A look at how the SDJA community rallied behind the Lions following the Pittsburgh tragedy

By Joseph Vilenski (’19)

“They’ve got their guy! We’ve got ours!” said Mr. Larry Cobb, San Diego Jewish Academy bus driver, as he held up a Moses action figure. On November 10, 2018, the SDJA football team, for the first time in eleven years, was on the way to their playoff game against their longtime rivals, the Calvin Christian Crusaders. The Lions, having lost to Calvin earlier in the year, were on the prowl. Cornerbacks sniffed out screens and defensive tackles scarfed down inside runs. Ruben Veinbergs (‘19), Quarterback, hunted down the opposing corners, while Moi Kanarek’s (‘20) shifty moves left the crusader linebackers tackling thin air.

Larry Cobb’s Action Figure Photo: Joseph Vilenski (‘19)

SDJA took an early lead against Calvin Christian at the half. However, it was the Crusaders turn to run up the scoreboard. By the mid-fourth quarter, they had almost completed their astounding comeback with the score being 30-36. With a few minutes still left on the board, it was 4th and 2. Lion’s ball. A first down iced the victory.  SDJA star running back Moi Kanarek (‘20) recalls how he groaned in pain before the next play. Battered and bruised, he fumbled the ball after a 15-yard 1st down run, which gave Calvin a shot to tie the game up in the remaining seconds. However, the defense stepped up and assured the win after an offensive pass interference call against Calvin. “It felt like the end,” Kanarek says now. “It felt like the end of our season. It felt horrible because we had made it so far,” he said, concluding that “it was probably one of the best days and the worst days of my life.”


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The following week, on November 12th,  the Lions played a tough game against the Foothills Christian Knights, but unfortunately came up short of winning the championship. The stands showed unwavering support for the Lions down to the end. Despite the loss, the 2019 SDJA football team brought the community together like no other. Gabriel Simpser (‘21) described it as a “privilege to belong to such a close group that accomplished so much and made history.” The following Monday, in the 3A Hebrew 8 class, Morah Yedid expressed what the playoff run truly meant to her and the school. “Yosef (Joseph Vilenski (‘19), Defensive Lineman) and Yoshua (Josh Nachassi (‘19), Linebacker), please stand up… Never in all my years at this school, have I seen the school community so united,” said Moriah Yedid. “Yes, I was cold the whole time and I don’t understand football, but I want to congratulate you guys for making it so far and for showing people what SDJA really stands for,” she continued.


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Around 200 people from the community showed up to see the Lions play. Teachers, students, alumni, parents, relatives, and even Rabbi Ezagui from Chabad La Jolla and members of his congregation all gathered to watch the Lions play. Jack Hanlon (‘21), O-lineman on the team, described the energy at the game as “electric.” Whenever the Lions would make a play, or gain momentum, the crowd would let out a deafening roar. The occasional “Let’s go Lions!” would boost the player’s spirits tenfold. Josh Barforough (‘19) felt that “the game brought us together as a community… it did mean something to me”.

Lions crowd showing support Photo: Sally Eichner

A week prior to the final, Rabbi Ezagui himself visited the SDJA campus give the football team a blessing. The Rabbi handed each player a Kippah to wear under their helmets as a sign of their faith. “Listen, the Jews, the Maccabees, were winners, and so you guys will be winners as well,” said Rabbi Ezagui. “Even if the score is not in your favor, making it this far is winning the respect and admiration from the rest of San Diego. You guys are proving your strength in the wake of an atrocious event done to the Jewish people.”

The event that Rabbi Ezagui was referring to was the shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, PA on October 27, 2018. This baseless act of hatred left Jewish communities all over the United States reeling. The players, the audience, and even the opponents had similar feelings. Before the game against Calvin Christian, the Crusaders held a moment of silence for the people who lost their lives. Kicker, Eitan Breziner (‘20), Quarterback, Ruben Veinbergs (‘19), and a plethora of other players wrote down the names of the victims, the word “Pittsburgh,” and a Jewish star on their wrist tape to show their support. Moi Kanarek (‘20) said that it felt amazing to be able to represent the Jewish community through football.


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Moi’s father, Bernardo Kanarek, nicknamed Patusi, shared the team’s sentiment to play for Pittsburgh. Patusi purchased over 100 shirts that said “Stronger than Hate,” the national slogan in support of the victims, for the crowd to wear during the game. Kanarek also bought wristbands with the same slogan for the players to wear during their final game. “This game changed the school,” said Josh Barforough (‘19) “It definitely made us feel all together and people had their Pittsburgh shirts too. It was good for us a Jewish community to get together.”

Lions celebrating their victory Photo: Sally Eichner

For the Lions, football became more than a game. It became an opportunity to represent their people after the tragedy in Pittsburgh. “Play for that J on your chest,” was the phrase Joseph Vilenski (‘19) said before both games. As one of the captains, he wanted the team to play for something bigger than themselves. That meant to show the world that even after a horrific event done against the Jewish people, like the shooting in Pittsburgh, the team will stand united as a brotherhood, a family. The pride felt by the Lions for who they were made them realize that these games had a deeper meaning. After the win versus the Crusaders, captain, Isaac Rosen approached Vilenski and said “I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but there was something more to that game. Something more than football.”

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