Jake Cohen has always been a voice of reason, a voice of honesty and a voice of conscientiousness. In good times as well as bad, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Israeli-American forward has always been there to offer just the right words.
Cohen always gives his opinions and thoughts straight to the point and he did so in a special session from the yellow-and-blue’s temporary home in Belgrade, Serbia.
When speaking about the situation that everyone in the country was thrust into following the Hamas attack and massacre on Simchat Torah, October 7th, Cohen said, “My heart goes out to all of the victims and their families who have been affected by the events of October 7th. It was an unspeakable tragedy and our hearts are with them.”
“We want to thank all those who have been able to help us continue on in Belgrade and continue to do our job which is a big blessing. Thanks to Maccabi, Serbia, Partizan, Red Star and the government who have all helped us being here.”
The 33-year old Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania native spoke about the fateful morning on October 7th and his initial thoughts and reactions as Israel was under attack by salvos of rockets from Gaza to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other locations around the country as well as the invasion that took place in the communities around the Gaza Periphery.
“I woke up with the siren early in the morning and an hour after that we started seeing what was going on. That day was really tough, we didn’t know what was going on and it was something that had never happened before. It was hard to figure out what to do with my kids and what to do with my wife while a lot of people were reaching out back home. It was a really tough day.”
“We knew something really bad was happening from the normal routine to chaos. Once the hours started to pass and where we were in Tel Aviv was relatively quiet, it was easier to get my heart rate down and go a little bit easier on myself, but then you start thinking as to what it means going forward that a lot of people will be reeling. War effects so many people, not just what’s happening on the spot. Our hearts go out to those in the south, and I wish that what we do will provide one little iota of happiness and can help whatever way we can.”
While there have been flare-ups over the years from Gaza, foreign players signing with Maccabi Tel Aviv are not thinking that a full out war would break out which was something that no one had expected or even experienced.
“I am in a unique position that I can relate to the Americas and Israelis because I have a long history with both. What happened last month was unprecedented and something like that has not happened the entire time I was in Israel and can’t just be explained away. There is no formula for this and we have to do the best we can. So far I think the players, coaches and club have done a really good job at handling the situation as best as everyone can. Of course things aren’t going to be perfect and there can be a lot excuses that we can make excuses if we want but we need to do our jobs to the best of our abilities because that’s what we are here.”
Maccabi players were offered the opportunity to head to Cyprus which was something that a number did do while others opted to stay in the Holy Land. Whatever decision each individual and family made was respected by everyone whether it was to stay or whether it was to go.
“When things unfolded I was in the same boat as everyone else. I had to see what was best for me and my family, whether in Cyprus or in Israel we were kind of riding the wave so to speak, whatever we could do to get them into a good situation. Guys that wanted to go to Cyprus or guys who wanted to stay in Israel. those who asked I was happy to share my previous experiences, but guys have to feel safe and secure and what one guy might be going through may not be the same for the others. The players empathized with their teammates situation. If it was the Israeli players who wanted to stay or the others who wanted to go.”
For the past month, Cohen and his teammates have been nomads flying around Europe from Cyprus to Valencia and from Athens to Belgrade having to live out of suitcases and hotels which of course isn’t ideal, but Cohen knows that at the end of the day Maccabi are ultimately in a fortunate nsituation.
“It’s definitely something new and we have to keep things in perspective. We are playing basketball for a living, what we are going through is nothing compared to what is going on in Israel. Flights and being away from our families are hard, but we are keeping in mind the situation as a whole. We are fortunate and we are lucky to have these jobs which allows us to keep playing basketball.”
Maccabi’s former sports director and legendary center Nikola Vujcic, left the club this past summer to return to his family in Croatia, however, with the situation unfolding as it did, he jumped at the opportunity to help the yellow-and-blue in any way that he could which meant rejoining the players in Cyprus and accompanying them during this difficult time.
“Niko shows the spirit of the club and a lot about his personal moral compass, that in the time of need he puts all of his personal projects on the backburner and comes to help. Shows up, helps out in any capacity that is needed. He does things for others, for the country of Israel and it says the world about him, that in a time of need he shows up. For better or worse the people who make a difference are the ones who show.”
