Like two adults clinking champagne glasses in a victory salute, Joey Dresdner and Joseph Wolkoff raised their ice cream sandwiches to toast themselves and the other 14 members of the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School wrestling team. Normally such indulgences would be frowned upon for a group of athletes, but on this late February day, they had a legitimate reason to celebrate with the sugary snacks. After all, they had made history: On Feb. 18, for the first time, the Kushner Cobras came out on top in the Henry Wittenberg Wrestling Tournament, known to insiders as the “Super Bowl of Jewish wrestling,” which took place at the Frisch School in Paramus.
After keeping to a rigorous training schedule that began in late November and included a high-protein, low-carb diet, the Cobras put the cherry on top of their victory rather literally, gorging on multiple scoops of ice cream, adorned with marshmallows, whipped cream, and chocolate syrup.
“We are breaking training,” admitted Aharon Braun, a senior from Passaic. “The season is over and we are having a little party to celebrate, and after this it is back to work.” The next day, he said, he would return to his lifestyle of weight lifting and a healthy diet.
The most common sentiment among the conquering combatants at the afterschool party in the practice room at the Livingston yeshiva was disbelief. Three times in the past Kushner had taken second place in the tournament, and this year they were competing against 14 other day schools from states including New Jersey, California, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and more.
“I never thought we would win,” said Dresdner, a sophomore from West Orange.
“I was really shocked to see we got into the finals,” said Wolkoff, a freshman, who commutes to the Orthodox school from his North Brunswick home.
“I did not expect to win,” said Jacob Elstein, a sophomore from West Orange. “For all my matches, I went up against kids older than me who have been wrestling longer than I have. Honestly, I was stunned when I won.”
But maybe no one was more taken aback than Coach Dave Cilio. “For sure it was a surprise,” he told NJJN.
Cilio described this year’s team as “a roller coaster that went mostly upward. As it got closer to the nationals I began to think there may be an outside chance that we would do it,” he said. In the end, it wasn’t even close: The final score against their closest rival, the Salanter Akiba Riverdale High School (SAR) in the Bronx, was 271 to 212. “We didn’t just beat them, we blew them out by 60 points.”
Jacob Elstein, right, a sophomore from West Orange, about to grapple with a student from Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass. Photo courtesy Kushner Cobras
The victory was so unexpected, Cilio said, because his team was less experienced than many of its competitors, with only four seasoned wrestlers among his 16 members. To overcome their raw skills, the coach put them through three-hour practice sessions each week, tournaments on Sundays, “and tons of matches.” Some of his players augmented those rituals with extra hours at the gym, and the students were taught about all aspects of the sport, including technique, strength, and nutrition. The training was “brutal — very tough, rigorous, and intense” Cilio said, “and it paid off.”
Said Wolkoff, “The dedication and the character it gives you is completely worth your time.”
Cilio, who grew up in Bergen County, wrestled at Ramapo High School and Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, and lives in Basking Ridge, described himself as a “crazy Italian non-Jewish coach.” He had his own surprising news to share at the victory party: After seven years of coaching the Cobras, this season would be his last.
“As rewarding as coaching wrestling is, it is extremely exhausting and stressful, even under the best circumstances,” said the almost-50-year-old coach. “I am completely burnt out and have nothing left. It is my goal to relax and be a little less intense.”
After delivering the news to his team, Cilio notified parents, alumni, and Kushner staff and administration by email.
The Cobras, fought in 28 competitions this year, facing public and secular private schools, as well as yeshivas. Day-school students are at a distinct disadvantage, the coach said. “The Jewish kids start [wrestling] later. Most of the kids at Kushner started wrestling as high school freshmen.” By comparison, Cilio said he began to wrestle when he was 5-and-a-half-years old.
“Wrestling against a kid who is non-Jewish is normally harder because they spend a lot more time wrestling,” said Elstein. “They started when they were 5. I started when I was 13, and now I’m 14.”
The Cobras packed schedules don’t help. Whereas public high school teams might practice four to five days a week, the secular and religious academic workload for yeshiva day school students, as well as their observance of Shabbat, means they spend a considerable amount of would-be training time off the mat.
After finishing an austere nutritional regimen they began in November, members of the Kushner Cobras indulge in their victory with large helpings of ice cream. Photo by Robert Wiener
Elstein and other players tried to make up for these shortcomings. During the season Elstein took part in three three-hour practices per week after school, and he gave up junk food. His dedication to the team is absolute, according to his mother, Adina Lauer. When she brought up the possibility of taking a family vacation during winter break in January, Elstein told her that he couldn’t go anywhere that would result in missing a tournament. His family is proud of his commitment to the team.
“When he studied for an entire year for his bar mitzvah we were so proud then, but it was really nothing compared to how proud we are now with his wrestling accomplishments,” Lauer told NJJN. “He said, ‘Everybody has a bar mitzvah,’ and it is expected that everybody is going to do some sort of a religious practice for their bar mitzvah. But wrestling is something that he has done a lot of physical work for as well.”
Cilio said parents often ask him if wrestling ought to be a sport for Jewish kids. “I say it’s the best. Nothing builds character more, and there is nothing better for building character, determination, resilience, and being disciplined.” He added, “everybody can learn to be more resilient and tough, and that’s what wrestling teaches and what our society needs.”
Though the sample size is small, such discipline and determination went a long way toward dispelling doubts, building confidence, and achieving success with this team:
Senior Akiva Zilberberg, who commutes to Kushner from Monsey, N.Y., told NJJN that “during the season I had no idea I was going to win. Then I decided I am going to crush my opponents and defeat them until they have no will left.
“And I did.”