Alex Rosenberg’s Excellent Israeli Adventure

In honor of Yom Ha’atzmaut, The Sports Rabbi has a special insightful interview with Alex Rosenberg a new Oleh, a recent immigrant to Israel who is plying his basketball trade for Maccabi Kiryat Gat. After playing for Columbia in the Ivy League, Rosenberg looked at his options to continue his basketball career and Israel came calling.

Averaging 13.5 points in his senior season with the Lions and finishing 6th on Columbia’s all-time scoring list, the 6’7”, 224 pound forward also featured in 122 games for his college, the most of any other player in the team’s history. But who is Rosenberg and where did he come from to land up in the Holy Land on a small but proud basketball team in the Israel Premier League? “I was born and raised in New Jersey, lived in New York and went to Columbia University over the past few of years. I was raised as a Jew and my aunt married an Israeli guy so we did have some familiarity with Israel.”

While going to Millburn High School, Rosenberg began to flourish, “I had an incredible four years at Millburn and I was on the most successful team in the school’s history, made some amazing friends and met some great people. Then I went to the Peddie School, a college prep school prior to going to Columbia.”

It was intriguing that Rosenberg decided to go to Peddie and he delved into some of the reasons why he did so before heading to the Ivy League, “I wanted to get closer to a basketball career, I played some AU basketball with some former NBA players and I grew up with some great players around me. Throughout my high school career I had zero Division-1 offers, I had one pending from Dartmouth but the coach got fired, I had almost every Division-3 school giving me offers, but no D1 schools. I wanted to play at the highest level so I took the opportunity that my parents let me have another season at Peddie and that summer I got a lot of scholarship offers.”

The Rosenberg family happens to be steeped in sports, especially from a Jewish and Israel perspective, “My dad grew up playing basketball, so right then and there I was playing basketball. Eventually, I went to play in Israel in the Maccabiah tournaments which was important for me and my whole family as we are Jewish from top to bottom. My grandfather (Kurt Rosenberg) survived the Holocaust and actually played professional soccer in Italy, Belgium and America. He has quite a story, but unfortunately his memory is not what it once was. Rosenberg also spoke about the importance of religion in his household, “I went to Hebrew Sunday School and I go to Synagogue on the Holidays. I’ll definitely raise my family Jewish and imbue the values which my parents did in me.”

After getting a taste of playing in Israel in the Maccabiah Games, Rosenberg took his first step as pro and signed his first contract in the land of Milk & Honey, “I think that the Maccabiah games definitely helped me make that decision. Firstly, I wanted to be the best player I could be in college and I felt that I had a great chance to make an NBA roster but then I got injured and it really held me back. When I signed with an agent he really narrowed down what the best options were and Israel is a great way to start your career. I then received dual citizenship and it’s been great so far.”

Courtesy Alex Rosenberg

Obviously, the NBA is a dream for every basketball player, the question is if it’s still a realistic option or just a dream at this point, “It’s always a dream, it’s tough to say if it’s realistic. If there was any chance still it would have to be in the next two years or so. I’m okay with saying I could have had a chance, but then I got hurt. However, I am okay with saying that I gave it my best shot.”

Coming to play in Israel of course has plenty of complexities that come with it, from being a foreigner or a Jew from abroad who can qualify for citizenship and it sometimes takes the right individuals to handle the never ending ins and outs, “It all started after my junior year, I started playing better and I got all these emails, texts and messages from agents. Lots of phone calls. It’s hard to digest everything because your don’t want to get to carried away with it because you want to be focused on the season. But in my senior year, I really focused and I sat down with three or four agents to hear their pitch and I signed with one of them. When you think about it you need to trust your agent because they essentially find you your job.”

Eventually Kiryat Gat was the destination; a small town 35 miles from Tel Aviv, 42 miles from Jeruselem and 27 miles from the Gaza border, “I was talking to my agent about Israel and we spoke to every team here and I received three offers. I chose Kiryat Gat because I felt it was a good place to develop and gain a lot of experience.”

Once Rosenberg knew that he was heading to Israel, Aliyah, immigration to Israel was next along with all of the paperwork that comes with it, “My agent really worked magic here. We did it through Nefesh b’Nefesh and they really helped out a lot. Once I got to Israel, the difficulties of moving to a new country began. The hardest part is when you can’t speak the language. I’ve had to call teammates for help at times and it’s been tough when everyone thinks you know the language, but you really don’t. Aside from that it’s all been good.”

Courtesy Alex Rosenberg

With no close family in the country, at times it may be lonely and challenging to begin a life and career, “I have no immediate family here and I have some distant cousins that I don’t really know. But I do have a few teammates that I hang out with. I have a few people I know from back home that play here or live in Tel Aviv. It’s hard not having your family or your close friends near by. There is a lot of downtime. After practice you do a lot of relaxing and it’s hard because if I was in the US, I would spend that time with my family. There’s also a 7-hour time difference, so you can’t call anyone until later at night.”

However, Rosenberg does use that free time wisely as he is involved in the community, “We may play our games in Ashkelon but we do practice three times a week in Kiryat Gat. I think it’s great that our management value having us go to volunteer within the community, you can tell it’s really a really underdeveloped area. We show the kids that you can really do something with your life and recently we did a bunch of basketball drills and talked with them even though my Hebrew is not really that good.”

Could Israel be a final destination for Rosenberg, similar to David Blatt who came to Israel though the Maccabiah, married a local woman, raised a family in the country, played in the domestic league, eventually became the coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv where he won the Euroleague and the following season ended up coaching Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers? However, for right now Rosenberg has a much more modest look at the future, “I want to have the best career I can have, I’m not going to say I will do this or that, but these next two years will really be important for my career. I hear it all the time, you graduated Columbia, you could be making much more money at a 9-5 job in the US. It’s not really about the money right now, I think it’s about doing what you love. I would love to have a long-term career here, but America is where I have my family and friends. I do love Israel and hope to continue to play here for a number of years.”

Finally, Rosenberg had a message to young Jewish basketball players, about the road that he took to become a professional basketball player in Israel and about the high quality ball being played here, “Outside of the NBA, I think that Israel has some of the best basketball in the world and definitely within the top-5 quality in terms of leagues. For the guys back home I would say this: Work hard all of the time, it’s not easy to be a professional. Israel is a very cool place and I’m very proud of what I have accomplished.”

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