Valley Torah basketball coach linked to CSUN sanctions


An investigation into academic fraud and the Cal State Northridge (CSUN) men’s basketball team could involve the current head boys basketball coach at Valley Torah High School in Valley Village.

A Dec. 7 report published by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) revealed that a former director of basketball operations’ computer was used to complete 125 hours of online coursework for 10 players. The NCAA did not name the staffer, but a Dec. 7 story in the Los Angeles Times indicated that an investigation by the paper found that it was Lior Schwartzberg, who coaches at Valley Torah and is a former CSUN director of basketball operations. He was placed on administrative leave on Oct. 28, 2014, CSUN told the NCAA.  

The NCAA’s report said the unnamed staffer at the center of the controversy had “no explanation” for evidence that showed logins on several players’ accounts and submissions of assignments and quizzes from a computer with an IP address from his parents’ house more than 70 miles from campus. The metadata review of the staffer’s computer actions involving players’ academic accounts detailed in the report is from a period beginning in the fall of 2013 and ending in the fall of 2014. 

According to the NCAA’s report, the staffer appeared at a hearing in front of an NCAA investigative panel and said “that the previous director of athletics and previous head men’s basketball coach told him to monitor student-athletes’ academics because the institution was concerned about its academic progress rate.” He went on to say that he only monitored the students’ progress and denied any wrongdoing. 

When reached by text message, Schwartzberg told the Journal that his legal counsel has instructed him to not make any statements. He did not indicate who was representing him legally.

Schwartzberg told the Times in a text message: “I deeply disagree with the decision and many of its facts.”

Schwartzberg is a 2008 graduate of UCLA, where he majored in philosophy and minored in Hebrew and Jewish studies and served as a scout team player for UCLA’s women’s basketball program. His coaching history includes a five-year stint as a varsity assistant — three years at Brentwood School and two years at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo. He also was a video coordinator on the UC Irvine coaching staff before CSUN hired him as director of basketball operations before the 2009-2010 season. 

In the fall of 2014, several student-athlete mentors and staffers raised issues with the classwork of some players, according to the 26-page NCAA report. The mentors and staffers determined players had no knowledge of coursework that had been submitted by players. The grades for online classes were “significantly higher” than grades for in-person classes. The NCAA claimed the staffer did the work for them.

CSUN then began an internal inquiry, hired attorney Carl Botterud to oversee an independent investigation and apprised the NCAA of possible violations. That resulted in CSUN implementing a self-imposed one-year postseason ban that was upheld by the NCAA. 

 “I am proud of the way the university, Matador Athletics and the Men’s Basketball program faced these violations aggressively, without hesitation and showed our values in action,” CSUN Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Brandon Martin said in a Dec. 7 statement. 

The NCAA mentioned that CSUN had taken curative action, such as replacing its compliance director, forming a body of 10 faculty members to supervise academics for the athletic department, and allowing student-athletes only one online class per term.

Still, there were penalties levied by collegiate athletics’ governing body against the CSUN men’s basketball program. These include three years of probation, a one-year postseason ban and vacating wins from games involving the players. The NCAA, as outlined in its report, also issued a five-year show-cause order against the unnamed staffer in the report, which would make it difficult to get another job with any NCAA school.

This isn’t the first time CSUN athletics have faced allegations of academic misconduct. The NCAA penalized CSUN in 2004 when the men’s basketball program self-reported that an assistant coach oversaw two other assistant coaches changing the transcripts of a player to keep him academically eligible to play. 

During the 2011-2012 season, CSUN scored poorly on the annual Academic Progress Rate report, which counts the number of student-athletes who stay in school and are academically eligible over a four-year period. The subpar score resulted in a ban from postseason play that season. 

Schwartzberg joined Valley Torah in 2015. When reached by the Journal, officials at the school declined to comment on the coach. 

Brad Turell, whose son Ryan is a standout player for Schwartzberg at Valley Torah, continued to support the coach. He issued the following statement on behalf of his family: “Ever since we met [Schwartzberg], his conduct and performance have been exemplary. He is a great coach, tireless worker, extremely well-organized, conscientious, and a pleasure to be around.”

For Harvard’s Zach Yoshor, March Madness mixes with Shabbat-playing unease


Should Harvard upset North Carolina in the opening round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, Zach Yoshor will stay with the Crimson for their next game two days later – but the freshman guard acknowledges it won’t be easy.

The Ivy League champs would be playing the Arkansas-Wofford winner on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.

Raised in an observant home in Houston, Yoshor attended a Jewish school, the Robert Beren Academy, that doesn’t schedule games on Shabbat. Three years ago, during Yoshor’s junior year, Beren attracted national headlines when it nearly had to forfeit a state tournament semifinal originally set for a Saturday.

As a member of a non-Jewish travel team in those years, Yoshor walked to Saturday games. At Harvard, though, he had to choose; basketball won out.

“It was a really rough decision. I just decided it was something I wanted to do,” Yoshor explained by telephone on Monday. “I knew if I wanted to play, I’d have to travel on Shabbat.”

It’s a decision with which he remains uncomfortable, Yoshor admitted. For Harvard basketball games occurring on Shabbat, he keeps religious violations to the bare minimum by refraining from using his cellphone or writing. On team bus rides he reads books to pass the time.

“It does bother me,” he said.

Harvard punched its ticket to the NCAAs in dramatic fashion on Saturday: Steve Moundou-Missi drained a jump shot in the closing seconds to defeat rival Yale for the Ivy League title and the automatic bid.

Yoshor, sitting on the bench, leapt with joy.

“When Steve hit that shot, we all went crazy,” he said. “It was a very emotional experience.”

Harvard extended its streak to four consecutive years of reaching the NCAA tournament known as March Madness.

The Crimson, seeded 13th in the West Region, will play fourth-seeded North Carolina, a perennial power out of the Atlantic Coast Conference, on Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla.

“It’s remarkable, like a dream come true growing up and watching March Madness,” Yoshor said. “I always had this dream of playing in the Ivy League. I understood, as I grew up, that I’d have this opportunity.”

Yoshor is unlikely to see court time against the Tar Heels. He played in only nine games this season and scored 11 points, all in an easy victory over St. Rose.

Studying last year at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, Yoshor stayed in game shape by working out and practicing with the Israeli professional team Ironi Ramat Gan, an arrangement first cleared with Harvard to assure that his eligibility for college basketball would remain intact.

