Yeshiva University in New York City has discontinued its wrestling program according to a letter from the Yeshiva Wrestling Association. The program was started by two time Olympic medalist Henry Wittenberg and has been coached by Neil Ellman since 1970. The team has struggled to field a full lineup, and did not compete on Saturdays for religious reasons. The Maccabees, ostensibly members of the East Region, had not competed in the regional tournament and last competed in an NCAA qualifier as a member of the Metropolitan Conference in 2011. Read on for the letter from the Yeshiva Wrestling Association.
Yeshiva University Drops Wrestling Program
To Friends, Alumni, and Supporters of Yeshiva University Wrestling
It is with a heavy heart that we write this letter informing you that Yeshiva University has eliminated wrestling from the athletic department and Neil Ellman has been summarily dismissed.
Neil was informed of the decision this past week in a surprising telephone call from the head of the athletic department. It was explained to Coach Ellman that due to the university’s pressing financial needs, wrestling, with an annual budget of just $35,000, was not worth the cost. Without prior discussion Neil was offered a fait accompli. In a ten minute phone call, our 65 year old tradition was eliminated.
The tradition of Y.U. wrestling includes a long and glorious history. On a shoestring budget, the program was founded by coach Henry Wittenberg, a two-time Olympic medalist (gold in ’48 and silver in ’52).
Soon after Wittenberg’s retirement, his protégé Neil Ellman (then known on campus as the “Chattanooga Kid”) took over the program and formed a band of brothers spanning the generations.
For nearly 50 years Neil has been the driving force behind YU wrestling. He has devoted near unlimited time, energy, personal and financial effort to grow the program which ultimately became a platform for the multitude of yeshiva high school wrestling programs across the country.
Founding the Henry Wittenberg National Invitational at YU was a part of that vision. The tournament, now 20 years old, brings together hundreds of Jewish high school wrestlers throughout the country representing programs at 15 Orthodox yeshiva high schools – most of which were financed by Neil Ellman himself. During this event, he encouraged everyone, wrestlers and non-wrestlers alike to come, see and appreciate Yeshiva University as the only college that offered observant men the opportunity for continued training in the sport they love.
Neil was the ultimate recruiter and cheerleader for Yeshiva University. Hundreds of students attended, graduated and planted multi-generational “YU families” all because of Neil. It did not matter if they wrestled or not (though it always helped if they did). Neil personally donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to YU through his various family foundations, little of which was earmarked towards wrestling. His love and loyalty for YU was unlimited and powerful. Even as YU quietly planned the elimination of wrestling, Neil was making a substantial donation for Richard Joel’s office in the Beit Midrash.
If the administration’s decision was based on financial concerns, then this would be a classic case of “penny wise, pound foolish”. The cost for running the entire wrestling program is less than the tuition of one student – a student that will consider alternatives to YU now that the team has been eliminated. Even more perplexing is that a significant fundraising campaign was in the planning stages when the program was summarily dropped by the athletic department.
We are not so arrogant as to think that wrestling is or should be the priority at YU. But those of us who have been blessed to participate in Yeshiva wrestling, know the tremendous impact and influence it has had on our lives. The way we commit ourselves in all areas of life both personally and professionally, is often a reflection of the dedication, drive, and effort that wrestling taught us, that Coach Ellman taught us.
Despite YU’s financial struggles, this decision was unnecessary and frustrating. However as a community, we are hurt by the insensitive way YU arrived at this decision and outraged how unceremoniously they dismissed Neil and his dedicated service of nearly half a century.
Neil can be reached by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) should you wish to connect with him and show your support. In addition, we encourage you to share your thoughts with Richard Joel, President of Yeshiva University (email@example.com)
The Yeshiva Wrestling Association