Campus Groups Hold Multicultural Shabbat:Coach Speaks on Israel Team Experience

Cornell’s African-American and Jewish communities came together Friday night in Robert Purcell Community Center for a traditional Jewish Shabbat dinner with a twist. That twist was provided by former basketball star LaVon Mercer, a self-described African-American Israeli who seemed the perfect man to bring the groups together. Mercer spoke and fielded questions about race relations, terrorism, food, culture and basketball in Israel and in the United States, among other issues.

He said the friendships he made in Israel were the main reason he stayed for so long and maintains such a strong connection to the country. “I thought, ‘they took care of me, now I have to give back to the State of Israel,'” he said. Mercer emphasized the importance of accepting individuals as people instead of labeling them with a particular race or religion. He said his Israeli teammates and neighbors made him feel comfortable and at home from the day he arrived in the country. “The Israeli brothers and sisters took me in and we started working together,” he said.

Mercer also stressed the extent to which he felt accepted in Israel and implored those in attendance to work together to cross racial lines and create the same culture of cooperation in the United States and at Cornell. “The complacency we have in the States is because we all sat on our rumps too long,” he said. After starring at the University of Georgia, where he holds the career record for blocked shots, Mercer was drafted by the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs sent Mercer overseas to develop his offensive skills. Though he intended to stay for a short while, Mercer soon fell in love with Israel, and played for 14 years on Hapoel and Maccabi Tel-Aviv, Israel, as well as the Israeli national team. Before long, people were calling him “the Israeli Michael Jordan” for his leadership on and off the court.

After acquiring Israeli citizenship, Mercer also served in the Israel Defense Forces. He is currently the head basketball coach at Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga. Students who participated in the event seemed to feel inspired and optimistic. “It was very heartening to hear Coach Mercer speak of his great experiences living in Israel. I’m very hopeful that the Jewish and black communities will continue to build bonds with each other well into the future,” said CIPAC President Dan Greenwald ’05. “Now that we have created an open dialogue, and people are comfortable with each other, we can start to collaborate. Us coming together and celebrating together is what Ezra Cornell wanted. This is diversity, and were giving it to him,” said Justin Davis ’07.

“He had some cool stuff to say about religion and what we have in common as opposed to our differences,” said Kur Robin ’08. “I thought this was a really positive experience. I always like to see different groups get together,” said Ashley Holt ’07. “I enjoyed the speaker and hope to attend events like this again.” The event, which drew more than 100 Cornell students, was co-sponsored by the Cornell Israel Public Affairs Committee (CIPAC), Black Students United (BSU), Cornell Hillel, Cornell NAACP, the Program of Jewish Studies, the Near Eastern Studies Department and the Grinspoon Grant from Hillel International.