As a standout at the Beren Academy, Yoshor first attracted the attention of Adam Cohen, an assistant coach at Rice University, also in Houston. The summer after graduation, the now 6-foot-6 Yoshor attended a basketball camp at Harvard, where Cohen had moved on to work.

“I saw Zach at his high school at practice and was impressed: He had good size and could shoot the ball,” said Cohen, who’s also heading to postseason play, in the National Invitation Tournament this week, with his new employer, Vanderbilt University.

Cohen said Yoshor “had the ability, as well as the grades” to play at Harvard, adding that Yoshor could crack the Crimson’s rotation as a sophomore if he continues to develop.

“He’s got a big summer ahead of him,” Cohen said.

Yoshor said his coaches and teammates were understanding about his missing practices for the High Holidays. A kosher observer, he makes do on road trips with tuna sandwiches and salads.

“It’s a point of curiosity,” he said. “They’ve been very respectful, very accommodating. If I ever ask for anything, they’re very quick to oblige.”

Harvard’s other demands took some adjustment for him.

“It was rough for me at first,” Yosher said. “Getting in Division I basketball shape and handling the rigors of academics has been a real challenge, but I felt good when I was able to balance my time at both ends.”

For his NCAA Tournament debut, one of Yoshor’s parents will be in Jacksonville. The other will head to New York to see Zach’s brother Ben, a Beren junior, play in Yeshiva University’s Red Sarachek Basketball Tournament.

The family’s hardcourt prowess is hardly limited to the males. Their sister, Rebecca, graduated from Yeshiva University last year after leading the NCAA – all divisions – in rebounds per game as a senior.

Yoshor’s Beren classmates will be following the Harvard game in Jacksonville, too. No sooner did the Crimson qualify for the NCAAs than his cellphone lit up.

“There were lots of texts from friends about how cool it is,” he said.

At ‘Jewish March Madness,’ Hillel students gather for basketball and kibitzing


Dribbling blurs across four parallel basketball courts, the players who came for the Shabbaton that was the National Hillel Basketball Tournament filled a football field-size gymnasium in a marathon of games.

Forty-one teams and 300 players from colleges across the United States came to the University of Maryland campus last weekend for the tournament’s fourth incarnation in what also represented a homecoming of sorts: Back-slapping recognitions renewed acquaintances from summer camp and high school days.

The 30 colleges whose Hillels sent teams here included seven — Duke, Harvard, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Texas and UCLA — that qualified for the NCAA Tournament. And while the play here was hardly up to March Madness standards, it was plenty good and highly competitive.

The men’s title game, in fact, featured two athletes who have attained the heights of collegiate sports: Jacob Susskind, who plays for Maryland, and Anthony Firkser of Harvard — the Crimson’s football team, that is.

Maryland would win not just the men’s crown but the women’s, too.

Arriving at Ritchie Coliseum for the championship game – most contests were held at the larger Reckford Armory across the street – Susskind hobbled in, a function of fatigue from the nonstop hoops.

The Terrapins played in the National Invitational Tournament last spring, so Susskind could not compete in the 2013 national Hillel tourney. He said he was glad he came this time.

“It’s to help spread the word about Jewish people in basketball. It’s a cool concept: to come together with the same religious belief, and to do something everyone likes to do, which is play basketball, is a plus,” Susskind said on Sunday afternoon after his team, one of seven Maryland men’s and women’s clubs at the tournament, won a preliminary-round game.

Susskind, who attended the Golda Och Academy, a Solomon Schechter school in West Orange, N.J., spoke at courtside while watching Kansas play Massachusetts, and pointed to a guard wearing uniform No. 10 for the former.

“He came up to me the other day and said, ‘I know you.’ It was cool to see him,” said Susskind, explaining that the two played seven years ago at a Jewish day school tournament in Baltimore.

The Kansas player, Cory Gutovitz, in turn, said he had guarded one of Susskind’s Hillel teammates, Nachum Shapiro, at the same Baltimore tournament and stayed at Shapiro’s home.

“I was always active in Hillel, and I love basketball,” said Gutovitz, who graduated last year. “I didn’t realize how many people would be here until Friday night dinner, when I saw maybe 500 people.”

“It was Jewish March Madness. I’ve gone to Jewish tournaments in high school and had the same mind-set: that these Jewish kids can’t be that amazing. Here, I learned my lesson: It’s good, competitive basketball.”

It’s also a schmooze fest. Gutovitz and four other Kansans stayed at the campus apartment of Tara Feld, Shapiro’s girlfriend. Chatting in the building’s corridors late Saturday night, Gutovitz met a female student who had attended the wedding of his basketball teammate at Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, Kan.

Gutovitz also ran into two Maryland players who, representing their Yavneh Academy of Dallas school, he had met years earlier in New York at Yeshiva University’s Red Sarachek Tournament.

And so it went: a 48-hour festival of basketball and gabbing, with breaks for kiddush, havdalah and Shabbat meals.

“It’s like the Maccabiah Games — but everyone speaks English,” quipped Tal Brody, who played in the Maccabiah and starred as a professional in Israel, where he still lives, following an All-America career as a point guard at Illinois.

While a key player when Maccabi Tel Aviv captured the 1977 European Cup, Brody can’t boast of having earned the Kiddush Cup, the trophy the Maryland teams raised as Hillel tournament champions.

The women’s Most Valuable Player Award went to Paige Siegel, a point guard for the winning Maryland club. Watching was her cousin, Bruce Levenson, the owner of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks.

“I didn’t realize the magnitude of it,” Levenson said. “A lot of the players really have game.”

With basketball at its core, the event began modestly in 2011 with 20 teams and one goal: “to get Jewish kids from all over the country for a weekend of communal bonding as well as basketball competition,” said Joseph Tuchman, a Maryland sophomore who chairs the tournament.

Now it has a $60,000 budget, prestigious sponsors such as Gatorade and UnderArmour, and plenty of spectators — 1,000 attended Saturday night’s opening games.

The Jewish students at Maryland are buying in. Feld, the tournament’s coordinator of volunteers and a Maryland senior, said she had no problem lining up people to run the scoreboards and keep the scorebooks at each game. Forty Jewish students volunteered, and  seven members of the campus’ nonsectarian Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity lent a hand, too.

