Merion teen hosts interfaith basketball game on Sixers' court

A group of Jewish and Muslim middle-schoolers play basketball game together at The Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on November 30, 2016.

The basketball game began with the awkwardness often characteristic of 12- and 13-year-old boys.

On the court, one boy's mother forced the two teams together for a group picture. They barely intermingled - a few boys put their arms around each other, and only about half smiled.

But the same couldn't be said for the game's end.

As part of his bar mitzvah project, Ari Abramovitz, 13, of Merion, gathered his friends from Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood to play with boys from the Al Aqsa Islamic Academy in North Philadelphia. The boys were mixed together and split randomly into two teams, then scrimmaged on the 76ers' court in the Wells Fargo Center.

By halftime, players from the synagogue and the school were enthusiastically introducing themselves and high-fiving after they scored. After it ended, they took selfies together on the court.

"This is a historical kind of event in Philadelphia," said Abdur Rahman, principal of the Al Aqsa Islamic Academy. "Middle school kids from a Jewish congregation and our kids in the Islamic tradition coming together and showing unity. It's truly wonderful."

Rahman said Abramovitz's mother, Meirav, called him about a year ago to explain her son's idea. Right away, he was interested.

"Ari is a magical boy," Rahman said. "This is so awesome, for this boy to have this idea, and have great parents like he's got to support him like this. This is really unreal. It's beautiful."

Sinice Williams, 32, watched her 12-year-old nephew, Muhammad, play in the Wednesday afternoon game, which she said was fun and meaningful.

"Sometimes people have religion be a barrier of them even interacting," Williams added. "I always want to let him know, just because someone's belief is different, it doesn't mean that they're opposite to you as a person."

Abramovitz started a partnership between his synagogue and the Islamic Academy that will continue long after his bar mitzvah ends Saturday, Rahman said. He and Rabbi Neil Cooper of Beth Hillel-Beth El met in September for coffee at Delancey's in Wynnewood to discuss future plans for cooperation.

The exact iterations of the partnership between Cooper and Rahman are not yet clear, Rahman said.

"He and I, both of us, we don't have a clue, but let's take advantage of the momentum," Rahman said. "Given what's happened in the nation, there's so many divisions now. Anything that can promote unity is welcome.

"We have a natural reason to be here together," he added. "It's a message of the heart."

mwinberg@philly.com

215-854-5915 @mwinberg_