When University of Washington senior Jeremy Berman met current freshman teammate Michael Rubin, he welcomed him as he has all new members of the tennis team during his four-year career. There was just one thing different he needed to know.
“Are you Jewish?” Berman asked.
Thankfully for Berman, Rubin said yes, as have three other newcomers to the Husky tennis team in the past two years.
Five years ago (he redshirted his freshman year) Berman joined the Husky team and, although he had the support and friendship of his teammates, in one way he was alone. He was, for three years, the only Jewish member of the team.
This year, five of the 11 players on the team are Jews. Joining Berman in his senior year is sophomore Ari Strasberg, redshirt freshman Matt Leon and two freshmen, Rubin and Nick Weiss.
As a team captain for the third straight year, Berman obviously possesses great leadership skills.
The 5-foot-5-inch athlete is a sparkplug for the 28th-ranked Huskies, usually playing in the number-three slot. He does not overpower anyone; he uses cat-like quickness, relentless hustle and determination and the heart of a lion to wear down his opponents. He is a fireball on the court.
Off the court, he is a polite, inviting, gentle human being. His friendly persona made it easy for him to take his “landsmen” under his wing.
“I think it is very uncommon to have a team that is almost half Jewish,” Berman said. “This is my fifth year here and my first three years I was the only Jew. A lot of these guys are from out of town, so it is nice for them to feel like they are at home.”
Berman helped the other four players feel at home by inviting them to spend the High Holidays with his family in Kirkland.
“The five of us get along really well,” said Rubin, who is from Canton, Ohio. “I came here and right away I was pretty welcome. It’s a good feeling to have a little family here.”
As rare as it is to have five Jews on the team, it is merely a coincidence. They have come from very different backgrounds.
Besides Berman, who spent three months in Israel in a high-school exchange program, and Rubin, the others stretch from across the globe.
Strasberg — who plays in the fifth spot — is an Israeli, Weiss is from Santa Monica, Calif., and Leon came down from West Vancouver, B.C.
Although none is particularly religiously observant, they all possess great pride in their heritage.
“[Judaism] is a big thing for me,” Rubin said. “I feel pretty happy about where I am right now and I thank God for the opportunity He has given me to be out here in Seattle.”
Berman has been to Israel three times, including once to attend his brother’s wedding. He has twice participated in the Maccabi Games (the Jewish Olympics). There is no doubt he has maintained his Jewish identity, though the task was more difficult his first three years.
“Seattle has a large Jewish community,” said Berman. “But I don’t think the UW has a very large Jewish community. One thing that I regret about school [UW] is that there have not been that many Jews here I can associate with.”
Although his time with the UW tennis team is nearing its end, Berman remains excited about the futures of the four Jewish teammates he will leave behind.
“We had a good time when they came to my house and met my family,” Berman said. “It’s too bad I am leaving because we could have done this for a few years.”
He cannot compete with his fellow Jews after this year, but he still feels there is a way to leave a lasting impression. Connecting the team with the Jewish community is something Berman is determined to accomplish.
“I think it would be great if we got a lot of support from the Jewish community in our matches,” Berman said. “I think people should be proud that there are so many Jews on the men’s tennis team at the UW and that we are doing so well. It is something they can attach themselves to.”
It is easy to attach oneself to Berman, on court and off. His love of the game is evident, no less than his love for where he has come from and the people with whom he shares a history.
He cares so much that he has organized a clinic for Jewish kids in the area to learn the game from Berman and the rest of the Husky team.
The clinic will be held Sunday, April 22, at 1 p.m. at the Nordstrom Tennis Center. It will be open to kids ages 6 to 13 and there will be no minimum skill level required.
For the next three months, however, Berman will concentrate on spending as much time as he can with his teammates, Jews and non-Jews alike, and will continue to try to gut out victories for a team gunning for an NCAA berth.
Rosie Leutzinger is a student in the University of Washington School of Communications News Laboratory.