“It’s one of my favorite events at the school,” said Feld, who played forward at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles.

“You’re all here for the same purpose — basketball — but there’s also the aspect of having Shabbat together. I’ve run into people from different parts of my life.”

And with that, she motioned to a Queens College player 20 feet away whose team was playing MIT. As a high schooler, Feld had met him at a teen leadership program in Israel.

The player, Mo Pariser, actually attends Binghamton University in New York but signed up for the Queens squad because his brother Ike was on the team.

Brotherhood and sisterhood, after all, were the weekend’s themes.

 

Contrite Bruce Pearl bringing his spirited style to Auburn basketball


Shortly after assembling the players trying out for the American squad he’d be coaching at the 2009 Maccabiah Games, Bruce Pearl brought them to Sabbath evening services at the Heska Amuna Synagogue in Knoxville, Tenn.

The passionate and gregarious Pearl, a veteran of reading the haftarah at Yom Kippur, led the services.

Now he’s bringing that spirit, enthusiasm and knack for leadership back into coaching.

The plan is for Pearl to guide the Auburn University basketball team for at least the next six years — the duration of the reported $2.2 million-a-year contract he signed last week.

Pearl, 54, is attempting to turn around both a program absent from the NCAA Tournament for 11 consecutive seasons and a career derailed after his dismissal from the University of Tennessee in 2011 for committing several rules violations and lying about them.

A contrite Pearl told JTA in a telephone interview Friday that he is “very grateful, very humbled” to become Auburn’s coach, and sees God’s hand involved.

“I did not think that God would put [the new job] in front of me this soon,” Pearl said from ESPN’s Connecticut studios, where he provided analysis for NCAA Tournament coverage.

After his firing at Tennessee, Pearl says he “jumped in with both feet” to jobs at the sports network and as a food company marketing executive. But returning to coaching remained his goal because the profession is “what I was born to do,” he says.

An NCAA-imposed penalty forbids Pearl from recruiting players until August, unless his new employer can “show cause” for aborting the penalty.

David Benedict, the chief operating officer of Auburn athletics, said Sunday that the Alabama university “has not done anything, nor is anything imminent,” regarding such an appeal.

“I thought with time left on my ‘show cause’ that maybe in a year from now [I’d be hired],” Pearl said, adding that he wanted prospective employers to determine “that what I did was a mistake that I paid dearly for, as opposed to a real character issue.”

It’s a mistake with which Pearl still grapples.

“I wake up every morning and ask God to forgive me for failing Him,” he said. “That’s why the whole episode was — is still — so painful for me. I don’t care whether you think I’m a good coach. It really bothered me that you’d care that I’m a good person.”

Pearl says a belief in God helped him emerge from the scandal a better man.

“Actually, my faith has never been stronger,” he said. “Having gone through this, it is the biggest thing I’ve leaned on.

“I never asked God why; I know why. I put that on myself. I made those choices and I let Him down, but at the same time, this would not be here if God still didn’t love me and forgive me.”

The former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, an ESPN colleague, says he is thrilled that Pearl has received another chance to coach.

“He’s going to do great,” said Greenberg, whom Pearl consulted about the new job.

At Auburn, the life-embracing Pearl can be expected to mesh X’s and O’s with precious sound bites and stunts supporting other campus teams, as he did at Tennessee.

Pearl’s clubs in his three head coaching stops, including at Southern Indiana and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, have produced winning records in all 19 seasons.

His greatest success came at Tennessee, with the Vols going 145-61 and reaching the NCAA Tournament in each of his six seasons. Pearl also garnered national attention there by painting his upper body in orange for a game featuring the nationally prominent women’s basketball team.

His father, Bernie, a retiree living in Florida, says he still gets a kick out of the young Bruce filling in for the ailing Boston College mascot as a graduate assistant to Coach Tom Davis. (Pearl would follow Davis to Stanford and Iowa as an assistant coach.)

“I got to be near the cheerleaders!” Bernie recalled Bruce as saying.

Benedict says Pearl’s embrace of university life is “fairly unique” among coaches with whom he has worked.

One familiar face at Auburn will be Steven Pearl, at 26 the eldest of the coach’s four children, who will join dad on the Tigers’ staff. He also played guard for his father at Tennessee and on the Maccabiah team that captured gold.

“He was a tough coach on me,” Steven said. “I’m expecting that to be even more difficult now, but I’m excited.”

Steven says the Maccabiah experience “definitely synthesized the bond my dad and I have today.”

Another Maccabiah player, guard Zach Rosen, recalls Pearl’s intensity from the start through the gold medal game, when the Americans defeated Israel in overtime.

The Knoxville tryouts made clear Pearl’s commitment to ensuring “a family experience” for everyone, says Rosen, who now plays professionally for the Israeli team Maccabi Ashdod.

Pearl took the players on his boat and barbecued for them, but bringing them to the synagogue services was even more telling, he says.

“If it’s going to be davening in shul, he’ll be up there doing his thing — he’s in. I really have a lot of respect for him because he was willing to be vulnerable, not afraid to mess up, not afraid to be himself, which is a quality of a strong person,” Rosen said.

Leading synagogue services was for the players’ benefit, Pearl explains.

“I wanted the guys to understand that the trip to Israel wasn’t just about basketball, although we took our basketball really seriously,” he said. “It was about our Jewish heritage. It was about our young Jewish men [having] the chance to go to the homeland, if you will, and experience it — and for me, the same thing — and have a greater appreciation for who she is and what she faces and how we stay connected and protect her.”

At Tennessee, visits to the Czech Republic and to Germany included stops at the Theresienstadt and Dachau concentration camps. Pearl says he might arrange such trips with Auburn.

Basketball and otherwise, the players and their penitent coach are in for a wild and, no doubt, meaningful ride.

Bruce Pearl tapped as Auburn basketball coach


Bruce Pearl, who led the U.S. team to the gold medal at the 2009 Maccabiah Games, was hired as the head coach of the Auburn University men’s basketball team.

The former coach at the University of Tennessee, Pearl was hired Tuesday to replace Tony Barbee, who was fired last week. Pearl reportedly signed a six-year contract worth $2.2 million per year.

He moved to ESPN as a college basketball analyst after being fired at the Southeastern Conference school in 2012 for recruiting violations. Auburn also belongs to the SEC.

