Former Knicks Player Converts to Judaism, Gets Ready for Israeli League Debut
A former Knicks point guard who recently converted to Judaism is set to debut next week in the Israeli Basketball Premier League as the newest member of the Ironi Nahariya, according to the New York Post.
Chris Smith, who signed a three-year deal with the squad, missed the first two weeks of the basketball season as he completed paperwork to exempt him from service in the Israel Defense Forces. Last season, he lived for two months at the home of his agent’s parents in Israel while playing for the Hapoel Galil Elyon team as a trial run.
The 30-year-old follows the rules of Orthodox Judaism, is learning how to read Hebrew and got a new Hebrew name: Ariel. His Jewish agent Daniel Hazan helped him with the conversion process, which began last year and included a ceremony at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. The New Jersey native now lives blocks away from the Mediterranean Sea and said of living in Israel, “I’ve been to a lot of countries — this is obviously my favorite. It’s so much like America. The culture is easy to adjust to. Israel is very accepting to other cultures. America supports Israel. It’s vice-versa when Americans come here.”
Smith thanked his ex-Knicks teammate Amar’e Stoudemire for encouraging his love of Judaism. He spent time with Stoudemire last season while in Israel, asked his advice on moving to the Jewish state and saw him play many games for Hapoel Jerusalem, according to the Post.
Smith was raised in Lakewood, N.J., which has a large Orthodox Jewish community, and had Jewish friends as a kid. He told the Post on Thursday that he “really felt connected” to Judaism. He explained, “Growing up in Lakewood and the Jewish community aspect there, then being with the Knicks and being with Amar’e, triggered a lot of my interest. As he was bringing in Hebrew and Judaism books to the locker room, it struck my interest even more.”
Smith’s brother J.R., a former Knicks player who is now with the Cleveland Cavaliers, has been “fully supportive” of his decision to convert to Judaism, according to Chris.
“He’s happy for me,” Chris said. “He wasn’t that surprised. We weren’t struck by any other religions growing up. He’s going to visit Israel — maybe during the All-Star break.”
“Overall, the religion is pretty straight forward — you’re accepted if you practice what you preach,” Chris said of Judaism. “As long as you follow the guidelines of who you are, there’s no perfect Jew, and you’re accepted as who you are.’’