Nine boys at the Kulanu Academy have gained a better sense of belonging just by being part of a basketball team at the Cedarhurst school for those with special needs.
A charity game in 2018 was the spark that led to the creation of a boys’ team. Barbara Mezrahi, who has been a teacher at Kulanu for the past five years, led the effort.
“After the staff-versus-students basketball game, it was clear to me and a few other staff members in the high school that what makes these boys happy is basketball,” Mezrahi said. “Most importantly, we saw a need for comradeship, a sense of belonging and community for these boys. So I called every yeshiva in the community and the five boroughs. Rambam agreed to a game, and that’s when they became a real team, the Kulanu Heat.”
The squad took on Rambam Mesivta High School, in Lawrence, last year. Kulanu lost, but head coach Vincent Rougê was struck by the team’s effort. “In fairness to us, we only had seven players available that day,” he said. “Our opposition had double the amount of players available compared to us.”
Rougê has been a phys. ed. teacher at Kulanu for 12 years, and when Mezrahi told him about the basketball team idea, he immediately wanted to be involved. “The students at Kulanu have been at the school for multiple years, and they’ve become family to me at this point,” he said. “I believe that helping the students come first and basketball has always been a passion of mine. So that’s why I decided to get involved with this team.” Kulanu students range in age from 11 to 21.
Rougê is proud of how hard the boys play, and noted how they comport themselves, especially in their 55-17 win over another special education school, Yachad Individualized Vocational Development Unit, in Brooklyn, on April 2. “Not only did they play good basketball, but they also displayed great sportsmanship with the other team,” he said. “They cheered each other on the whole time, and never complained about any calls the officials made.”
The team started out wearing plain T-shirts, until one of the captains, sophomore Yosef Krasner, decided that his team needed a wardrobe makeover this season. “I reached out to a friend of mine about upgrading the uniforms, and luckily, with the help of my parents, we found somebody to provide us with jerseys,” Krasner said. “They look 10 times better than what we were wearing last season.” The navy jersey sports a red flame-like logo and the letter K.
Kulanu students can try out for school sports at Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway High School, across the street from Kulanu. Senior co-captain Yossi Tahalov played previously for HAFTR. Krasner has also tried out for HAFTR teams, but even though he and his schoolmates had the opportunity, he thought Kulanu students were treated differently. “I was offered to be the manager of their basketball team at one point,” he said. “We decided that it would be great to form our own team to show people that we’re just like everybody else.”
Beth Raskin, Kulanu’s executive director, noted the impact of having a basketball squad. “The fact that Kulanu has a basketball team puts us in the same league with other high schools,” Raskin said. “This team is a perfect opportunity for the community to see our students on an equal playing field, and that is extraordinary to me.”
The team practices once a week, and is preparing for its next game, on May 6, against Rambam. Mezrahi said that the plan is for the team to play against more regular schools in the future.
The team’s success appears to be boosting not only team members’, but also other students’ self-esteem, according to Mezrahi. “In my first year of teaching at Kulanu, there were students who would come in to school embarrassed and wanting to hide. I, fortunately, don’t see that anymore,” she said. “Kulanu’s slogan is ‘All of us together . . . Every step of the way.’ This basketball team embodies the slogan.”