journey

Coach David Blatt made a trip from Israel to put Goodman through a tryout in at Chelsea Piers in NY, and when he liked what he saw, he went on to sign him to Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Goodman dropped out of school to move to Israel. “I always dreamed about moving, I wrote in my yearbook that was my dream. I loved it. It was my dream-come-true. I loved every minute. I met my wife Judy in Israel,” he says.

“I felt the strong connection to the people [of Israel], although I was very different from most of teammates. I was able to unite people, and break down the barriers—like inviting the American non-Jews to Shabbat dinner and stuff,” Tamir recalls.

It was also easier to practice his faith in the Jewish state. “Kosher food, Shabbat and all obviously in Israel is not an issue, and was much easier. On the other hand, the Israelis would ask me very deep questions, and I felt I had to answer them. A lot of them never really had a religious relationship, and via communication we learned from each other.”

Goodman enjoyed a few years of pro-ball in the Israeli league, playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv, Givat Shmuel and Haifa, until he could not overcome a knee injury. Although he struggled with not being able to play the game he loved, he was able to find hidden blessings in the injuries. “The struggle made me start to think—how can I still help people through basketball without playing?”

New Dreams

The first thing Goodman did was turn to doing workshops with children. “It turned out to be a very big blessing for me.” That same calling was what eventually brought Goodman and his wife back to the US in 2009. Jeff Rosen, owner of Maccabi Haifa and organization Haifa’s Hoops for Kids offered Goodman a permanent position as Director where his role was to craft basketball initiatives that featured a partnership between disadvantaged Israeli children and American volunteers. Through basketball, the lives of the Israeli children were enhanced while the Americans fostered a strong connection to Israel and its people.

Over the past year, Goodman has partnered with Omri Casspi and together the two have run basketball camps for children. “We played against each other in Israel,” Tamir recalls. “When he [Omri] got traded to Cleveland, we connected, met up and I think he really was special, the way he likes working with the kids. He never has a day off because he always does something to give back. I had already been running a few camps, so it was natural move.” Goodman and Casspi will be presenting two weeklong camps this summer, one in Englewood, NJ and the other in Boston for kids in elementary, middle and high school.

Tamir has also started his own company, Sports Strings, an idea that came to him thanks to his own experience trying to combine his sports with his faith. “When I was growing up, most people didn’t play with a tzitzit,” he says. When he questioned why, the main answer he got was that it “is holy, and you shouldn’t sweat all over in them.” When he played in college, he would take his tzitzit off in the locker room.

Moving to Israel to play pro-ball changed everything for Goodman when he met assistant coach Dror Ozery, who asked him why he took off his tzitzit. From that day on, Tamir decided to always wear his tzitzit. He kept wearing them even when he trained for the IDF. Goodman remembers it being “very uncomfortable,” and having to change them all the time “cause they got ruined.” That experience and complaints of a rash by other observant IDF soldiers initially sparked the idea for Sports Strings. “When I was done playing, I told my wife that I am going to do this. It took about two years, but now we have a great product. In the Torah it says: ‘veasu lahem tzitzit’—and that is what I did.”

In addition to Sport Strings, Tamir is a sought after motivational speaker throughout the US, and is the Founder and Director of Coolanu Israel, a non-profit organization that uses basketball as a tool to educate both coaches and players about Judaism and Israel while strengthening participants’ basketball skills in a positive environment. He is currently using the same values in a book he is writing.

“It is a book on basketball from a physical, mental and spiritual point of view,” Tamir explains. “It is a guide to help athletes reach their potential and become complete players by developing their physical, mental and spiritual capacities.”

The book combines personal stories from Goodman’s journey, practical advice and lessons that he calls “relevant to players when they are on the court and off of it.”

After retiring from basketball, among other endeavors, Goodman has also returned back to school, and recently finished his degree in communications. He also started a family. He lives with his wife Judy, and their four children: Oriyah, 8; Matanel, 5; Tiferet, 3; and Yahav, who is just a year old. “I am living my life to the fullest, thank G-d it really worked out,” Goodman sums up his journey.

Becky Griffin is an Israeli-American television journalist living in New York. A basketball and music lover, Becky can be found on Twitter at @DorothyofIsrael.