The College Admission Process, Basketball and Stereotypes  - September 23, 2014

For many of us, the process of getting into college is or was one of the most stressful experiences in our whole lives. Getting “accepted” or “rejected” by nameless, faceless institutions seems so definitive, so defining of a student’s worth. Every year, I talk to kids who are heartbroken because their dreams of getting into certain schools were dashed on the rocks of a mysterious process that everyone thinks they understand until the often-logic defying results come in those make-or-break envelopes and emails.

How did the college admissions process get to be this way? I want to tell you a brief history of certain aspects of the college admissions process and use it as a way to talk about how we think about others and about ourselves.

In the early part of the 20th century, leaders at the big Ivy League schools were really worried. Undesirable students (which means, in case you don’t understand, Jewish students), were doing so well on the Ivy League entrance exams that they were becoming a growing presence in the student bodies. The leaders at Harvard, Yale and Princeton were absolutely appalled at the numbers of Jewish students at New York's Columbia University, which by 1920 was almost 40 percent Jewish.

Harvard's president Lawrence Lowell instituted a whole new admissions process for potential students. It was a very clever plan.

He limited the size of the entering class.

He instituted recommendation letters.

He instituted personal interviews.

Soon at Harvard, Yale and Princeton there were lengthy applications,

personal essays,

and descriptions of extracurricular activities.

The admission process was now complicated, cumbersome and expensive.

Again, why did the colleges do this?

I read a wonderful undergraduate thesis by Abby Klionsly, a very bright Princeton student, called In the Tiger’s Lair: The Development of Jewish Student Life at Princeton University 1915-1972. She confirms why these new admission procedures were designed at these three hallowed halls of academia. This way they could hide behind what was now a very subjective and layered process. They could say that they admitted a class of students on the basis of a nebulous attribute like “character.” And since they thought immigrant Jewish students didn’t have character, guess who would not get in now?

It worked great. The number of Jewish students in the next incoming classes at those schools dropped, dramatically. If there was a “Jewish problem," it was now solved.

But there was one unintended consequence. To me, this is fascinating and rather funny. This new admissions process wrecked the basketball teams of these schools. You see, as strange as this will sound, all the top basketball talent at that time was Jewish. So now, in 1922, Yale didn’t have many Jewish students, and the Yale Bulldogs finished last in the Ivy League. The bigoted coach gave his one star Jewish player, Sam Pite, very little playing time. Sam Pite left the team. That was a big loss, because, at least according to basketball legend, Pite was the reason for the half-court rule; the 'time-line' in basketball was instituted due to his ability to dribble the ball all over the court to maintain possession. Just to add insult to injury, an amateur Jewish club trounced the Yale team.

Now the alumni were hopping mad. Some of them demanded that the University stop discriminating against Jewish applicants to their schools. They demanded and got a new coach, Sam Pite came back, and the Yale Bulldogs won the conference title the next season.

All of this seems strange to us. But in the decades before World War II, the sons of Jewish immigrants dominated basketball. Basketball was a city game, and the Jewish immigrants filled the cities of the northeast. Every Jewish boy was playing basketball. There were amateur leagues in Jewish communities all over the Northeast. Every pole had a peach basket on it. And every one of those Jewish kids dreamed of playing professional basketball. Listen to these words: It was a way out of the ghetto. A Jewish boy might be able to go to college on a basketball scholarship.

Trivia lovers will enjoy the fact that the first basket in NBA history was scored by a Jewish player named Ossie Schectman. Schectman is a central figure in the documentary film, "The First Basket," detailing Jewish basketball history.

Widely-held anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews also explained, in a nasty way, why the sport was dominated by them and seemed to explain why Jews were so good at basketball. New York Daily News sports editor Paul Gallico wrote, and I quote, "Basketball appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background … it sat well with the "temperament of the Jews" because it "places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging, and general smart alecness."

Coaches tended to view Jewish players — who were perceived as shorter — as better suited for the game, because the game's rules at that time, listen to this, sports fans, actually put taller players at a disadvantage. It was only later that basketball's demographics began to shift.

My subject is stereotypes. We think that stereotypes are real reflections of what we see in the world. But instead, stereotypes often shape how we see the world. Stereotypes can be self-fulfilling prophecies.

