Written By Griffin Epstein
Sherry Levin had a question for her rabbi.
After an exceptional high school basketball career in Massachusetts ending in 1980, Levin had a variety of Division I offers to play college ball. But no one school stood out.
One day her family heard that former Boston Celtics player Togo Palazzi had been hired as the head coach of Holy Cross women’s basketball in nearby Worcester..
Levin had interacted with Palazzi a few years before at a basketball camp and been enthralled by his motivating persona. Soon Palazzi was on the phone with Levin and the star Jewish player was ready to commit to a Catholic Jesuit college.
Before making her final decision, Levin first went to talk with one of her close friends and confidants – her rabbi.
“I asked what he thought,” Levin said. “And he gave me an answer that always remained with me, ‘if you are Jewish [in the heart] it doesn’t matter if you are with 10 other Jewish people or a million Catholics.’ ”
Levin took that advice to Holy Cross, where she earned the school’s first-ever full female athletic scholarship. Once on campus in Worcester, she did not disappoint. From 1980 to 1984 she scored 2,253 points to become the school’s all-time leading scorer – a record that still stands today. Off the court she embraced her Jewish heritage.
“I accepted the fact that I was only one of thousands in the student community and I was proud of that,” Levin said. “I lit the candles during Hanukkah… and people would walk by and say, ‘what’s that?’ ”
Around then Levin also found an opportunity to incorporate her Judaism with basketball. While playing with a travel team, she was introduced to the Maccabi Games.
Soon after, she traveled to Israel for the Maccabiah in 1981 winning a silver medal with the women’s basketball team along with another silver as a member of the 4×400 relay track team.
“It is an event that not only inspires you on an athletic level but really connects with your heart and your soul on your heritage level,” Levin said. “To me there was no greater thrill than being in Israel… the people, the culture, the history, the connections that you make are so deep. They truly touch your soul in many different ways.”
Her time in Israel as a player is full of unforgettable experiences such as the musical entertainment after a shabbat dinner with all the Maccabi basketball teams.
“Before you knew it tables and chairs were moved aside and everybody was up dancing and singing the lyrics from songs that we knew from our youth,” Levin said. “But we couldn’t communicate with them other than the power of these words that we share, which truly was a sense of the meaning of diaspora.”
Levin has returned to Israel with the women’s basketball team in the years after her playing days with three Maccabiahs as a team manager before the last two games in Israel as a head coach.
And much like her playing days, her coaching record is full of wins. As a coach, Levin holds a 19-1 record with two golds in two trips to Israel, in 2013 as the 18U team head coach and in 2017 as the open division head coach, along with two more golds in regional games.
“It’s now about me giving back,” Levin said.
The 2022 Maccabiah will be Levin’s second games at the helm of the open women’s basketball team. However, her coaching success started back home in Massachusetts. At the high school level, Levin is the longtime head coach of the Worcester Academy girls’ basketball team, winning two New England championships.
“On a daily basis showing up every day and being able to impart the lessons that I have learned… it’s something that’s so rewarding to me,” Levin said.
Many of her players at Worcester Academy have played college ball, headlined by Aliyah Boston. The 2019 graduate is a national champion with South Carolina and the reigning 2021-22 Naismith Women’s College Basketball Player of the Year.
“The first conversation we had I said, ‘you know I think you can be the best player in women’s basketball,’ ” Levin said. “I take a lot of pride in that I really started her foundation.”
Levin’s contributions to the game don’t end on the court. She has broadcasted basketball games as a color analyst with future luminaries such as Robin Roberts, Gus Johnson and Joe Buck. Nonetheless, it’s back at Holy Cross where her name is enshrined permanently.
Last November the school named its women’s basketball player lounge after Levin. The school priest and Levin’s family rabbi blessed the space. Holy Cross also asked if a mezuzah could be placed on the doorpost of the locker room.
“I was not only taken aback but emotional that they would think of me at that level,” Levin said. “Here I was a student at Holy Cross fitting in amongst the student body and here they were recognizing the differences that I have of being Jewish.”
A mezuzah in Levin’s honor sits on the doorpost of a Catholic college locker room. Her childhood rabbi would be proud.