The hoopster, and living with MS

The hoopster, and living with MS

By Diana Brement, Jewish Sound Columnist

Ben Eisenhardt had the same childhood ambition as many kids.

“Professional basketball is a dream [that] starts from kindergarten,” he says. But his aspiration is now reality. Soon, the 6’10”, 215 lb. forward will head to Israel to play for Euroleague’s Elitzur Yavne.

Ben will also make aliyah, an opportunity that was wrapped up in his decision to play there.

“I’ve always been aware that I was eligible for Israeli citizenship,” he notes.

The Bainbridge High School basketball star started his collegiate career at Division-1 Cal Poly. He transferred to Whitman College after contracting a bad case of valley fever, wanting to be closer to home, and to have time to focus “on things other than basketball.” The economics major, who graduated this past May, didn’t exactly leave basketball behind. He was named All-American as a junior, singled out as one of our country’s top players.

Ben has been busy filling out “a lot of forms,” and meeting with representatives of various Israeli agencies. On arrival in Israel, he expects to “jump right in and start practicing” in Yavne, south of Tel Aviv. As a 23-year-old, his military service will only last six months and will fit around his sports schedule.

“They’re excited,” Ben says of his parents, Ted and Kellan, but nervous, “like any parent would be.” It helps that he has family there. In fact, Ben’s only other trip to Israel was for his cousin’s Bar Mitzvah six years ago.

Ben’s been working hard this summer with retired basketball player Alvin Snow and strength trainer Tim Manson. In his minimal free time reads and sees friends.

“God willing, my brain will be good for a long time,” he says, but “my body’s only capable of doing this for a finite period,” so this is the time to go and “go as hard as I can.”

To do that in Israel, “to pursue that part of my Jewish identity,” he adds, “it’s a great opportunity for me.”

• • •

Back in April, I interviewed young entrepreneur Marcus Schiller and his dad Michael Schiller about Marcus’s homework reminder system called Brain Bands (launching soon). Learning then that Michael has multiple sclerosis, I wanted to talk to him more about his work and managing his life since diagnosis in the mid-1990s.

Marcus Schiller at his Bar Mitzvah, with his dad Michael.

Marcus Schiller at his Bar Mitzvah, with his dad Michael.

A big sports fan, he had always been active, playing basketball and running, but in 1994 “I woke up one morning and couldn’t feel my legs,” he says. A diagnosis of a herniated disc led to surgery, but the numbness persisted. After more tests he was told he wasn’t going to walk again.

“It was a crazy, sad and bitter time,” he says. He became depressed.

At the time he was struggling to complete a big work project. As he tells it, his business partner literally yelled at him to get out of his funk and pull himself together. They successfully completed the job and Michael “immediately started physical therapy,” learning how to walk and balance. “It’s all about how to balance,” he says, and muscle strength.

An active member of the greater Northwest chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society as a fundraiser and public speaker, Michael says “I’ve easily raised $150,000 for [them].”

While his limitations are increasing, he’s not ready for a scooter or wheelchair.

“What I really hate is when people say ‘sorry,’” he says. He appreciates peoples’ sympathy, but “I look at myself as very fortunate. My wife went through breast cancer; she could have died… MS isn’t life threatening, it just changes your life.”

His brain, he adds, “works just fine.”

Growing up on Mercer Island, where his parents Babette and Irving still live, he returned there to live 20 years ago, to give his kids the same opportunities he had, including the chance to attend Hebrew school at Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation. He spent most of his childhood summers at Camp Solomon Schechter and is a 14-year veteran of the Schechter board. He and his wife Dawn are chairing the camp’s big gala event this December.

• • •

Short Takes: While this paper has focused on new leaders in our local Jewish organizations and synagogues, there has been a flurry of movement within these organizations as well. Jennifer Cohen has taken over as director of development at Hillel at the University of Washington. Jen was long active in the National Council of Jewish Women and has worked at what was then known as the Stroum Jewish Studies Program at the UW and at Jewish Family Service. She takes over for Galit Ezekiel, who has moved over to JFS as its senior director of administration and outreach. Also moving to JFS, in its fundraising department, is Michelle Shriki, who worked in the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle’s campaign department and also at the Seattle Hebrew Academy.