By 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 was going to forgo his Division III opportunities and attend the University of Maryland, basketball wasn’t part of his decision.
“Try out,” his younger brother urged him. “See what happens.”
Nu, and what happened? Susskind went on to spend four seasons as a Maryland walk-on. He became one of Mark Turgeon’s longest-tenured players, traveling to some of college basketball’s most famous venues in both the ACC and the Big Ten. And he gave Maryland’s fan base something “Jewish Jordan” Tamir Goodman never managed: a Member of the Tribe 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. Turgeon’s 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 Maryland’s coach told him to come back to the basketball office when he had enrolled.
“At the time, we didn’t have a lot of players on our team,” Turgeon said. “We talked to enough people that we felt like he would be a good piece to what we were trying to do.”
After each of his first few individual workouts that fall, Susskind was told only to come back the next day.
“Did they say you’re on the team?” his father Jeff kept wondering.
“No, you don’t ask that,” 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.
“I was speechless, looking around the room for Candid Camera,” Jeff Susskind said.
“We could not believe it; we really could not,” said Jacob’s mom, Shari-Beth Susskind.
“I just wanted to get on top of a building and just yell — that kind of feeling,” Jacob Susskind said. “I was just amazed. I didn’t really know what to do or say.”
See, Golda Och — a Solomon Schecter school whose graduating classes have 50 or 60 kids — isn’t 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. The elder Susskinds split their votes, and Jacob’s 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.
“Going to Schecter my whole life, I was kind of in a little bubble,” Susskind said. “I 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.”
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 country’s largest Jewish communities, “allowed me to branch out but still have a place to fall back on, to make my circle a little smaller,” he said.
Maryland also had something of a history with Jewish ballplayers. Goodman’s dalliance with the school was national news in the late ’90s; 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.
“I said, ‘You know what? That’s cute, but he’s going to make his own name for himself,’” Jeff Susskind recalled. “I think he’s done a fine job doing that.”
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 “Hava Nagila” this season, and joined the Jewish fraternity AEPi, whose members have started “Suss-Kind” chants at games. He goes to events at both the campus Hillel and Chabad houses, and last year appeared at a sports event at Bethesda’s
TempleCongretation Beth El, where he got an ovation when he discussed his Jewish schooling.
“He’s a proud affiliated Jew, and that’s an awesome attribute for a guy who takes his athletics seriously and his academics seriously,” said Rabbi Ari Israel, the executive director at Maryland Hillel. “Jacob was a Jewish day school student out of New Jersey, and there’s a pride in that. There are hundreds of Jewish day school kids here who have that connection. So there’s a pride of affiliation and connection.”
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. (“It’s so weird,” he said.) He missed practice to observe Yom Kippur services this fall, helped a Maryland team win the National Hillel Basketball Tournament last spring, and has had discussions with teammates about kashrut laws, the high holidays, and the nature of the divine.
“Prior to me coming here, I’ve never met anybody who was Jewish before,” teammate Dez Wells said. “So I just pick his brain about stuff, ask him about the culture, how it is growing up, different facets of his religion. He’s taught me a lot.”
Not just about religion, either. Wells grabbed Susskind and the other walk-ons after Maryland’s recent home win over Michigan State, embracing them and telling them how much they mean to him and the program.
“In that moment, I just wanted those guys to know, don’t feel like you’re not a part of the success — you guys had just as much to do with that win as we did,” Wells said. “So I was just trying to give my ode to those guys — especially Susskind, because he guards me every day and I guard him every day. He’s made me so much better throughout my years here. So I just wanted to tell him what was on my heart at that moment.”
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 he’s inclined to move on from the sport. And while he’ll leave Maryland without much in the way of a stat line, he said he has never wished he were a Division III starter.
“Not one bit,” he said. “This is an amazing place. This is an amazing program. And we have a chance to do something special this year.”
Which doesn’t 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.