Inspirational athlete at Cal an ambassador for Israel

When you ask people about U.C. Berkeley basketball player Avigiel Cohen, a word that is repeated often is “unique.”

Some of those unique qualities helped the 21-year-old Israeli get recognized by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. Last month, Cohen was nominated for its Good Works Team — a select group of student athletes who shine off the court, in areas such as leadership and charitable achievements.

Cohen playing for Cal in the 2012-13 season photo/courtesy u.c. berkeley

Although there were 52 nominees from Division 1 teams across the nation, Cohen was one of only three from the Pac-12 conference. The winners will be announced next month.

For Cohen, a senior at Cal who has been plagued by knee injuries in recent years, the nomination couldn’t help but put a smile on her face.

“I didn’t expect my career to take the path that it has, getting injured in back-to-back seasons,” the 6-foot guard said. “But at the same time, I have been able to commit to the person I am today [and] contribute to the Jewish and overall Berkeley community.”

Cohen got involved in the Jewish community shortly after arriving on campus in fall 2010. She immediately connected with Berkeley Hillel and now is one of three students elected to its 20-person board of directors for this school year.

And last June, Cohen helped organize a gathering in Israel for alumni from all 10 U.C. campuses. About 300 people came to the one-night event in Tel Aviv, she said. Cohen made a speech to the alums, officially establishing the systemwide U.C. Jewish Alumni Group.

“Avigiel has the unique ability to be 100 percent invested in our team and keep her sense of identity of the Jewish and Israel community, and she balances it so well,” said Lindsay Gottlieb, head coach of the 15th-ranked Golden Bears. “I think it’s wonderful. We don’t just show up at 3 o’clock for practice — we want to see our players embrace outside activities and represent the community they’re a part of, whatever fashion that might be.”

Another undertaking for Cohen has been to help create a group for U.C. Berkeley Jewish student-athletes. It’s not an official club, but they come together for most Jewish holidays.

“There’s no title,” Cohen said. “We just meet and have fun together with Jewish athletes from all the sports.”

“Avigiel brings together so many different networks of students [and] she’s unique in that she brings a passion that strengthens the whole Cal community,” said Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, executive director of Berkeley Hillel. “She cares so much about being Jewish. It’s unique in a student and unique in a leader like that.”

As a testament to Cohen’s leadership qualities, she was elected a team co-captain as a freshman. However, that season wasn’t one to remember: Knee surgery sidelined her for the entire year.

Things haven’t gotten much better for the former Israeli rising star. As a sophomore, she played in only eight of the team’s 35 games; last year as a junior, she played in 11 games; this season, she has played in just five of Cal’s 15 games, for a total of 11 minutes.

Avigiel Cohen in November 2010 vs. Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Hawks in Berkeley photo/michael

All because of the knee problems.

“It would’ve been easy to give up, but I stayed strong and persevered,” she said.

Cohen came to Cal with some impressive credentials. In 2008, she was the MVP of Israel’s under-16 national women’s league; in 2009, she was the MVP of the under-18 league. And in a stint with the under-18 Israeli national team, including playing the European Championships, she averaged huge numbers: 18 points, 8.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.

When making her college plans, Cohen, who was born in Los Angeles and lived there until she was 4, said, “Coming to California was a must.”

But she still had one hurdle to clear before that could happen: her mandatory service in the Israeli military. As it turned out, Cohen applied for and received a waiver that allows her to get an education in the United States before fulfilling her military obligation. In 2010, she was one of only two Israeli athletes granted such waivers.

“You pretty much had to convince them that going into the army would hold you back from your career,” she said.

Heading to U.C. Berkeley, Cohen admitted she was “intimidated by the campus. You hear about the anti-Israel stuff and the anti-Semitism. I took it as a challenge, to act as an ambassador for Cal as an Israeli athlete.”

With four years spent at Cal, Cohen is much more accustomed to life in Berkeley, but it certainly didn’t start out that way.

“I grew up in kind of the Orange County of Israel,” she said jokingly of her hometown of Ramat HaSharon. “I wasn’t exposed to any sort of anti-Semitism or anti-Israel sentiment. I had to prepare myself for those things, but preparing for them and experiencing them are two very different things. But I took it as [an opportunity] to expose myself to different things and open my mind. To be honest, this whole experience opened up so many connections and friendships.

“I had never had a Muslim friend in my life, and now one of my best friends is a Muslim.”

Cohen said as a freshman she was “aggressive” and “showed my Israeli side,” but then decided that wasn’t the right approach. Now she is “calm” and encourages people to talk to her about Israel.

The Cal Bears auction off shirts to benefit the Kay Yow Foundation in 2012. photo/courtesy u.c. berkeley

“I go to lectures that are against Israel so that I can learn more about what the feelings are against Israel,” she said.

Last year, Cohen attended some of the meetings about a nonbinding student senate resolution that called for U.C. Berkeley to divest from companies doing business connected to the Israel military. The resolution ended up passing.

Toward the end of the debate, however, Cohen found herself too busy with the team to be involved: Cal was in the NCAA Tournament, advancing all the way to the Final Four before bowing out.

“[Divestment] shouldn’t have to be part of the students’ decision. We came here to study,” she said. “I don’t think it was right. Things that were said at the meetings were completely out of line. I wish people would start with a normal conversation rather than extremes — on both sides. It’s just disrespectful. You have to have a normal conversation and communicate with another to get anywhere.”

Through it all, Cohen has had the basketball team to lean on. For example, in November 2012, when missiles from Gaza were sending people in Tel Aviv into bomb shelters, she decided to wear a black armband in a game as a show of support for her family.

“My teammates asked me why I was wearing it, and then everyone on the team wore a black stripe to support me,” she said. “My coaches and teammates always support me as a Jewish athlete.”

Again this year, Cohen is one of the team’s co-captains, even though she has scored only two points and taken only one shot all season. Last year in 11 games, all as a sub off the bench, she scored eight points and had two rebounds.

“She is an incredible leader … one of the best leaders I’ve ever had,” coach Gottlieb said. “She’s incredibly selfless, with a high basketball IQ, and even though she might not get a lot of minutes on the court, I am certain we wouldn’t have made the Final Four last year without her. You cannot measure her value to us just on the court.”

When Cal won its regional last year to advance to the Final Four, Cohen had her Israeli flag with her, Gottlieb said, “and when we got back [to Berkeley], the Hillel house honored our team.”

In May, Cohen will be graduating with a major in interdisciplinary studies, with a focus in sports psychology, and will return to Israel to join the military.

“I really miss my family and friends,” she said. “I’m so tired of Skype.”