“I’m humbled and blessed to back in the game that I love,” Pearl, a founding member of the Jewish Coaches Association, said in a statement. “I don’t know how long it will take, but it’s time to rebuild the Auburn basketball program, and bring it to a level of excellence so many of the other teams on campus enjoy.”

The three-time national coach of the year had led Tennessee to the NCAA Tournament for five consecutive seasons prior to his firing. Before Knoxville, where he gained national attention for painting his upper body orange for a women’s basketball game, Pearl had enjoyed success in coaching stops at Milwaukee and Div. II Southern Indiana.

His American squad at the Maccabiah Games defeated host Israel, 95-86, in overtime to claim the gold medal. His son Steven was a member of his Maccabiah and Tennessee teams.

Aaron Liberman’s kippah makes basketball history


On Jan. 5, Aaron Liberman of Northwestern checked in for the final minute of action against Michigan in the Wildcats’ 74-51 men’s basketball loss in Ann Arbor. In the process, the redshirt freshman made history twice:

According to the Big Ten News Network, Liberman was the first player to wear a yarmulke in Big Ten Conference history.

Also, Michigan became the first NCAA Division I basketball program to host two kippah-wearing players on its court. On Dec. 27, 2000, the first night of Hanukkah, Tamir Goodman of Towson University recorded 9 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds in 34 minutes in the Tigers’ 73-71 loss  to the Wolverines. (Aside: I attended the game featuring the “Jewish Jordan” with my hometown rabbi.)

In his first season of college ball, Liberman’s stat line reads 2 rebounds in 4 games. But the yarmulke angle has made his celebrity star shine brighter. As Yahoo News reports:

Liberman was invited to speak after a home game last month about what it’s like for him to be an Orthodox Jew playing major college hoops. The school handed approximately 200 purple yarmulkes with an N printed on them to people who attended.

Penn State’s Jewish community weighs how to move forward


One unlikely venue for fallout from the Penn State University sex abuse scandal is the campus Hillel, for which now ousted university president Graham Spanier—the school’s first Jewish leader—was a fundraiser and vocal supporter.

On Monday, the Penn State community was stunned when the NCAA levied a $60 million fine against the university and a four-year postseason ban on its football program based on a university-funded report by former FBI director Louis Freeh released several weeks ago. The report looked into the crimes of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who is now awaiting sentencing for multiple counts of child rape, and alleged a cover-up by Spanier, iconic football coach Joe Paterno, athletic director Tim Curley and retired vice president Gary Schultz.

Paterno died in January at 85, Curley is on administrative leave and Schultz has retired. Curley and Schultz are awaiting trial on perjury charges.

The school has about 40,000 students on its main campus in State College, Pa., some 10 percent of whom are estimated to be Jewish, according to data collected by Penn State Hillel.

Aaron Kaufman, executive director of the Hillel, declined to address specifics about Spanier’s impact on the organization.

“The events of the past year have reinforced the need for students to be part of a caring and supportive organization where they can engage in dialogue and address issues that are troubling them,” he said in a statement to JTA. “As we prepare for the start of a new school year, we remain steadfast in our commitment to helping our students—and the entire university community—heal and move forward in a positive way”

But Bill Jaffe, a former longtime member and past chair of Hillel’s board of directors, said the former president’s role was large. In addition to regularly attending High Holidays services, Spanier helped Hillel secure major speakers, such as Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, and make a case for larger on-campus facilities for the Jewish student organization.

“Clearly his energy and enthusiasm will be missed as part of the Hillel community,” said Jaffe, a member of the university’s endowment campaign executive committee. “I don’t think one can deny the impact he’s had on Hillel and therefore, if he’s not here and not involved, I would think there may be some impact” on the group, he said.

Jaffe added that he could not measure to what degree Spanier’s absence would be felt.

Shortly after the release of the Freeh report, Rabbi Nosson Meretsky, director of the Chabad of Penn State, wrote in an email to students and alumni that the difficult period could ultimately lead to positive change.

“In Judaism we believe everything happens for divine providence,” Meretsky told JTA this week. The rabbi noted that it is no coincidence that the report came to light during the three-week period leading up to Tisha b’Av, which Judaism attributes to some of its greatest calamities.

“Penn State has to look at itself and examine the culture, which in my mind is not a bad thing.  Examining yourself and that process of teshuvah can be a good thing,” he said, referring to the process of repentance. “Penn State has not been destroyed … I think it will only become better.”

For the past several years, Chabad had a letter of support signed by Paterno on its website. It was taken down in December, but Meretsky said that was because of a web redesign, not the scandal. The new site does not yet have a section for such comments, but once it does he is unsure that the Paterno letter would return, he added.

As for Spanier, the rabbi recalled bringing him matzah just before Passover and gift baskets, or shalach manot, for Purim. He said he will continue to reach out to Spanier.

Outside of State College, Jewish alumni are dealing with their school’s new image, too.

When the scandal broke in November, Rabbi Efrem Reis of Temple Beth Israel in Sunrise, Fla., and a 2006 Penn State graduate, urged people to reserve judgment until all the investigations were completed.

“Now it is clear that my university failed me and, much more importantly, the victims,” he told JTA. “They allowed innocent children to be scarred and hurt in a place that was supposed to foster and encourage youth to reach new heights.”

The fact that Paterno appears to have knowingly turned a blind eye is especially painful, he said.

“Joe Paterno made me a smarter person and helped me to be a better rabbi through his generosity” through donations such as to the Pattee-Paterno library and the campus spiritual center, which housed various student religious groups, including Hillel. “Unfortunately, his error tarnishes his legacy so deeply that it turns me away from connecting and donating to my alma mater.”

Despite his reluctance to donate to the university itself, Reis plans to continue giving to Penn State organizations and the university’s Jewish groups. He said alumni need to step up their efforts for these organizations so they can continue to help students—especially now.

Dan Greenstein, a 2008 graduate and a former Hillel religious chair, said Penn State provided him with a lifetime of memories that no scandal can erase.

“None of these things can be tarnished by the apparent failure of administrators to act like decent human beings,” the meteorologist said, adding that “The perception of Penn State has certainly changed to the greater public, and that will undoubtedly take a long time to repair.”

