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Martin Leibovich: A Point of Light for Yeshiva University, and for the Jewish People

People may think they know what a “typical” student at Yeshiva University looks like, but in many cases, they’d be surprised to learn that the stereotypes don’t match up. Take Martin Leibovich, for example: his path to YU is very different than the typical Jewish day school route that leads students to Yeshiva.

As a child growing up in Argentina, Martin gave little thought to his Jewish background and heritage. His parents observed only the very basics in religion. Though Martin began taking an interest in Judaism in his teen years, his budding athletic career that took center stage among his activities. Martin, who stands six foot five and played basketball throughout his youth, was recruited to play in the U.S. shortly after high school. His natural skills on the court assured him an all-expenses paid education playing Division II basketball for Barry University in Miami, as well as the promise of a career in the pros.

That would have likely been his path, had he not gone home during summer break after his sophomore year and met Stephen J. Savitsky, then the President of the Orthodox Union who had journeyed to Argentina on an NCSY mission (NCSY is the national youth organization of the OU.) When Mr. Savitsky learned of Martin’s growing interest in learning Torah, he told him of Yeshiva University, where Jews can fully embrace their Jewish heritage and in-depth Torah learning, as well as pursue a top-notch secular education and engage in sports.

Though Martin needed no further convincing, his parents did. “I had to show Martin’s parents that there is in fact a place in the world where one can be a deeply observant Jew and, at the same time, very much a part of the modern world,” explains Mr. Savitsky. “His parents only wanted the best for their son, and I told them that YU is the place where he can flourish religiously and still maintain a strong connection with contemporary society.”

Martin’s parents were also concerned about the tuition. Martin’s education at Barry cost them nothing. Could YU offer the same deal?

Mr. Savitsky continues, “YU was more than magnanimous and offered Martin a full scholarship, simply because he yearned to be part of a Torah environment in which his Jewish learning and personal growth could flourish.”

At YU, Martin’s athletic talent quickly impressed his coaches, and his kind and gentle nature, quick mind, and passion for Judaism endeared him to his professors, rebbeim, and peers. He immediately made friends with many YU security guards and other staff members by speaking with them in his native tongue, Spanish.

When he was introduced as one of YU’s “Points of Light” at the Annual Hanukkah Dinner in 2010, President Joel outlined a typical day for Martin, starting with intensive Jewish studies; afternoons in classes and the library studying for a business management degree from Sy Syms School of Business; and evenings practicing with his fellow Maccabees on the court. President Joel noted that in his Jewish studies, Martin steadily progressed to more advanced levels of learning.

“After spending two full years in YU,” said President Joel, “Martin has achieved in studies, excelled on the court, absorbed a strong foundation for his Jewish future, and, most importantly, found a place where he truly belongs.”

YU Trustee Lance Hirt, ‘87YC, attended the Hanukkah Dinner and was so taken with Martin’s life story that he invited him to spend Shabbat with his family in Lawrence.

“Martin is a wonderful person and a pleasure to be around,” says Mr. Hirt. “He is clearly a deeply thoughtful and genuine person who followed his innate feelings for his Jewish heritage to a school that could uniquely provide the environment and learning he was looking for. In my mind, Martin’s story and experience at Yeshiva should be equally appreciated by Jews of all backgrounds. The role that YU plays in anchoring the global Jewish community is invaluable to us all irrespective of our backgrounds, and the last four years of Martin’s life make this case better than I ever could in words.”

Mr. Savitsky, whose family has informally “adopted” Martin and whose house is always open to him, declares, “This is why it’s so important to give to YU – the school does its utmost to accept young men and women who desire an environment where they can develop their Jewish values and observance while also receiving a high-quality, well-rounded education. If not for the generosity of YU’s donors, Martin might never have had the opportunity to make a significant mark on the Jewish community – which I am confident he will do thanks in large part to the incredible start he’s been given by a Yeshiva University education.”

As for Martin himself, there’s no question that he credits his scholarship to YU as a gateway to a better life. “YU changed not only my life, but the lives of my family, who have taken major steps toward becoming more observant and aware of their Jewish religion,” he explains.

“There are many teenagers out there who are in the exact situation I was not too long ago, unaware of their Jewish heritage but wanting very much to learn more,” Martin continues. “I was incredibly fortunate to meet the right people who brought me to YU, and if it weren’t for the generosity of its donors, none of my Jewish learning and growth would have been possible. I hope to be able to give back to YU in the near future, so that I might help other people get this amazing chance in life that I’ve been given.”

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