Basketballer Ariel (Chris) Smith Converts To Judaism, Loves Israel
Former Knicks point guard Chris Smith has become a member of the tribe.
Chris Smith, the former Knicks point guard and J.R. Smith’s younger brother, is making a basketball comeback and is set to debut next week in the Israeli League for Ironi Nahariya after recently converting to Judaism. Smith became an Orthodox Jew — the strictest level.
Smith’s new Hebrew name is Ariel, and he credits ex-Knicks teammate Amar’e Stoudemire for stoking his Hebrew passions. Stoudemire, though he didn’t officially convert through Rabbi’s supervision like Smith, follows Jewish customs and said his mother told him he is a descendant of Hebrew-Israelites.
Smith grew up in Lakewood, N.J., and had Jewish friends growing up, attending his share of Bar Mitzvahs.
“I really felt connected, a connection to the religion,’’ Smith told The Post on Thursday, in a telephone interview, in his new hometown miles from the Lebanon border. “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 agent is Daniel Hazan, who’s New York-based and Orthodox and whose family lives in Israel. Hazan helped Smith through the complicated conversion process that began last year and includes a ceremony by the Western Wall in Jerusalem. In fact, Smith nearly became Stoudemire’s teammate for Hapoel Jerusalem last season but a deal fell through.
His brother, J.R., the ex-Knick now on the Cavaliers, is gung ho about Smith’s new journey.
“He’s been fully supportive of my decision,’’ Smith said. “He’s happy for me. 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.”
Smith is taking classes on reading Hebrew. He missed the first two weeks of the season because of paperwork to get his army release. All Israeli League players have to be enrolled in the Israeli Army, but Smith, 30, can get a release as he’s older than 28.
“I’ve been to a lot of countries — this is obviously my favorite,’’ said Smith, who lives blocks from the Mediterranean Sea. “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.”