ByÂ Dan Steinberg
The list of collegiate athletes who emerged from the Golda Och Academy is modest, as such things go. The small Jewish day school in West Orange, N.J., once produced a JV basketball player at the University of Pennsylvania, and a high-scoring guard at Division III Ithaca. There have been a couple of Division III soccer players, a softball player at Northwestern 15 or so years ago, and a swimmer at Colgate before that.
So when Jacob Susskind decided he wasÂ going to forgo his Division III opportunities and attend the University of Maryland, basketball wasnât part of his decision.
âTry out,â his younger brother urged him. âSee what happens.â
Nu, and what happened? Susskind went on to spend four seasons as a Maryland walk-on. He became one of Mark Turgeonâs longest-tenured players, traveling to some of college basketballâs most famous venues in both the ACC and the Big Ten. And he gave Marylandâs fan base somethingÂ âJewish Jordanâ Tamir GoodmanÂ never managed: a Member of the TribeÂ on the Terps bench.
The pieces began fitting together when Susskind and his father visited campus for orientation, not long after Gary Williams retired and Turgeon replaced him. Turgeonâs staff had previously attempted to recruit Kyrie Irving to Texas A&M; Susskind played in the same AAU organization and for the same coach as the future NBA star. When Susskind met Turgeon, the 6-foot-4 guard was just a few months removed from ACL surgery that cost him his senior season, but Marylandâs coach told him to come back to the basketball office when he had enrolled.
âAt the time, we didnât have a lot of players on our team,â Turgeon said. âWe talked to enough people that we felt like he would be a good piece to what we were trying to do.â
After each of his first few individual workouts that fall, Susskind was told only to come back the next day.
âDid they say youâre on the team?â his father Jeff kept wondering.
âNo, you donât ask that,â Jacob explained.
After a few days of this, Susskind was asked what uniform number he wanted to wear. He called home. Everyone decided that meant he was on the team.
âI was speechless, looking around the room for Candid Camera,â Jeff Susskind said.
âWeÂ could notÂ believe it; we really could not,â said Jacobâs mom, Shari-Beth Susskind.
âIÂ just wanted to get on top of a building and just yell â that kind of feeling,â Jacob Susskind said. âI was just amazed. I didnât really know what to do or say.â
See, Golda Och â a Solomon Schecter school whose graduating classes have 50 or 60 kids â isnât typically an ACC feeder program. Before his freshman year of high school, Susskind and his parents had a family meeting about whether he should transfer to Montclair Kimberly Academy, where Irving started his prep career. TheÂ elder Susskinds split their votes, and Jacobâs tiebreaking vote was to stay.
By his senior year, Susskind was hearing from coaches at places such as Hamilton, Emory and Washington University in St. Louis. He spent a weekend with the basketball program at Emory, and was offered a spot at Hamilton. But none of these schools felt right.
âGoing to Schecter my whole life, I was kind of in a little bubble,â Susskind said. âI visited here, and right away I knew I wanted to go to a big school. That was pretty much it. I was going to be a normal student.â
Maryland also offered Susskind something he (and his parents) wanted: a sizable Jewish community. He came from a kosher home, went to an orthodox synagogue and spent his entire childhood in a conservative Jewish school. Maryland, which has one of the countryâs largest Jewish communities, âallowed me to branch out but still have a place to fall back on, to make my circle a little smaller,â he said.
Maryland also had something of a history with Jewish ballplayers. Goodmanâs dalliance with the school was national news in the late â90s; the orthodox kid from Baltimore made Sports Illustrated (and the front page of this newspaper) before he ended up at Towson without ever suiting up for the Terps. The Susskinds knew this entire tale; some friends joked that Jacob would become the next Jewish Jordan, while others thought maybe this was a fate to avoid.
âIÂ said, âYou know what? Thatâs cute, but heâs going to make his own name for himself,ââ Jeff Susskind recalled. âI think heâs done a fine job doing that.â
Indeed, Susskind, who has received late-game minutes in about 20 games, embraced the intersection of his religion with his sport. He came out at Midnight Madness to the strains of âHava Nagilaâ this season, and joined the Jewish fraternity AEPi, whose members have started âSuss-Kindâ chants at games. He goes to events at both the campus Hillel and Chabad houses, and last yearÂ appeared at a sports event at BethesdaâsÂ
TempleCongretation Beth El, where he got an ovation when he discussed his Jewish schooling.
âHeâs a proud affiliated Jew, and thatâs an awesome attribute for a guy who takes his athletics seriously and his academics seriously,â said Rabbi Ari Israel, the executive director at Maryland Hillel. âJacob was a Jewish day school student out of New Jersey, and thereâs a pride in that. There are hundreds of Jewish day school kids here who have that connection. SoÂ thereâs a pride of affiliation and connection.â
Strangers have approached him and said their family members root for him, and he has seen posters of him in a Maryland uniform hanging in his school. (âItâs so weird,â he said.) He missed practice to observe Yom Kippur services this fall,Â helped a Maryland team win theÂ National Hillel Basketball TournamentÂ last spring, and has had discussions with teammates about kashrut laws, the high holidays, and the nature of the divine.
âPrior to me coming here, Iâve never met anybody who was Jewish before,â teammate Dez Wells said. âSo I just pick his brain about stuff, ask him about the culture, how it is growing up, different facets of his religion. Heâs taught me a lot.â
Not just about religion, either. Wells grabbed Susskind and the other walk-ons after Marylandâs recent home win over Michigan State, embracing them and telling them how much they mean to him and the program.
âIn that moment, I just wanted those guys to know, donât feel like youâre not a part of the success â you guys had just as much to do with that win as we did,â Wells said. âSo I was just trying to give my ode to those guys â especially Susskind, because he guards me every day and I guard him every day. Heâs made me so much better throughout my years here. So I just wanted to tell him what was on my heart at that moment.â
Susskind will graduate this spring with a double-major in accounting and finance. People have asked him if he will try to play professionally in Israel, but heâs inclined to move on from the sport. And while heâll leave Maryland without much in the way of a stat line, he said he has never wished he were a Division III starter.
âNot one bit,â he said. âThis is an amazing place. This is an amazing program. And weÂ have a chance to do something special this year.â
Which doesnât mean the Susskinds are necessarily done with the Terps just yet. Younger brother Ben is attempting to walk onto the Maryland soccer team this month.