Reis hopes campus Jewish groups can play a role, urging Hillel and Chabad to work together to raise awareness of child abuse and “to be leaders in a campus coalition to restore the image of the university through good deeds and acts of loving-kindness.”

Rabbi David Ostrich of State College’s Congregation Brit Shalom, where Spanier is a member, believes the media and public have drawn conclusions from the Freeh report that go further than intended.

“I believe that Graham Spanier is an honorable man,” Ostrich said. “When he says that he was not covering this up, I believe him.”

When Spanier, Paterno, Curley and Schultz first learned of the allegations against Sandusky, they thought they were dealing with a moral individual, the rabbi said.

“As it turns out they were wrong, and I am sure they all feel terrible about their failure to identify criminal and immoral behavior,” he said. “However, there is a big difference between being deceived or incorrect judgments and conspiring to cover up wrong-doing.”

Following basketball controversy, press is on Texas school group to be more inclusive


Comments by the head of a Texas school association at the center of a controversy over Sabbath accommodations is fueling a drive by its members to be more open to the needs of Jewish and Muslim schools.

Edd Burleson, the director of the The Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, revived the controversy over the Robert M. Beren Academy of Houston’s participation in the state boys’ basketball tournament last month when he told the Dallas Morning News in an interview published Sunday that the predominantly Christian association “shouldn’t have accepted (Beren) in the first place.”

The Houston Chronicle reported that the TAPPS board could decide next month whether to penalize the Beren Academy for a rules violation for failing to withdraw from the tournament last month. Beren had requested a time change for the 2A tournament’s semifinals and finals, which were scheduled for a Friday night and Saturday afternoon, to accommodate Sabbath observance. TAPPS agreed to do so only after several players and their parents filed a lawsuit.

It wasn’t the first religious controversy for TAPPS. In 2010, its board denied membership to a Muslim school after asking the Iman Academy SW to complete an application with questions about Islam, The New York Times reported.

In an interview with JTA, Burleson defended both the comments about Beren Academy and the decision by TAPPS to exclude the Muslim school. Burleson said TAPPS was upholding its rules, not engaging in religious discrimination.

But now TAPPS member schools are pushing the association to become more accommodating. Some, including the Texas Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s Catholic schools, are threatening to withdraw if their concerns are not resolved.

“As an organization of private and parochial schools, we should be open to everyone, allow all students to participate and be sensitive to their needs,” said Jeffery Patterson, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference, which asked TAPPS to let the member schools review TAPPS’ operations. “If this doesn’t get resolved appropriately, certainly it will bring into question whether Catholic schools will continue our affiliation with TAPPS.”

Rabbi Harry Sinoff, head of school at Beren Academy, declined to comment on Burleson’s remarks but said the school would like to remain in TAPPS.

“They’re at a crossroads now, reflecting on what their mission should be,” Sinoff said. “A broad mission of inclusiveness, bringing together lots of different schools and making accommodations that would be reasonable, or do they want to be a more homogeneous, narrowly focused organization? … We hope they go for inclusiveness so we can be part of it.”

Sinoff said he did not know the details of the cases involving the Muslim school but that he would like to see all the schools included in TAPPS—Jewish, Muslim, Christian or others. “There should be objective criteria for admission, and all schools who meet that criteria should be admitted without reference to religion or race,” he said.

TAPPS, which was created in 1978, has approximately 220 member schools, nearly all Christian, that compete in athletic and arts competitions.

Burleson maintains that he does not object to a Jewish school, but said that when Beren Academy joined the league three years ago, school officials said they understood that it would not be able to participate in the playoffs.

“Three years later there was a lot of controversy, a lot of hard feelings, a lot of changes that had to be made to accommodate the school that told us up front they would not request these accommodations,” Burleson said.

Nathan Lewin, a prominent Washington attorney who represented the Beren parents and players, said Burleson’s comments confirmed that “he has a very jaundiced, and I can only say bigoted, view about people other than his own kind.”

Lewin compared Beren’s agreeing not to dispute the schedule to a civil rights case regarding an unconstitutional property deed barring a sale to a black person.

“You can’t be barred from exercising your constitutional right because somebody has had a biased and illegal provision in their bylaws and contract when you’ve come in,” Lewin said. (While the school asked TAPPS for an accommodation, it was parents and the players, not the school, who filed suit.)

The denial of membership to Iman Academy SW, The New York Times reported, came after the school was asked to submit an application that asked such questions as, “Does the Koran actually state that the Bible is polluted?” The Times reported that at least two other Islamic schools were given similar questionnaires but declined to complete them.

Burleson said the board denied Iman Academy’s application because the school had no experience in athletic competition.

But he said that TAPPS has never made an effort to determine whether its members want the organization to include schools of all faiths. It is now doing so, holding two member meetings and distributing a survey asking schools if they want the association to be all inclusive and whether they are willing to make accommodations.

The New York Times reported that TAPPS surveyed members in 2010 about whether to include Muslim schools. Of the 83 schools that responded, 63 percent said it was not in TAPPS’ best interest, the paper reported.

“Over the 20 years I’ve been associated with TAPPS, there’s been no direction from our membership to be all inclusive,” Burleson told JTA.

Bill McGee, the headmaster of Hill Country Christian School in Austin, which faced Beren in the playoffs and moved its game time to accommodate the Beren community’s Shabbat observance, spoke at a March 27 TAPPS meeting in favor of inclusivity.

He said the United States was built on religious tolerance and that his school had no problem accommodating the religious beliefs of Beren students.

“The general membership desires to be inclusive, and that seems to be at odds with the leadership of the organization,” McGee told JTA. “An organization which is primarily athletic or competitive in nature, there’s no reason for those organizations to be exclusive.”

Larry Taylor, head of TAPPS member school Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano, believes the association would be strengthened by the involvement of all non-public schools.

“The sheer number strengthens the quality of our competition,” Taylor said. And, he added, “The diversity provides an experience for our students that’s very important for their preparation for college and for life.”

To some members, inclusion is a religious obligation. Connie Wootton, executive director of the Southwestern Association of Episcopal Schools, said a major tenet of an Episcopal education is racial, ethnic, economic and religious diversity.

“If we expect others to respect our beliefs, we have to respect theirs, too,” she said. “That’s the Christian model.”

Martin Cominsky, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League’s Southwest Region, said his agency was disappointed by TAPPS’ attitude toward Muslim and Jewish schools.

