The NCAA’s basketball rule book is a dizzying 146 pages long, and as a point guard for Cal Lutheran’s men’s basketball team, Ze’ev Remer is tasked with following all the guidelines.
As the team’s only Orthodox Jewish member, as well as the lone Orthodox Jewish student at Cal Lutheran, Remer is equally committed to following the guidelines of his religion, set forth in numerous sacred written texts and oral tradition.
Identifying with his spiritual side is important while he’s at Cal Lutheran, Remer said. “I could, hypothetically, for four years just drop religion and be all-in on basketball, but this is really an opportunity to share that I am just another human being.”
Remer is also a full-fledged member of the team, respected and admired by his coaches and teammates.
“He’s all about growing and getting better, on and off the court,” said Kingsmen basketball head coach Russell White ’94.
“Ze’ev’s a great teammate, No. 1, and he’s also a great player,” said 2023-2024 team captain Stephen Davis ’23, who’s returning to Cal Lutheran to earn a master’s degree. “He’s smart and super unselfish.”
Remer is learning how to navigate being the only Orthodox Jew at a university with a Christian heritage (albeit one that welcomes all faiths). His basketball uniform includes a yarmulke (or kippah). He eats separately from his teammates because the Cal Lutheran cafeteria doesn’t currently have kosher meals. He finds ways to get to games without riding in a car or the team bus during Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday.
His teammates are learning what tzitzit (tassels or fringes worn on Jewish garments) and tefillin (leather cases holding slips inscribed with scriptural passages worn during prayer) are, and they’re all learning to work together to accommodate spiritual and athletic needs.
Remer is open and eager to share information about his religion with others.
“Honestly, the more questions people ask, the happier I am,” Remer said. “I think everybody should be curious about everything. The world would be a better place if that were the case.”
From Jewish day school to Christian college
Remer grew up in the Beverlywood neighborhood of Los Angeles. The youngest boy in a family of four boys and one girl, he started playing basketball at age 5 or 6, following in the footsteps of his dad and brothers. “Basketball was just always in my life,” said Remer, speaking via a Zoom interview from Israel during a summer internship in Jerusalem.
Remer attended nearby Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, where he was a two-time league MVP on the basketball team. He graduated in 2021, then spent a gap year in Israel before starting at Cal Lutheran in 2022.
“I took a gap year to Israel and went to yeshiva (an institution devoted to Jewish study) for the year,” Remer said. “I went to Jewish day school my entire life and was always a religious kid. (But) … my relationship with religion was very surface-level pre-yeshiva; I have developed a more meaningful relationship after my year in Israel.”
Many Orthodox Jewish students who are serious about playing basketball in college do so by attending Yeshiva University, a private school in New York City with a Division III-level basketball team. Students at Yeshiva University observe Jewish rites such as keeping kosher and observing Shabbat.
But Remer, who wants to play professionally after college, most likely in Israel, said that when he was in 11th grade, Cal Lutheran head coach White reached out to him. “I wasn’t so interested at first because I was very insecure,” Remer said. “He was adamant that I would do well and I’d like Cal Lu, regardless of it being a Lutheran college and me being Jewish. It’s a pretty open, welcoming culture.”
Remer’s parents, he said, were supportive no matter which college he chose, and because they are close by, can easily attend his games.
Remer said he “definitely hesitated. But ultimately, I wasn’t sure that I would have as great of a basketball opportunity at other colleges as I would with Cal Lutheran.”
“The more you watch Ze’ev play, the more you appreciate what he does,” White said. “He’s a student of the game, but he also sees the game really well. He’s an excellent passer, and he can score, but he doesn’t need to score. You just appreciate how hard he plays.”
Making it work
Remer, a computer science major, said he was “extremely excited” to live on campus his first year, but “for any college kid, I think freshman year is a big transition and just a hard year. But I made it work.”
“There are a lot of Jewish holidays at the beginning of the year that prohibit me from doing schoolwork or writing or just even showing up to class sometimes,” he said, but he worked everything out with his professors.
Cal Lutheran does have other Jewish students, but none who are Orthodox like Remer.
Dietary restrictions are one of Remer’s biggest complications at Cal Lutheran. He keeps a kosher diet, and the kitchens in dining halls and eateries at Cal Lutheran are not kosher-certified, so Remer drives home weekly to replenish his stock of meals. He often apologetically has to turn down food offered by his roommates.
The most difficult obstacle to handle, he said, was away games on Shabbat, because travel is limited for Orthodox Jews during that time. So he and his parents would usually drive separately to the city on Friday before Shabbat and stay at a hotel that was close enough to walk to the gym.
He made one exception. After he had a car accident, he was reluctant to drive on his own to an away game in Redlands on a rainy day. “I just didn’t feel comfortable,” he said. “So I took the team bus. That was a really big decision in my life, and I don’t know if I fully agree with it. But what is done is done.”
Remer’s commitment to his faith was visible during games when he wore a yarmulke hand-knit in Cal Lutheran colors by a friend.
“To me a kippah’s significance lies in the fact that you can’t see it on yourself,” Remer said. “You’re unaware how it looks on you, and it is only something that other people notice. It shares a lot about someone without saying any words. It is a way that I can honor god and represent my beliefs.”
White said Remer is “ultimately going to be a leader. He’s training himself for that now, even though he probably doesn’t know it.”
Karen Lindell has been a newspaper, magazine and website writer and editor for more than 15 years, including work at the Ventura County Star, L.A. Parent magazine, Los Angeles Times, Ojai Valley News, VC Reporter and Ranker.com. She lives in Pasadena.