Jaffa bakery scion has turned Israel football into a little UN
Said Abulafia, 28, runs the Tel Aviv Sabres, whose players include Arabs, Jews, Thais, Americans and Filipinos.
Meet Said Abulafia. A 28-year-old lawyer born and still living in Jaffa, he is the scion of the Abulafia family, whose properties include the historic Jaffa bakery of the same name. In addition to practicing law and managing the family's real estate assets (he is in the process of opening an Abulafia bakery in Manhattan), he is president of the Tel Aviv Sabres, a diverse collection of football players in which national, religious and political differences take a back seat to love for the game. Maybe it's the free post-game Abulafia bourekas that do the trick.
For the Sabres, who in their first two seasons only managed one win per season, the third time around seems to be the charm. They currently top the seven-team Israel Football League at 4-0, after thumping the Jerusalem Kings 58-22 last night.
Almost half of the team's player and coaches are American, most of the rest Israeli. "Before we joined, it was only Jews, but since we joined it has become a little United Nations," says Abulafia, who this season recruited a handful of Muslim and Christian Arabs from Jaffa, as well as an Israeli of Thai and Filipino heritage and two non-Jewish Americans.
Alex Trafton of Los Angeles, the team's quarterback, came to Israel six months ago to study to be a krav maga instructor. Trafton says he arrived at the Sabres largely by chance. "I studied Arabic at UC Berkeley, so Said and I hit it off. We were chatting at Mike's Place," he says, referring to the seaside Tel Aviv bar that's a favorite of American expats and the Sabres' chief domestic sponsor. "Said said, 'Come out, come out,' so I agreed, and I haven't looked back since."
"His Classical Arabic is better than mine," Abulafia interjects. "There have been times when he corrected me in Arabic. His Modern Arabic is lousy, but his Classical Arabic is very good."
"I love that in the huddle I can speak to people in three languages," Trafton says. "These are people from a lot of disparate backgrounds - myself as a non-Jew from the United States, non-Israeli Jews, Arab Muslims and Christians - we're all working toward the same goal. You see the Middle East sometimes as a really bleak landscape, and this has been a heartening experience for me, a great human story. I'm very proud to be part of this team."
Heartening is one thing - what about the level of football?
"The level of play has been very high," Trafton says. "I expected the Americans to have some knowledge of football, but a lot of the Israelis are picking up the game very, very quickly. And they're hard workers. There's some great competition in this league - I've been very impressed."
Coach David Miller, originally of Houston, Texas, says, "I remember very distinctly how several of our guys were called up for reserve duty during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, and we have a bunch of people who are in pretty elite units and saw some combat." Miller says the team's players were "very supportive of each other, knowing it was a very difficult situation all around. I couldn't have been prouder, as a coach and as someone who made aliyah to this country."
Niv Sultan, just 16, recently moved from Long Island to Jerusalem with his family (his parents are Israeli). The towering linebacker was named all-state at George Hewlett High School and isn't ruling out college ball back in the States when the time comes. "Football is a big part of the culture over there. We're hoping it'll become a big part of the culture here," he says. (Promoting football seems to be a full-time occupation for the Sabres - Abulafia says a youth program is already in the planning stages.)
Some of Sultan's teammates had never touched a football before in their lives. Hamoude Kassas of Jaffa says, "I came to practice and didn't even know what that ball was. I didn't know how to catch it. They told me, 'Hamoude, run from that tree to the other,' then they said 'You're hired.'"
"Nobody talks about politics here, it's just about football and joking around. Politics are for the big guys, not for us," the speedy running back says with a laugh. "If we wanted to go into politics, we would've done that a long time ago. Instead we come here."
What's the common language here?
"It's English, but I'm not that good at it - I always found a way out of English class in school," Kassas recalls in Hebrew. "At first I would mess up plays because I didn't understand what my teammates were saying. But the guys here helped me out. Somehow we found a common language."
Anyone interested in training with the Tel Aviv Sabres is encouraged to contact Said Abulafia (email@example.com). Those living outside the Tel Aviv area may contact the IFL commissioner (firstname.lastname@example.org).