The tales Jewish athletes, coaches, media tell


Oh, the stories they tell. Whether an accomplished athlete, coach, sportswriter or media executive, the honorees at the sixth annual Jewish Sports Heritage Association’s induction ceremony blended their achievements with their religion.

Hewlett High School Class of 2023 graduate Stephan Gershfeld had a tennis racket in his hand at 4 and played competitively since he was 10. His honors are countless, but he takes pride in his Jewish identity.

“It means a lot to me because I’m recognized by the Jewish community and just representing my fellow Jews is very important to me from the start,” said Gershfeld, one of the four scholastic athletes awarded the Michael Freedman Outstanding High School Athlete of the Year Award.

Temple Israel of Lawrence, where the event took place on April 7, was also the venue for Gershfeld’s bar mitzvah.

Because I feel like the Jewish community these days has gone through a lot and just to bring some happiness to them and some accolades and accomplishments just shows a lot, and really brings us all together,” Gershfeld said when asked why it means so much to be recognized as a Jewish athlete.

The high school athletes included Roslyn High tennis players, Ethan Falkowitz and Drew Hassenbein, who were honored posthumously. The teens were killed in Jericho last May by a drunk driver. Soccer player Jasmine Leshnick, from San Francisco, was similarly feted. 

“They weren’t just great tennis players, which they were, they were truly outstanding young men who were taken from us way too early,” Alan Freedman, the executive director of JSHA, said about Falkowitz and Hassenbein.      

There were seven inductees, including Woodsburgh resident Alex Sternberg and former Newsday sportswriter Mike Candel, who lives in East Rockaway, and founded the Nassau Community College lacrosse program.

For Sternberg karate helped him assimilate after his family emigrated from Hungary, where as a boy he began boxing. Attending a very strict yeshiva in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, Sternberg found he needed physical activity.

“So I went to a local Y against the knowledge of the yeshiva, to sneak away from the dormitories and in the Y there was a boxing program, so I joined it,” he said. Then somebody came in and opened up a karate program. I didn’t know what karate was.”

At 13, karate became ingrained in Sternberg’s life. His training also took a turn a couple years later.

“I was going to the subway and I had my karate uniform, by that time I was training a couple of years,” he said. “I was surrounded by a group of Black kids who wanted to know what I was doing. So there was a karate school there and they challenged me to come and show us what you know. I learned quickly I knew nothing, Already a red belt. These guys were really tough.”

Becoming a part of that karate school, “the only white kid in the Brownsville ghetto,” Sternberg said. 

“I opened up dojos, I became coach of the U.S. national karate team and I was very much involved in the sport of karate,” he said.

Karate has kept Sternberg stimulated for six decades.

“I once explained it to someone that it’s like you’re a sculptor but you’re not working with clay you’re working with you, and the more you train the better the technique is,” he said. “The more you’re chiseling your character to persevere.”

Perseverance is a familiar attribute for the Jewish people.    

“There were no Jews in karate when I got involved and I think a lot of the Jewish instructors are people that I trained and I developed,” Sternberg said, noting that at one time he trained Jewish Defense League members. “I enjoy teaching Jewish kids to take care of themselves.”

Candel said it is the stories that drive the similarity between the pair of careers he enjoyed.

“I learned from coaching and life we miss the big story,” he said addressing the audience in Temple Israel’s sanctuary already decorated for a wedding, chuppah and all.

Noting how ESPN breaks down sports into trivial statistics, Candel recounted a tale about his friend Don “Red” Goldstein, a schoolboy star for Tilden High in Brooklyn and the University of Louisville, a scoring and rebound machine.

Selected eighth in the 1959 NBA draft by the Detroit Pistons, Goldstein pivoted from pro player to dentistry and practiced for 40 years.

The stories are very, very much deeper,” Candel said before telling his audience that Goldstein’s parents were deaf mutes — could not hear, could not speak — his mother institutionalized, at 4 his father was deemed not able to care for his son. Goldstein went to live with grandparents who only spoke Yiddish.

Moving to Jupiter, Fla., he spent two days a week, heading to Del Ray at 5 a.m., to get to Our Lady Queen of Peace R.C. Church. Goldstein died in 2022.

“He spent 10 years doing dental work for migrant workers who were picking vegetables and fruit from the fields of Florida,” Candel said. “

“I had a cavity one time, he says to me come down at 6 in the morning, it’s pitch black I’m 15th on line,” he said. “That was my friend Don Goldstein. Everybody thinks of him as a great basketball player, I think of him as a great human being.”