“I believe TAPPS should use universal admissions criteria that are not discriminatory against any particular religion,” Cominsky said. “Those politics ought to reflect the ever-increasing diversity in the state of Texas.”

Pa.’s Jake Cohen aims to lead Davidson to upset of Louisville


Jake Cohen, a junior forward, will lead his Davidson College squad into the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in its upset bid against Louisville.

Davidson (25-7), which is seeded 14th in the West Region, takes on the Big East Conference tournament champion Cardinals (26-9), the fourth seed, on Thursday in Portland, Ore.

Cohen, who is 6-foot-10 and comes from Berwyn, Pa., averages 14 points, 6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks for the North Carolina school. He powered Davidson to the title in the Southern Conference tournament with 17 points, 7 rebounds and 7 blocked shots in a 93-91 double overtime victory over Western Carolina in the championship game.

On Friday, also in the West Region, third-year coach Josh Pastner will guide the University of Memphis in its first-round match against St. Louis University in Columbus, Ohio. Memphis (26-8), the Conference USA champion, is seeded eighth, while St. Louis (25-7) is the ninth seed.

Pastner has a 75-28 overall record at the helm of the Tigers.

Opinion: Political March Madness


Will Hillary be Obama’s running mate, with Biden going to State if they win? Will Romney wrap things up on Super Tuesday, or will there be a brokered Republican convention, with Ron Paul as kingmaker? Will Democrats take back the House but lose the Senate?

Who knows? Who cares?

It makes sense, of course, to care about what actually happens. Who will pick the next Supreme Court justices, whether people with pre-existing conditions will be able to get health insurance, if women will be kissing their reproductive rights goodbye: Plenty of crucial consequences will depend on who wins and who loses.

But predicting what will happen in November has to be one of the biggest wastes of time since the last Adam Sandler movie you saw. It really doesn’t matter what any of us thinks.

OK, here’s the exception: If a prediction motivates you to write a check or knock on doors, then the psychology of prophecy might make a difference to the outcome of an election. For some people, contributing time or money to a campaign — and that’s what counts, not palaver — requires believing how some talk radio gasbag or cable “strategist” says it will all play out.

But for most people, speculating about what’s going to happen next, imagining different scenarios, finding signs in Super PACs and portents in polls — it’s pretty much all entertainment. Following politics is fun the way following sports is fun. No one really knows whether Wake Forest or UConn will make the Final Four, but half the enjoyment of March Madness is pretending that you do. Who you’re rooting for or betting on will have no impact on who will win the championship, but that doesn’t diminish the pleasure to be had from predictions. As long as you recognize that anticipating the twists and turns of the presidential race is the political equivalent of picking brackets, it’s a harmless hobby.

On the other hand, the political media believe that their job is to make us ravenous for each new installment of the melodrama. Without campaign cliffhangers every 20 minutes, there’s no reason to stay tuned to this channel or to refresh that Web page. Because ratings and clicks are what keep the news business in business, there’s a premium on captivating our attention and an urgency to making everything seem urgent.

You’d think we’d wise up. After living through a few election cycles, you’d think we’d have figured out that the characters are more important than the plot. You’d think we’d demand more airtime for covering issues and less for hyping suspense. And by issue journalism, I don’t mean stenography; I mean accountability. Journalism doesn’t return the First Amendment’s favor by giving campaigns a free megaphone. Citizens are bombarded by talking points incessantly; what’s needed are more and better bull——detectors. But what we get instead is, “Tonight is a make-or-break moment for Rick Perry.” Looking back, it’s easy to say, “Herman Cain? Really?” But which networks are now doing to “Obamacare is a government takeover of the healthcare system” what they failed to do to 9-9-9?

It’s no mystery why we’re suckers for stories. Our species loves narratives. Tell me “once upon a time,” and I won’t leave till I know the ending. Tell me “it was a dark and stormy night,” and the neurons in my brain are on fire. Scheherazade saved her own life by embedding stories within stories. If she’d told “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp” all the way to the end, at dawn the king would have had her killed like the thousand virgins before her. Instead, she nested “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” within Aladdin, and “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor” within “Ali Baba,” and so on, night after night, and the king was putty in her hands.

TV’s “Road to the White House” soap opera is a pale substitute for “One Thousand and One Nights,” so it’s impressive what a little brass and drum theme music and some you-won’t-want-to-miss-this framing can do to turn another day of asinine campaign coverage into a thriller. Paying close attention to it gives us the illusion of doing our patriotic duty, adding a civic virtue to keeping current that watching NCAA hoops can’t provide.

In that kind of media world, when we bump into one another at the real or virtual water cooler, it’s perfectly natural to quiz each other about what’s going to happen next. Do you think Romney’s going to pick Rubio? What are the odds that Obama will wuss out on the Bush tax cuts? It’s in the candidates’ interests to spend their time selling messages, and it’s in the networks’ interests to spend their time selling audiences to advertisers. But I’m not sure it’s in the public interest for the rest of us to be deputized as cable news anchors, and as guests on each other’s imaginary shows.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Jews reeling in wake of Penn State scandal


Rabbi David Ostrich, who leads the lone congregation in State College, Pa., couldn’t bring himself to sermonize last Shabbat on the scandal that’s on everyone’s mind.

For one thing, it’s all too raw and too much remains unknown, said the religious leader of Congregation Brit Shalom, a Reform synagogue.

Then there’s the fact that one of his congregants happens to be Graham Spanier, whose 16-year tenure at the helm of Penn State University came to an unceremonious end last week when the university trustees fired him.

“The revelation of these terrible secrets has shattered the sensibilities of this community,” said Ostrich, who serves on the board of Penn State Hillel, which also counted Spanier as an ardent supporter. “Many people are walking around in shock, like someone kicked them in their stomachs.”

Indeed, Penn State’s football program, the whole university really, has experienced a shocking fall. As seemingly everyone now knows, the allegations that an assistant football coach sexually abused young boys led to the firing of not only Spanier but also the legendary Nittany Lions coach, Joe Paterno.

The scandal has reverberated throughout the Penn State world, touching the emotions of Jewish alumni around the country, state and in the Philadelphia community.

One example is Constance Smukler, a Philadelphia philanthropist and major donor to Jewish groups, whose father was a Penn state alum and supporter. The campus’ state-of-the-art facility—the Louis and Mildred Lasch Football Building, where at least one of the incidents of abuse allegedly took place—is named for her parents.

