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Leo Baeck NBA all star event kicks off school’s interfaith efforts

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Group photo with Connecticut Sun WNBA player Chiney Ogwumike
Group photo with Connecticut Sun WNBA player Chiney Ogwumike COURTESY

Amid the glitz and hoopla of NBA all star weekend in Toronto, an event involving Leo Baeck Day School and local Christian and Muslim grade schools was about more than basketball.

Leo Baeck, Holy Rosary Catholic School and Islamic Foundation School took part Feb. 14 in “Building Bridges Through Basketball,” which was meant as a prelude to more formal interfaith educational programs involving the three schools later this year.

Eric Petersiel has been involved with Leo Baeck’s interfaith school program since becoming head of school in 2000.

“We arrange mock seder table settings as our students explain elements of the seder and what Passover is all about,” he said. “There’s a core desire of everyone attending a Jewish day school to learn not only about their own culture and environment, but also to be aware of and understand the world around them. We live in a global economy and environment, and our students need to understand what students of interfaith schools are experiencing in their lives.”

Unnamed student takes part in skills competition
Unnamed Leo Baeck student takes part in skills competition

Petersiel said Leo Baeck contacted Kathy Behrens, the NBA’s president of social responsibility and player programs, about getting involved in all-star weekend as part of the league’s Jr. NBA program.

“Last year during our mock seder program, an informal basketball game occurred in our school gym involving interfaith students. When the opportunity came from Jr. NBA, the three schools were eager to participate.”

Students from the three schools were greeted by Chiney Ogwumike of the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun and Donnie Arey, an assistant coach at Warner University who teaches skills at basketball camps in more than 20 countries.

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“I’ve used basketball clinics to help communities in conflict work together in friendship and promote team building,” Arey said. “During a 10-day 2010 trip to Israel, I held basketball camps with coaches in Ramallah and Bethlehem, and we had a basketball game between Israeli and Palestinian kids from both areas.”

Students participate in NBA all-star interfaith event
Students participate in NBA all-star interfaith event

Ogwumike sees basketball “as a universal language that can be appreciated by people of different cultures. As a team, we treat everyone as family, and the sport brings out the best in people.”

In his introductory remarks, Arey told the kids the session was not only about basketball, “but also making you better people so you, your parents and your teachers learn to grow and develop happily together.”

Boys and girls competed on different courts in a variety of agility exercises and basketball skills sessions taught in the one-hour clinic by Ogwumike, Arey and Muzala Yamfwa, a 2016 NBA All-Star Jr. NBA clinician and a clubs and competition assistant with Ontario Basketball.

Islamic Foundation School teacher Fazila Macci said her Grade 8 students “were excited… and open-minded to meet new people on different levels, through sports. I feel today’s basketball event will help when the interfaith sessions begin. Our students will proudly teach Leo Baeck and Holy Rosary students meanings of aspects of Muslim culture, such as Eid and Ramadan holidays, and wearing the hijab.”

Leo Baeck Grade 7 student Aaron Davis was a key sponsor of his school’s participation in the event, donating a significant portion of his bar mitzvah gift money. “I wanted to give something back to Leo Baeck so our students could enjoy this unique basketball experience, and meet students from the other schools.”

(L-R) Head of School Eric Petersiel, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Aaron Davis, Richard Davis, and Joe Forberg
(L-R) Head of School Eric Petersiel, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Aaron Davis, Richard Davis, and Joe Forberg

Richard Davis said he was very proud of his son, “who stepped up in leadership with his generous donation. Aaron’s sponsorship was based on using sports for good things, beside sports. Our family strongly support this interfaith initiative, which shows how different cultures share many similarities.”

Leo Baeck south campus vice-prinicipal Seth Goldsweig said the skills session highlights included “learning the game of basketball, or learning new skills to develop their game, as well as enjoying meeting a WNBA player, seeing former NBA players [including four-time champion Horace Grant] and current NBA players [including NBA rookie star Minnesota Timberwolves Karl-Anthony Towns], and meeting people from the other schools.”

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He acknowledged there wasn’t much time for students from the three schools to get to know one another at the event, “but seeing a familiar face in future makes all the difference. Many of the students had this common experience, so when they see each other at the upcoming interfaith meetings they can start by saying ‘Hey, remember when we played basketball together and…’ Our students are looking forward to getting to know their Holy Rosary and Islamic Foundation school peers at future interfaith events.”