Last July, Amar’e Stoudemire made waves when he took a trip to Israel to research his Jewish roots. The trip was embraced by Jews everywhere, including myself, as it is not everyday that a 6-9 athletically gifted NBA All-Star declares himself to be a member of the tribe (a colloquial expression used by Jewish people to refer to other Jewish people). So when I saw former University of Florida power forward Alex Tyus tweet before the NBA Draft that he was hosting his Draft party at the UF Hillel, I thought to myself, “Is another 6-9 athletic power forward joining the tribe?” The answer to that question is yes.
While Amar’e went to Israel to connect with the Jewish roots of his mother, Tyus’ foray into Judaism was not based on discovering his heritage, but based on establishing his own roots within the religion. His journey to Judaism began a little over a year ago in Gainesville. At that time, Tyus and his wife, Alli Cecchini Tyus, were attending different church services in the Gainesville area trying to find a religion they would feel comfortable with moving forward, and eventually a religion they would raise their children in. Both Alex and Alli had grown up Christian, so Judaism was not necessarily a consideration for them. That is, until a Jewish roomate moved in with them and introduced them to the religion.
“We had a roomate move in who was Jewish and we learned more about Jewish life from her,” recalls Alex. “After she introduced us to Judaism we became very interested in it. We started reading more about the beliefs and values of the religion, and realized that we believed the same things Judaism taught, and we would want to practice Judaism going forward.”
That decision came as a surprise to both Alli and Alex’s parents, but Alex says the passion they showed for Judaism and how strongly they believed in converting made their parents incredibly excited for them. Once they reached the decision, they began the formal process of converting. They sought out a rabbi in the Gainesville area who would guide them through the conversion. Alex and Alli then became very involved with the Hillel at Florida, and attended various functions held there for the Jewish students at Florida. They were received with open arms by the members of the community who were thrilled to have the Tyuses join them. While Alex attended many events, he was not able to do everything he would have liked because he was busy helping lead the Gators to the Elite Eight while finishing up his degree.
“It was difficult to balance everything with school, basketball, and the conversion,” he says. “I couldn’t do everything I wanted to because of that, but my wife – who didn’t travel to that many games – got to be a little more involved in terms of doing things every other day at Hillel. Through those events that we went to, we started to really know a lot of people there and the Jewish community had different functions like “Torah on Tap” on Thursdays, where we would meet at a restaurant and talk about different topics relating to Judaism; we’d eat pizza and hang out, so I went to that when I could.
“As far as the conversion process, we met with our rabbi whenever we could. Sometimes that would be two times a week, or three times a week, and we had a lot of different discussions and he taught as a lot and has been a great teacher for us. Also, once we got to know enough people in the Jewish community, we would always know if there was an event going on which was really nice for us. We also attended Shabbat services on Friday nights when we could at B’Nai Israel in Gainesville, and did whatever I could during the season. Everything worked out so well for us, and we are really happy we chose this route.”
After graduating from Florida, Alex began working out for NBA teams in preparation for the draft held on June 23rd, and when the time came to choose a venue for Alex’s Draft party, the Hillel – located right across the street from the O’Connell Center where Alex starred for the Gators – offered to host the event. Unfortunately for all in attendance, Alex went undrafted. His NBA dreams were put on hold for the time being, so Alex had to think about the next move in his basketball career. He thought about playing in Spain, a country with some of Europe’s best teams, but then looked into playing in Israel. Tyus’ goal all along when finding a place to play was going somewhere where he and his wife would be comfortable, and Alex thought of no better place than Israel. Maccabi Ashdod, a team in Israel’s top League had scouted Alex heavily at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament and they soon offered him a contract which Alex accepted just days after the draft.
“I felt like Israel would be a good place to go play, especially with the chance to learn more about Judaism and my wife and I have also been taking Hebrew lessons,” he says. “Maccabi Ashdod had a scout when I was at Portsmouth and they were already very interested in me coming over to play there. I also knew a couple of players who went over to play in Israel so there were guys over there who I know, which made me feel comfortable deciding to sign there.”
With his conversion process wrapping up in August, Alex and Alli will then venture to the Holy Land to begin their Jewish life together. Alex has said both are considering getting Israeli passports, and if he obtained one he said he would definitely have interest in trying out for the Israeli National Team. So while Alex is not yet an NBA All-Star, his conversion has made waves in the Jewish community, both at Florida and abroad, something Alex never expected when he decided to convert last August.
“All this attention is really surprising,” says Tyus. “What I really want people to know about this whole process though is that you don’t have to be born Jewish to live a Jewish life. Judaism helps guide how you live your life through God and through family, and this journey has been incredibly fulfilling for Alli and myself.”
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