Once stereotypes become fixed and widely accepted, it becomes difficult not to use them as explanations for everything.

It's called “confirmation bias”: if people see a lot of Jews playing and dominating basketball, and the common stereotype is that Jews are crafty schemers, in the popular imagination, the sport becomes about crafty scheming. And if someone were writing back then about why so few blacks were among the game's biggest names, they'd probably fall back on equally stupid stereotypes about black players lacking the necessary intelligence or craftiness or work ethic.

I am telling you this surprising story of Jews and basketball because I’m trying to make a point about what stereotypes do. I want to use this example to talk about how we think about the people in our lives and about ourselves.

We stereotype a person and that’s it; we rarely graduate from what might be an unfair first impression.

We are surprised that someone actually has something to give or to say or to make a contribution because somehow we got it into our heads that this person isn’t much. Or because someone told us that this was true and we were dumb enough to believe it. 


A few times a week I will hear remarks like these:

“Rabbi, I’ve played cards with her and she’s not playing with a full deck.”

“She’s out of her mind”

“Her elevator doesn’t go to the top floor”

“She gives the word meshuggeneh a bad reputation”


Every week, very normal, good people who are in a bad way over some very real problem talk to me and I see them at their worst: angry, scared, strung out, sleep-deprived, rock-bottom depressed. They cannot cope. They are weak. They say words and think thoughts that have never come out of their mouths and never entered their minds.

Should I call them crazy or spiteful because they are going through such terrors? 


I understand exactly what they are going through and I will tell you right now: Put any of us in the same stressful or painful or grieving situation and most of us respond the same way. In bad times, we have the right to react emotionally.


If we think in this way, we will give people some slack.

So one modest request on this Rosh Hashanah is: No more calling people nuts. You have no idea what they may be going through right now. There but for the grace of G-d go you or me.


And now let me talk, in a different way, about how we think about ourselves, about the stereotypes we cast on ourselves.


Here are some things I hear from people about themselves:

I’m not smart; I could never figure that out

I have no eye; I can’t draw; I’ve never done anything better than a stick figure in my life.

I can’t sing; when I was in the chorus in first-grade, my teacher told me just to listen

I have two left feet; I can’t dance

I can’t do public speaking; don’t ask me to get up in front of people


Someone gave you that stereotype of yourself

Or you tried a few times and failed and didn’t want to try any more

No one encouraged you;

no one worked with you;

no one had any patience.


I don’t accept any of this.

I don’t accept any stereotypes, not about Jewish people or Polish people or anyone else.

I don’t even assume that blondes have more fun.

And I don’t accept, “I can’t.”


So here is another modest proposal.

We’re going to have a few programs to see what we might be able to do.

I’ll just mention the first one, called Wine and Paint.

You’ll see publicity about it, but for now I’ll just introduce the idea. It’s for all of us who think we can’t paint or draw. It’s to work against the stereotype that you have in your head. We’ll give you wine to warm you up to the idea that maybe this is something you can do. Remember, Grandma Moses began her career in her late 70’s when her hands were too arthritic to wield embroidery needles.

We want to work against stereotypes, including ones you have about yourself.


I started by talking about Jewish kids and college. Let me just mention one more stereotype, one that seems to be positive: All Jewish kids go to college.

It’s true that as immigrants, we prized education and we made it in this country. But that doesn’t mean college is for all Jewish young people.


My very simple point tonight is that all stereotypes, even positive stereotypes can be hurtful; generalizations are dangerous.

We Jewish people know this better than anyone else. In the coming year, let’s work against all stereotypes about others and about ourselves.

In this spirit, let me announce another program. On a couple of Sunday mornings, I’m going to directly refute some stereotypes about our people, things that people tell me are thrown at them and they don’t know how to respond, topics like

“Jewish people control the media”

 “The Jews killed Jesus”

“The Holocaust is exaggerated”

“Israel stole the land from the Palestinians”


I will give background but also provide direct answers to this kind of horrible and false remark.

Please join me for these sessions and please let me know if you are ever hit with such lies.


I began tonight by talking about acceptances and rejections from colleges and how people often suffer because of how others define them. Ultimately, no letter or email should define who you are. No stupid lie should define who you are. Only you should do that. In the end, you must accept yourself. And you can only accept yourself if you really know who you are.