Last Friday, March 25, retired Israeli basketball star David Blu spoke to more than 400 Jewish young professionals, JNF board members and donors at JNFuture’s second annual “Shabbat in the Desert” event. Blu, a California native, spent over a decade playing professional basketball for the Israeli national team, the European League, for Maccabi Tel Aviv, and a brief stint in the NBA, among other teams. Jewish News caught up with Blu to ask him about JNF, playing basketball in and for Israel, and his views on the state of Judaism today.
How did a nice Jewish boy from California end up being an internationally renowned basketball star?
My ultimate goal was to make it to the National Basketball Association [NBA]. So, the alternative was to either go to the Development (“D”) League, or go overseas. How I got there starts out when I was 16 and played in the JCC Maccabi Games in New Jersey and then, in 1997, I played in the big Maccabiah Games in Israel; and then in 1999, I played in the Pan Am games in Mexico City. When I left college in 2002, I made aliyah and became a citizen of Israel. I went and played overseas, and that was because there could only be a certain number of Americans on a team over there. And because I’m Jewish, I was able to get my Israeli citizenship and go overseas to play professionally (as an Israeli).
What was it like to play in Israel, and for Israel?
When I first got there, playing for Israel was really, in my mind, a stepping stone. I thought I was going to end up playing in the NBA, and this one year [in Israel] would be a transition year. And then the second year, we won the Euro League. After that, I did get the contract and I went to the Sacramento Kings. But then I got cut, went to Italy and bounced around in and out of Israel. What playing in Israel meant to me was that I really found a home there. I found fans that were amazing. Playing for Israel, especially in the Euro Basketball league for a couple of summers, meant so much more to me than being just a professional job. It was more than just being a professional athlete. It actually meant representing a whole country. That was really special. All the other teams in Israel hated Maccabi [Tel Aviv] when they played against their local team. But when Maccabi would play the European teams, the Israeli fans would cheer for Maccabi! If you were on the Israeli national team, there was no question that you were a fan favorite, regardless of your professional team.
On the other side was the cultural aspect of living alongside with everyone who was Jewish. That was quite different from what I experienced when I was growing up, or during my college days, or even when I played in Italy or France. Living in Tel Aviv was more welcoming in terms of the people.
Now that you’re off the court and pursuing other professional avenues, how do you connect with people with an interest in Israel? How did you move from sports to advocacy?
I’ve always felt that I was pretty outspoken and comfortable saying what I thought. I’ve always been in a spotlight kind of position as a professional athlete. And so that, coupled with my experiences in Israel, made me really appreciate the country. I feel it was an honor to have played for such a great team and live such a great life over there. You always want to give back. It’s much in the same way that I’m outspoken for University of Southern California (the college I went to); you find a home. Israel, to me, is one of those situations for me where I found a home and a body of people that I’m happy to say that I’ve been a part of.
After spending so much time in the European League and in Israel, how has that affected your view of the contemporary Jewish community in America?
It’s interesting because it’s different from what it used to be. You know, back in the day, there were probably more people who were shouting that they were Jewish. They had the Star of David on their windshield. And in Israel, it’s not like that. In Israel, people celebrate the holidays, of course, but it’s not like they walk around wearing Stars of David. They’re less outspoken about being Jewish because they’re all Jewish. It’s not like there’s something they want to show. And I think that, in general, that’s how younger people in Israel are. And that’s how younger people are in the United States, as well. I think, overall, it seems that the millennial generation, the younger generation – which I’m kind of a part of – is really just more open to everybody. I find that young people, no matter what religion they are, are not openly showing their religion nowadays. I think being Jewish, like anything else, is a group of people that have something in common that they like to discuss and be around.
And how do you think that affects the mindset of young Jews today? Do you think because they’re less willing to show their overt Jewishness that they’re subverting it? Or do you feel the way society is today is a little bit more pluralistic, where everybody accepts everybody else?
I think it’s the latter. People want to better themselves now. For the most part, younger Americans are more about getting business done, having a social network, enjoying life, trying to relieve stress, being active and eating healthy. And I think that’s just all younger people: focusing on more of the physical and present life.
What does Jewish National Fund mean to you, your identity and to the Jewish people as a whole?
When I think of the Jewish National Fund, I think of infrastructure, I think of foundation, I think of life, the projects JNF has undertaken and completed in Israel and the solutions that they’ve provided since the beginning of the modern nation. And that is so important. Everybody needs help; the more the better. And JNF has provided a great deal of help to Israel all these years.
I’ve come to know some of the management, some of the leadership and some of the staff. I go to different events as a member, as a speaker, as a guest, as a friend, whatever it may be, and it all goes back to what I said earlier. It goes back to community, being with people who are looking in the same direction and looking for the same thing. For me, a healthy and safe Israel is a priority.
AJ Frost is a Phoenix-based writer and editor.