The gym is dark, a spotlight floods the center wrestling mat. The roar of the crowd rises to a fever pitch as Frisch junior Yonatan Benchabbat pins his opponent in the final championship round.
Such was the scene at the Frisch School over President’s Weekend, where hundreds of yeshiva high school wrestling teams from across the country gathered to compete in their national championships—the Henry Wittenberg Invitational.
The Wittenberg Invitational is named after the famed Olympic wrestling champion Henry Wittenberg (gold in ’48 and silver in ’52) who founded the first Jewish collegiate wrestling program over 60 years ago. His protégé, Neil Ellman, took over the wrestling team and furthered Wittenberg’s legacy by organizing and financing yeshiva high school wrestling programs throughout the United States. These programs were created under the auspices of the Yeshiva Wrestling Association (YWA). In 1996, Coach Ellman and the YWA launched the Wittenberg Invitational, which serves as the national championship for the yeshiva high schools who do not participate in their local and regional championships because of their commitment to keeping Shabbat.
Today the Wittenberg Invitational hosts 15 YWA teams and hundreds of competitors across the country and will soon go international with the addition of an expansion YWA wrestling program at Tikva, a Jewish orphanage in Ukraine. This year, Wittenberg received a crowd of nearly a thousand fans and wrestlers, while more than 5,000 viewers watched the live stream video on Facebook.
The Frisch School has a long and storied history of wrestling over the past two decades, having claimed first or second place at Wittenberg for nine straight years (2002 to 2010).
The Cougars resurged in 2015 when Aron Coren, Frisch’s athletic director, found Yuval Bussi, a champion wrestler from Fair Lawn who graduated from Yale and is now studying medicine. For Coach Bussi, wrestling is not just about training and winning on the mat but about applying those lessons off the mat as well. Coach Bussi is determined to build a championship team and the results of the past two years show his efforts are paying off. Over the course of his tenure, the team has steadily climbed to the championship podium since placing seventh at Wittenberg two years ago. Last year Frisch took fourth place while this year they captured third place, firmly within reach of second.
Backing up Coach Bussi is a strong assistant coaching staff including Moshe (“MB”) Klyman, a former TABC wrestler who will compete in the upcoming Maccabiah World Games in Israel; Vince Dimitri; Pedro Flores and Raphael Benchabbat, a former Frisch wrestler himself and the older brother of Gabi and Yonatan Benchabbat, both of whom competed in the Wittenberg championship rounds this year. Gabi took second place in the 182 lb weight class while Yonatan took first in the 192 lb weight class.
Coach Bussi and his staff have worked hard to ensure that the Frisch wrestlers excel not only in athletics but in every area of their lives. Julie Farkas’s son Yehuda is a Frisch student in tenth grade. He began wrestling just over a year ago as a freshman. This year he fought all way to the championship finals round, claiming second place on the podium. His mother sees first-hand the positive influence that Frisch wrestling has had on her son.
“I have seen wrestling help Yehuda to become stronger, more confident, to think strategically, to learn how to deal with difficult situations and to never give up,” said Farkas.
For the first 20 years of the Invitational’s history, the competition took place on Yeshiva University’s campus. However in 2015, a new venue was needed and Coach Ellman, with the blessing and assistance of Frisch Principal Rabbi Eli Ciner, successfully moved the tournament to the campus of The Frisch School.
Rabbi Ciner’s decision to host the tournament did not go unnoticed by the alumni and parents. “I owe so much to yeshiva wrestling and the tools it gave me to get as far as I have come today,” said Alex Swieca, (Frisch ’10) managing partner at QB1 Ventures. Swieca was a 2X gold medalist himself and credits the sport for giving him the drive necessary to play football for the University of Michigan Wolverines. “By hosting the Invitational, Frisch is once again playing a central role in the wider Jewish community. Thousands of yeshiva students are coming together from all over the country and it is happening at Frisch.”
Yoni Cohen, (Frisch ’06) and vice president at CB Alliance, agrees. “For the yeshiva wrestler, Wittenberg is the capstone, what he trains for all season.” Cohen would know. Like Swieca, he was a Wittenberg champion as well and attributes much of his success to the training he received as a wrestler. His feeling about Frisch as the home for Wittenberg is one of pride and gratitude.
“Wittenberg is the only outlet we have to connect with our peers from around the country. Frisch has saved the day by hosting the competition these past two years and I’m proud to see my alma mater step up in a big way. “
For the Frisch wrestlers, their parents and the alumni, “stepping up” is a major theme and one of the central principles of yeshiva wrestling. It is a lesson that emphasizes determination, leadership and,most of all, unity. It is a lesson they learn not from books or the classroom but literally through blood and sweat.
“It makes me proud to see on those days when there is no practice that the Frisch boys join the TABC team.” Says Farkas. “It makes me proud to see wrestlers from competing schools joining together on their own, getting up at 5:30 am on a weekday morning to train together. Yes, on the mat each team is deeply competitive, but despite that the kids work hard to help each other, they share the same passion and real friendships are developed. It is a sign of real maturity and they learn it from wrestling.”