She was among those in attendance earlier this year when the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee honored Paterno and his wife, Sue, with its National Leadership award.

Rabbi Mark Robbins, AJC’s regional director, said that the Paternos were honored for their general philanthropic work and support of interfaith programming on campus.

“It’s all very sad because they had been great supporters of the underprivileged and things that had been important to the Jewish community,” he said.

On campus, Spanier’s departure is being talked about as a potential loss for Hillel, which serves a campus with some 5,000 Jewish students.

The South African native, whose parents fled Nazi Germany, ran the state’s largest academic institution, with 96,000 students, 24 branch campuses and a $4.3 billion budget.

He also had championed the current effort to erect a brand new Hillel building on campus, serving as honorary co-chair of the capital campaign to raise the necessary funds.

He also helped broker the deal that allowed Hillel to buy land downtown, just off-campus, according to sources involved in the project. Just two months ago, he hosted major donors to the project in his private box at Beaver Stadium for a Lions home game.

His removal as president doesn’t spell the end of the project, but supporters acknowledge that it poses a setback.

“I think it is sad for Hillel to lose a champion and a very effective university president,” said Rick Jacobs, a longtime psychology professor who sits on the Hillel board. Jacobs would not go into whether he thought Spanier should have been fired.

“Will he be missed? Yes. Will we be all right? Yes,” he said, adding that non-Jewish officials, including acting president Rod Erickson, see the value that Hillel brings to the university and should be just as supportive.

Though he had his critics, Spanier, a family therapist by training, has mostly received kudos for his focus on academics, even as the school was perhaps best known for its performance on the gridiron.

Sources and media reports painted a portrait of Spanier as a somewhat idiosyncratic character. He’s a magician, pilot, washboard player in a Dixieland band and an elite racquetball player.

But when it came to Penn State, he was very serious, overseeing the creation of academic programs, a celebrated honors college and new infrastructure projects on campus.

As university presidents go, Spanier also had a reputation for being accessible and had a well-known policy of responding to an email from a student within 48 hours. He also made a habit of attending High Holiday services at Hillel and addressing students.

“Everyone respected Graham Spanier. He did really good things for the university,” said Ashley Gold, a 2011 graduate who was active in Hillel, spent her junior year abroad in Israel and is now a reporter for the Reading Eagle.

“Everyone in Hillel knew that Graham Spanier was Jewish. I don’t think the whole college knew.

“The situation has become so complex and so complicated, it’s so upsetting,” she said.

Sources said that when Hillel sought his help, he responded more enthusiastically than they could have imagined.

The Hillel Foundation has had a presence on campus since the 1930s, well before the university population swelled in the postwar years. But since the State College community is so small, Hillel has typically looked to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia for the bulk of its funding. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia allocated $45,000 for 2011-2012.

By many accounts, the campus Hillel has flourished in recent years. But it still operates without its own building, holding most programs in a student activities center.

Supporters are trying to change that. Last year, Hillel purchased land in a downtown commercial district from Citizens Bank, in part through a donation by alum David Pincus, who is a member of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood. Sources said Spanier played a role in making that deal happen.

Now the Penn State Hillel board is undertaking a $12 million capital campaign to erect a 30,000-square-foot building.

“He was very involved, he was very anxious to see it happen,” said Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, who has taken a leadership role in the fundraising effort at the request of his congregant, Pincus. “I think that in some ways, he has not been connected Jewishly in his adult life. This brought back to him a certain degree of connection to the Jewish community. He was extremely responsive to whatever we asked him to do,” said Cooper, who said he had been in email contact with Spanier right up until the day he was fired.

Sources also said Spanier had a pro-Israel orientation. He recently led a trip to Israel and regularly met with the consul general in Philadelphia.

But not everyone was a fan. In 2006, Spanier figured into a campus controversy surrounding a canceled, pro-Israel art exhibit. The school of visual arts decided to nix a painting exhibit by Elkins Park native Joshua Stulman, who created a series of works depicting anti-Semitism, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism in Palestinian society.

In 2007, an attorney representing Stulman filed a federal lawsuit naming as defendants two members of the art faculty, as well as Spanier. The suit claimed that Stulman’s First Amendment rights were violated. Now living in New York City, Stulman said the suit reached settlement and he couldn’t discuss the outcome, but he said Spanier had failed to intervene when, Stulman said, he was faced with a clear anti-Israel bias.

“The institutionalized tendency to obscure or simply not report serious allegations at Penn State is systemic. It is my hope that, with the passing of Graham Spanier as head of the university, this will usher in a new era of honesty,” Stulman wrote in an email.

As for Spanier, one question has become the elephant in the room: Did he deserve to go?

“From what I understand, it’s less a matter of this being his fault and more a matter of it being his responsibility,” said Cooper. “He has to take the fall for that. I don’t think anyone is saying that he was involved in any wrongdoing.”

The overwhelming consensus seems to be, whether he deserved to be fired or not, Spanier’s departure is a major blow to the university.

“I know it is a loss for everyone involved because he is a wonderful person who has become a very good leader for Penn State,” said Ostrich, who said he has spoken to Spanier since the fallout but couldn’t go into details.

The rabbi’s immediate focus for now is finding a way to move forward.

“We still have over 5,000 Jewish students on campus with a job to do. This has been a very traumatic event, people are shocked,” said Ostrich, whose congregation numbers 200 families. “The lack of information is putting a good question mark in everybody’s mind. There are a lot of question marks.”

Tennessee reportedly sends Bruce Pearl packing


Bruce Pearl, who guided the University of Tennessee men’s basketball team to unprecedented success and the U.S. men’s squad to the Maccabiah Games gold medal, has been fired by the university, according to ESPN.com.

Pearl, 51, was informed of his dismissal on Monday, sources said. The Knoxville school must reach a financial settlement with the coach and his assistants.

Pearl was charged with unethical conduct by the NCAA for misleading its investigators, which he acknowledged at a tearful news conference last September.

On an entry posted Monday on his Facebook page, Pearl said, “This is perhaps the saddest day in my life. I loved everything about Tennessee, Knoxville and the Volunteers. These were the best years of my life.”

