Zack Rosen, a basketball player for Maccabi Ashdod B.C. of Israel, didn’t grow up religious. From Colonia, in the Woodbridge Township of New Jersey, he’s now trying to make up for lost time this summer in New Jersey, as he learns part-time and stays in shape.
When Rosen played for the University of Pennsylvania, he met Modern Orthodox Jews for the first time. Two guys at Penn would come to his game, and they assumed he was Jewish based on his last name. They invited him to hang out with them, and, after the season, he took them up on their offer, joining them for Purim on campus.
Rosen was basketball gold at Penn. As a freshman, he immediately moved into the starting lineup, averaging 8.5 points and 5.0 assists per game. At the close of his first season, he was named Philadelphia Big 5 rookie of the year. From there, Rosen became a fixture on the All- Ivy team, earning first team honors as a sophomore, junior, and senior.
Penn’s first three-time captain in program history, Rosen graduated in 2012 as the Penn men’s basketball program’s all-time leader in assists (588), games started (115), and minutes played (4,198), and his point total (1,723) is third behind only Ernie Beck and Ugonna Onyekwe. Rosen also hit 75 three-point field goals in 2011-12, the seventh-best single-season total in program history.
After graduation, Rosen went professional, signing a one-year contract with the Hapoel Holon of the Israeli Basketball Super League. The following year, he signed a two-year contract with Hapoel Jerusalem B.C. Late last year he signed another contract to join the Maccabi Ashdod.
While at some point Rosen had interest in joining the NBA, when he wasn’t drafted in 2012, Israel seemed a better choice, and he’s never looked back. He’s content in Israel and said that coming back to America to play in the NBA is “not really in [his] worldview right now.”
Since being in Israel, he’s had the opportunity to more fully explore his Jewish observance, coming to the conclusion that during his years without it there was something missing. “At some point in the process, it bogs you down,” Rosen said about the handicap that his years without Judaism gave him.
An event in his life that Rosen attributes to his decision to play in Israel and to become more religious was his experience on the United States team that won the gold medal at the Maccabiah Games, between his freshman and sophomore years of college. “My time there inspired me “spiritually” and gave me some clarity that I wanted to play in Israel.” Rosen said that he “switched [the school’s required class of foreign language] from Spanish to Hebrew in preparation for playing in Israel at one point.”
This summer, Rosen is living at home in Colonia and learning part-time by phone withhis Rebbe in Israel, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Wenglin, while he continues to train and stay in shape. This month, he will also be contributing his expertise at basketball clinics at two Orthodox summer camps. He has also spent Shabbosim in the Teaneck area.
Basketball has helped draw Rosen to Judaism because, as he said, “Basketball to me is infused with everything that we have in Judaism…You can grow immensely if you look at basketball through the proper lens.”
By Sushi Kaplan and Elizabeth Kratz