Cohen is very involved with the Euroleague players association and has been an active participant I the league for many years. With that, he was very thankful as to how many people reached out to him during this trying time to offer a word of support.
“I have received a lot of positive support from the people around me whether it’s players on opposing teams, friends of mine from around the league and even guys that I have never spoken to before sent me messages which I really appreciated. That’s the positive side of things in the face of this darkness and hatred that players who have no connection to Israel and are not Jewish still sent me messages to check in and to make sure our situation was good. That really meant a lot to me that the players really care about each other and that there is still some light in the world. It was very reassuring to not only get those messages from friends but also people outside of my friends. That really meant a lot to me.”
Maccabi will be playing their “home” games at the Pionir Arena, the same facility that the club won their first ever European championship back in 1977. However, fans will not be allowed to attend the games and those home contests where a packed Yad Eliyahu would make a huge difference against any Euroleague club will now be played in front of the teams themselves and media.
“We are just doing our best to adapt and we have a lot of resilient people around us and people who know it’s difficult but that we have a job to do and we aren’t just going to sit back and make excuse after excuse. You can see our resiliency over the past few weeks and that is showing that no matter what happens we will do our best for the fans and we miss them back home. 12,000 yellow fans in Menora is really special. We miss them and we’re going to miss them a whole bunch for this next month or however long it is. We’re going to try to make them proud and us proud at the same time.”
Many Maccabi fans had to trade in their yellow-and-blue t-shirts for their IDF uniforms in order to protect the country and made a video for the players which made a huge impact on Cohen and his teammates.
“The message from the fans was really great and shows the love that they have for us. It really brings everything into perspective when you see the fans who we see in the arena now in uniform who are protecting our country and our families. It goes beyond words and I’m not articulate enough to explain what it means for them to put their lives on the line to defend me, my family and my children, it means everything to me.”
“I can’t imagine the sacrifice that they are making for all of us, for us to give back a little bit with the game of basketball is something that is super special. It seems kind of silly that playing basketball can have such an impact compared to the people who put their lives on the line, but it does and I don’t take that lightly. It’s a privilege to represent things that those people care about and we want to make them proud when we win games and it’s astonishing really. I want to continue to represent to the best of my abilities that as much as I can going forward.”
The Israeli league has been speaking about ramping up operations near the end of November, but for Cohen that is eons away from the here and now, “I don’t have any idea, if they say we are playing then that’s it. I have to worry about what’s going on today and tomorrow beforehand maybe one more before I can worry about what will be in two weeks from now.”
As one of four teams currently competing in Europe, Cohen is supporting each and every one of them as he usually does because the better they play, the better for the country, “I’m always rooting for the Israeli clubs in Europe, the better they are then the better for Israeli basketball but I don’t think I am cheering them on more than usual. With all four teams getting wins we want to see that continue. If it helps Israeli basketball I am in favor.”
There has been a massive rise in anti-Semitism in the United States, around Europe and the world and that is something that is very concerning to Cohen, “Of course it worries me watching what is going on around the world. Seeing how people are treating Jews concerns me, not only for my safety but for my kids because I have one of the most Jewish names possible. It’s very hard to go under the radar. So what is going on concerns me. I wish I had a solution for it, but a lot of people smarter than me haven’t been able to figure it out to cure racism, or anti-Semitism or hatred at all for that matter. What I can do is worry about what I can control and make the best decisions, for myself and my family and that is what I think that I have been doing and the guys around me have been doing as well.”
Although Cohen is so well spoken and is somebody who is part of both the Israeli and American fabric, he doesn’t want to consider himself as some sort of ambassador.
“I don’t consider myself as an ambassador. I am just a guy who has lived in the US and Israel for a long time. I’m Jewish, if that makes me one, fine, that’s not up to me. All I can do is represent myself, I don’t pretend to represent someone else and I just represent my opinion and what I think. Whether someone wants to listen to me, it’s up to them, those titles are not up to me.”