Tennessee had docked his salary by $1.5 million over five years, banned him from off-campus recruiting for a year and terminated his contract in September. He was coaching without a contract. Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive tacked on an eight-game suspension from conference play.

Pearl, who is Jewish and a popular speaker at Jewish events, led Tennessee to an unprecedented six straight NCAA tournament appearances. Michigan defeated the Vols, 75-45, in the second round of this year’s tournament.

In six seasons, Pearl led the Volunteers to their first No. 1 ranking in 2008 and first NCAA tournament regional finals appearance, missing out on a trip to the 2010 Final Four by one point.

In July 2009, Pearl’s American squad upset defending gold medalist Israel, 95-86, in overtime in the Maccabiah Games gold-medal game. His son Steven was a member of the squad, as well as the University of Tennessee team.

“It’s coaching the U.S. team, representing the United States of America in an international competition and coaching the game of basketball, the game I love, and doing it in my Jewish homeland,” he told JTA prior to the tournament. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

College Finals Test Gymnasts’ Mettle


Two Jewish gymnasts, University of Denver’s Ashley Shible and University of Florida’s Orley Szmuch, are tumbling toward success at the NCAA’s National Collegiate Women’s Gymnastics Championships, held April 15-17 at UCLA’s legendary Pauley Pavilion.

For Szmuch the competition is both a joyful homecoming and opportunity to best her 2003 scores, but for Shible it’s the last hurrah of a successful college career.

Shible, a two-time Colorado Sportswoman of the Year, comes to the nationals without her team. She and teammate Heather Huffaker qualified as individual all-around competitors, but the University of Denver Pioneers failed to qualify.

“It’s a little scary to go without a team, but I’ve been here before, and I know what to expect,” said Shible, who went to the championships with her team in 2001 and as an individual in 2002.

As a child, Shible attended Sunday school and she still celebrates Jewish holidays when she’s home with her family.

“I think about the holidays, and try to celebrate them at school, but it’s harder when I’m on my own,” said Shible, whose family lives in Palm Harbor, Fla.

In her freshman year at Denver, the 5-foot-2 Shible became the school’s first freshman All-American gymnast since 1983, won Denver’s Freshman of the Year award, broke the school’s all-around record and then went on to break her own record — twice. In her college career, Shible has scored three perfect 10s, is the lone gymnast in Denver history to score a 10 on the vault and has two signature vaults name after her.

“Vault’s my favorite event. When you land a move that no one else has ever done, they name it after you. So now there’s a Shible 1 and a Shible 2,” said the gymnast, who won four vault titles, two all-around titles and one uneven bars title this season.

When not competing, Shible spends as much time as possible outdoors. She plays softball and other non-gymnastic sports. She’s even picked up fishing.

“When I first came to Denver, my boyfriend, who I’m still with, taught me how to fly fish,” Shible said. “I love it.”

Shible excels at academics as well. The senior biology major graduated high school with a 4.0 and is a three-time University of Denver academic bronze medalist. After graduation, she hopes to have a career in animal training.

“My dream is to work with dolphins, but I’m happy working my way up,” Shible said.

She currently works with sea otters, river otters and tigers at her internship with Denver’s Ocean Journey.

Shible has never been to Los Angeles and is as excited about exploring the city this week as she is about the championship meet.

“My excitement’s split about 50-50. I should have some extra time before the competition and I can’t wait to see all the sites,” she said.

Shible hasn’t put any added pressure on herself for her final collegiate gymnastics appearance.

“This is my last meet,” said Shible, who graduates this spring. “So I want to do well, but I want to have fun more than anything.”

For Orley Szmuch, this week’s national championship marks her homecoming. Szmuch lived in Northridge until age 11. Her family lived in several cities in the West afterward, but her parents have since moved back to Burbank.

“I’m so excited to be competing in Los Angeles in front of my parents, sister and cousins,” said Szmuch, who sees her family just once a year during winter break. “It’s such a benefit for me to have them there.”

Szmuch attended religious school as a youngster, but found it difficult to balance with her practice schedule. “Gymnastics took over and I wasn’t able to continue with Hebrew school. I was never bat mitzvahed — but my parents would have liked that,” said Szmuch, whose family currently belongs to a synagogue.

Szmuch, who stands at 4-foot-11.5, was a top-three finisher in six of her 10 all-around performances this season. She was named Southeastern Conference Gymnast of the Week on Jan. 20, her third such honor in her collegiate career. She was the NCAA South Central Region vault co-champion with a season-best 9.95 and was named runner-up in the regional all-around with a season-best 39.60. Her freshman year, she was NCAA Central Region vault champion and was named SEC Freshman of the Year.

“Floor is the most fun event,” said Szmuch who earned 2003 All-American second team honors for her floor exercise in the NCAA Championships’ team competition.

“But, I love practicing bars. It’s an exhilarating event. It’s such an amazing feeling to fly through the air,” said Szmuch, whose collegiate best on bars is a 9.975.

The powerhouse gymnast almost didn’t attend Florida because the tape she sent to the athletic department was returned to her unopened.

“I had the wrong address, but I didn’t know it. Then one of my coaches ran into one of the Florida coaches and talked me up,” Szmuch said.

She resent the tape, visited the school and knew it was the right match.

“I was blown away. I instantly fit in; there’s an amazing support staff, and there’s just so much the school offers.”

Attending college so far from home hasn’t been easy on the gymnast, so she depends on a close-knit group of girlfriends.

“I moved from the West Coast, and don’t have any family nearby. So the girls on the team are like family to me,” said Szmuch, who rooms with teammate Sheri Owens, and Gator track team members Krystle Moss and Sara Cooper.

Szmuch plans to stay with gymnastics after graduation, but she has additional career goals.

“I want to work with people and make a difference,” the junior sociology major said. “I’d love to work for the [Anti-Defamation League].”

For now she’s focused on the championships. “Hopefully my experience will help me be a little more relaxed than my first time here,” said Szmuch, who attended the 2003 Championships with her Gator team. “I’m more of a veteran this year and want to help out the freshman on the team as we head to L.A.”

Offering advice to younger gymnasts who hope to compete at the collegiate level, Szmuch said: “You have to enjoy what you do and make sure you’re doing you’re sport for yourself. I love this sport; that’s what’s kept me going for 15 years and keeps me going now.”

The NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships will be held
April 15-17 at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. For ticket information, go to