Despite what Airplane!, the classic 1980 comedy film, may tell you, the Jewish people provided many elite athletes in the 20th century. In baseball, Sandy Koufax won an MVP, three CY Young awards, and two World Series MVPs with the Dodgers.
Hank Greenberg won two MVPs, made five All-Star teams, and won two World Series with the Tigers. Both men made the Hall of Fame. Swimmer Mark Spitz won nine gold medals and 11 overall in the Olympics. The list goes on and on (not too much further though).
Over the past 21 years, even more elite Jewish athletes have appeared on the scene, including the following incredible men and women.
Amar’e Stoudemire’s official conversion to Judaism last year makes him the most recent entry to the Jewish faith on this list. This doesn’t discount the borderline hall-of-fame career he had in the NBA, which spanned 14 seasons. Stoudemire, who made six All-Star teams and was selected to five All-NBA teams, made a name for himself on the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns alongside Steve Nash and coach Mike D’Antoni.
Stoudemire visited Israel for the first time in 2010 to connect with his Jewish heritage on his mother’s side. After Stoudemire’s retirement from the NBA in 2016, he signed with Hapoel Jerusalem of the Israeli basketball Premier League. He played for Maccabi Tel Aviv last year, who he led to the championship while winning Finals MVP.
While Stoudemire had an excellent career in the NBA, he has fierce competition for the greatest Jewish basketball player of the century. Sue Bird, arguably the best point guard in WNBA history, has had an illustrious 17-year career with the Seattle Storm. An 11-time All-Star and four-time Olympic gold medalist, Bird holds the WNBA assists record, ranks fourth all time in steals, and seventh all time in points.
Bird was raised Jewish on Long Island, New York. The future hall of famer acquired Israeli citizenship in 2006, which allowed her to compete in the EuroLeague Women championships that year. Bird is planning to return to the Storm next season for her age-40 season.
The only football player to make the list is Julian Edelman, the recently retired wide receiver who played 11 seasons with the New England Patriots. Edelman was a quarterback in college before being drafted as a wide receiver in the seventh round in 2009. Edelman went on to win three Super Bowls with the Patriots, including the MVP of Super Bowl LIII. He ranks second in Patriots history in receptions, fourth in receiving yards, and ninth in touchdowns. He ranks second all time in postseason receptions and yards.
Like Stoudemire, Edelman connected with his Jewish roots later in life. Edelman has a Jewish father, but was raised Catholic. In 2013, he publicly identified as Jewish for the first time in an interview. Edelman visited Israel a few years later, which he called “an amazing, memorable, once-in-a-lifetime experience.” He even invited Meyers Leonard to Shabbat dinner last month after Leonard used an anti-Semitic slur on Twitch.
Swimmer Dara Torres may have the most impressive athletic resume on this list despite the fact that Torres had already won four medals in three separate Olympic Games prior to 2000. After seven years away from competitive swimming, Torres made a comeback for the 2000 Games in Sydney. There she won two medals in relay events and three individual events, becoming the oldest woman to win an Olympic medal in swimming.
She upped herself at the 2008 Games in Beijing, where she won three silver medals at the age of 41 after giving birth just 16 months earlier. Torres fully converted to Judaism in 2000, and was inducted into the Jewish American Hall of Fame in 2005.
Gymnast Aly Raisman is not far behind Torres in terms of Olympic accolades this century. Raisman first competed in the 2012 London Games, where she won two gold medals and a bronze. One of her golds came in the Women’s floor competition, where she performed to Hava Nagila, a famous Jewish folk song, in remembrance of the 11 Israeli Olympians killed at the 1972 Olympics.
She went on to win another gold and two more silver medals in the 2016 Olympics before retiring. Raisman was born in a Jewish household in Boston, and has said “I take a lot of pride in being able to not only represent the U.S.A, but also the Jewish community everywhere.”
Alex Bregman is the next Jewish baseball star, following in the footsteps of Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler, Kevin Youkilis, and Jason Marquis. Bregman was picked second overall in the MLB draft by the Houston Astros in 2015 after a stellar three year career at LSU. Bregman made his major league debut the following year, and then helped lead the Astros to a World Series victory in 2017 while having a near All-Star season at third base.
Bregman then had two monster seasons, making two All-Star teams and finishing in the top five in MVP voting each year. At only 27, Bregman may be on pace to join Koufax and Greenberg as the third Jewish player in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Like Torres, Lenny Krayzelburg is one of the greatest Jewish athletes of both this century and the 20th. Lenny swept the backstroke events at the 1998 World Championships, and then broke the 50, 100 and the 20m world backstroke records the following year. He continued to dominate into the new century, shattering the Olympic records and winning gold in the 100 and 200 at the 2000 Games in Sydney, where he also helped the American team set a new world record in the 4 × 100 m relay.
The following year, Lenny passed up the World Championships to compete instead in the 2001 Maccabiah Games in Israel. The Maccabiah Games occurred at the height of the deadly terrorism of the Second Intifada, and Lenny’s decision to travel to Israel and stand with fellow Jewish athletes from around the world electrified Israel at a very trying time. Lenny carried the American flag, leading the U.S. delegation at the opening ceremony. In 2004, he cemented his legend as one of the greatest backstroke swimmers of all-time, winning Olympic gold once more, in Athens, where he captained the U.S. Olympic Swim Team.
Did you know?
Lenny Krayzelburg has a connection to Lost Tribe Esports! In fact, he was a leading thought-leader in Lost Tribe’s infancy, helping founder Lenny Silberman develop his vision for a global, Jewish teen esports platform. He is also a former JCC Maccabi Games athlete, representing Los Angeles as a teen.