Why a rabbi is among those thanking John Calipari for his time at Kentucky

Kentucky head coach John Calipari, right, instructs Reed Sheppard (15) during a game against Mississippi, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024, in Lexington, Ky.

When news broke that legendary coach John Calipari will leave Kentucky after 15 years to become the head coach at Arkansas, basketball players and fans took to social media to either cheer or jeer at Calipari’s decision.

Many also shared favorite memories from the coach’s time at Kentucky, including Rabbi Shlomo Litvin, who directs Chabad of the Bluegrass and Chabad’s Jewish Student Center in Lexington.

In a thread on X, Rabbi Litvin described getting to know Calipari through a series of casual run-ins at a coffee shop. The two men would exchange polite hellos and sometimes chat about the latest developments affecting campus life.

But in late 2018, after 11 people died during the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, their conversation took on a more serious tone, Rabbi Litvin said. Calipari, who grew up in Pennsylvania and used to work in Pittsburgh, expressed his concern and offered his support.

“He compassionately shared how horrified he was by the shooting, inquired how our community was, and how I was doing personally. He shared about his own connections to the city. Then he asked: How can I help?” Rabbi Litvin wrote on X.

Calipari ultimately agreed to be part of a menorah lighting ceremony for Hanukkah, even though the event was taking place during basketball season.

“The fourth night of Chanukah was a brutal and windy night, and we had tremendous difficulty lighting the Menorah. ... (Calipari) turned to the crowd and said, ‘We are not going anywhere until we light this Menorah!’ The crowd broke out in cheers,” Rabbi Litvin recalled.

Calipari and Rabbi Litvin went on to work together on other community initiatives, including a rebuilding effort after a tornado hit Kentucky in 2021. But Rabbi Litvin said on X that the conversation after the synagogue shooting stands out to him most.

“To me, (Calipari) will always be summed up by that moment of kindness and light in a week so dark and painful,” he said.

Calipari’s move to Arkansas was officially announced by the Razorbacks on Wednesday.