For Lawrence native Gabriel Leifer, choosing to focus on basketball instead of playing floor hockey in seventh grade, at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach (now in Woodmere), was like winning the lottery.
Leifer, 23, never looked back. After four years of playing basketball at Davis Renov Stahler High School for Boys, in Woodmere, he became, in the words of his DRS coach, Avrum Stein, “the most dominating player” in the Metropolitan Yeshiva High School Athletic League.
“In high school, I wasn’t thinking about college [ball], I was thinking about getting better,” Leifer said. “In between 10th and 11th grade, one of my best friends switched to HAFTR” — the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway High School — “and I had to step up, take over and grew into the player I started to become in college.”
After four years at Yeshiva University, which Leifer said complemented his observant Jewish lifestyle, he is graduating with a long list of accomplishments on the court, and will step into a job at the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers this summer. On Jan. 12, 2020, he married Avigail Hackal.
For his skill on the hardwood, he was one of four recipients of the Jewish Sports Heritage Association’s Jay Fiedler Outstanding Jewish College Athlete of the Year Award, along with Jericho native Adam Fox, of Harvard, now a star defenseman for the New York Rangers, Sylvie Binder, of Columbia, for fencing, and Hannah Fox (no relation to Adam), of Amherst College, for basketball.
The Jewish Sports Heritage Association, run by Great Neck resident Alan Freedman, executive director of Temple Israel of Lawrence, will present a variety of honors to 2020 award winners at a virtual ceremony on Sunday. Last year’s ceremony was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. April is Jewish Sports Heritage Month.
“This group of Jewish men and women helps to show the public that Jewish athletes, coaches, executives can make significant achievements in the world of sports, an area of Jewish accomplishment often overlooked,” Freedman wrote in an email. “By doing so, I think it helps to break down stereotypes that people have.”
A 6-foot-6 forward, Leifer is much less a stereotype than a rare athlete. Three coaches described him as a selfless player who looks to pass before shooting and is more focused on winning than personal statistics. And Y.U. has done a lot of winning, running up a 36-0 record since a season-opening loss in November 2019.
Leifer averaged nearly 17 points and 17 rebounds in the 2019-20 season, which ended with the Division III Maccabees ranked No. 8 in the nation, winning the program’s first two NCAA tournament games and making it to the Sweet 16 before the coronavirus pandemic halted all sports. The team finished with the best D-3 record in the country, 29-1. The Maccabees won all seven games they played in the truncated 2021 season.
A selfless player
Consistency and unselfishness were two of the first words Stein used to describe Leifer. “He was maturing physically toward the end of the year,” Stein said, referring to Leifer’s senior year at DRS, where Stein has coached for nearly nine years. “I knew he would be good in college, then he became the best player in the entire league.” Y.U. plays in the Skyline Conference. “He even dominated the interior. He’s smart and physically strong enough. I was thrilled with the success he’s had.”
Going up against the Leifer-led DRS squad could not have been fun, but Evan Pickman, who coaches the Abraham Joshua Heschel School boys’ team, appreciated Leifer as an opponent, and as a player on the Maccabi USA U18 team that played in Santiago, Chile, in December 2015 and January 2016.
“I recruited a very good team, mostly from our league,” said Pickman, who has coached for 53 years and at every level. “We had serious, intense practices like games, and Gabriel, from day one, just ate it up.” Playing lower-caliber teams in the Pan American Maccabi Games, the squad captured the gold medal.
Coaches like to say that you can tell what type of person a player is by the way he plays, Pickman said. “I saw how the DRS students idolized him as a classmate and a person, and how he treated them,” he said of Leifer. “He is a wonderful human being, so respectful. He is the complete package.”
On the court, Leifer plays to win, and works to elevate his teammates. “Overall, he’s the most selfless player I’ve been around,” said Y.U. head coach Elliott Steinmetz, who recruited his fellow Five Towner. Steinmetz, who is also an attorney, is a lifelong Woodmere resident and has coached the Maccabees since 2014.
Leifer’s court awareness is what caught Steinmetz’s attention. “It’s what I saw in him when recruiting him,” he said, “and in terms of his personality, he’s a giving person, and that comes out in the way he plays.”
Referring to Michael Jordan’s thinking that playing doesn’t count unless you compete for a championship, Leifer said he would have rather played on a team with a less gaudy record that had been able to finish last season with a win or loss in the NCAA tournament.
Steinmetz agreed, and to him it illustrates that Leifer understands the larger picture. “It says he recognizes what is ultimately important,” Steinmetz said, adding that everyone wants to win every game, but an occasional loss focuses players’ attention on improving and playing their best at playoff time.
Entering the working world hasn’t dimmed Leifer’s love for basketball. Along with pursuing a master’s in accounting, he is considering playing hoops in Israel, as is a former Yeshiva University teammate, Simcha Halpert.
As for being named one of the Jewish Sports Heritage Association’s outstanding Jewish college athletes of the year, Leifer showed the selflessness his coaches attested to. “I had people who supported me all the way, and it’s a testament to them,” he said. “I wasn’t aware such an award existed. The accomplishments and recognition wouldn’t be possible without anyone, including my teammates.”
For a list of award winners, honorees and inductees, go to jewishsportsheritage.org. To attend the virtual Jewish Sports Heritage Association event on April 25, at 10:30 a.m., contact Alan Freedman at email@example.com for the Zoom link.