Bringing all-American Sports Home to Israel

Thanks to the efforts of passionate U.S. immigrants, softball, baseball, football, and even lacrosse are increasingly finding an interested- if hesitant- public in Israel.

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“Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and Chevrolet!!”

That was the slogan for the famous car company when I was growing up. It summed up the essence of what it was to live in the United States, the elements of life that ad-men dubbed as quintessentially American as fireworks on the Fourth of July.

So what of Americans who decide to move to Israel? Must they leave these things behind or can they be recreated in their new home?

Well, if you have enough money you can buy a Chevrolet, hot dogs are easy - available everywhere you look, and apple pie can be found in the local bakery, just as long as you’re willing to call it strudel or tart, or, if you are a purist, bake it yourself.

But getting a baseball game together is more of a logistical challenge. For that you have to make a real effort.

Impressively, several generations of American immigrants to Israel have mustered up the desire and the organization to import the all-American pastime - along with other U.S. sports that don’t naturally fit in with the desert landscape.

And these days, American sports in Israel aren’t just for Americans anymore. As more and more Israelis spend part of their lives in the U.S., whether studying, working for Israeli companies or seeking their fortune - then returning home, they - and their children - often come back with a penchant for sports they never heard of growing up. Even Israelis who stay at home can get their interest piqued by watching games on cable and satellite television.

The granddaddy of them all is baseball, which goes back to the 1970’s, when American immigrants started organizing games. In 1979, the Israel Softball Association was formed and in 1986, the Israel Association of Baseball took its place by its side. In numerous leagues for all ages, thousands of players are pitching, hitting and running the bases around the country, and teams regularly represent the country in competition abroad.

The highlight of the baseball experience in Israel was a brief but valiant effort in 2007 to mount a full-fledged professional league, which sadly fizzled, due to an overdependence on foreign players and an inability to draw crowds of spectators. No big surprise - the slow pace of a baseball game can often make watching it as exciting as watching paint dry, and requires not only interest, but patience, which is not one of the Israeli population’s most notable qualities.

A love of the game is passed down to the Israeli-born generation by parents like former New Yorker and lifelong Yankees fan Liza Rosenberg, who lives in Karkur, and played softball growing up. Her enthusiasm for the sport is such that she has pushed her nine-year-old Israeli son to play and watch baseball games with her, and he is currently attending a softball camp on Moshav Maor near Hadera sponsored by the Israel Softball Association.

“I try to encourage him to become familiar with the aspects of American culture that I like, and I really liked the idea of introducing him to it - at first he didn’t quite understand it, he didn't know why I liked it so much, that it was boring. But now he seems really into it … My Israeli husband doesn’t get it at all - he doesn’t understand why I love it so much. But it’s such a part of my youth, part of who I am and I know a lot of people who feel that connection. Baseball is American.

During a visit to the U.S., she brought her son to a spring training game in Florida. “When I took him to the game in the U.S. (Yankees vs. Orioles), he found a ball that had been hit into the bleachers. He was so excited! He even brought it to school to show the other kids once we returned to Israel.”

If the veteran and best-organized U.S. sport in Israel is baseball, the current up-and-comer is American football. While Kennedy family-style touch football and flag football have been around for several decades, played mostly for fun, the real thing - tackle football, with shoulder pads and helmets has only been on the map since 2005.

Football in Israel, and specifically the Israel Football League, and its growing number of teams around the country, has been lucky enough to have a sugar daddy with deep pockets and lots of expertise: New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, whose name is emblazoned on the football stadium in Jerusalem.

But no amount of money can buy interest in a sport - and a growing number of Israelis are now interested in football. You can see that interest at 3 A.M. on Superbowl Sunday when you can’t get a seat at the bars streaming the Superbowl live. Several hi-tech companies also sponsor screenings of the big game - and many of those watching it are speaking Hebrew.

“Israelis who hate baseball are attracted to football - they love the speed and physicality of the game, and army types are interested in the strategy,” says Yehuda Kirschenbaum, 29, who coaches the Tel Aviv Pioneers. Kirschenbaum started playing a few weeks after he moved from New York to Israel in 2009. “I met one of the players at a Nefesh b’Nefesh event just before the season was starting and he was recruiting. A month later, my family came to visit and they brought a bunch of gear that I’d ordered online.”

Kirschenbaum credits his twice-weekly football practices (he was a player until an injury forced him to switch gears and become a coach) as a big part of his successful adjustment to life in Israel. “You come alone to a new town, it’s something that reminds you of home and you are thrown into a group of like-minded guys who share the same passions. I wasn’t accepted to the army because I was too old when I arrived. So this team was like my army unit.”

Adjusting to Israeli culture through ghettoizing yourself on an American sports team? Sounds strange. But the Tel Aviv team has a clear majority of native-born players, he says. “The league is 70 percent Israeli, if not more. We’re always recruiting. Israelis get there thru word of mouth, we recruit, put banners and signs up in every gym, every town square. When I see a big guy walking down the street, I hand him a business card.”

If baseball is the veteran, and football is the up-and-comer, the new kid on the block of North American sports is lacrosse. Thanks to the enthusiasm of Scott Neiss, a Birthrighter who created the Israel Lacrosse Association and has been a whirlwind of start-up activity ever since, holding clinics, handing out donated lacrosse sticks, getting the first two Israeli teams going (Tel Aviv and Jerusalem naturally) and wooing skilled Jewish players from America to join the team.

Drumming up home-grown Israeli players and fans promises to be a real challenge, since even many Americans aren’t familiar with the sport (which is, in fact the most American of all sports, having originated among native Americans.)

And if lacrosse can make it, what’s next? Ice hockey? With its speed and action, it’s a sport Israelis can certainly get excited about. The main obstacle to its development is the fact that the only top-level ice facility is way up north in Metulla, and there is no real ice rink in the center of the country. You have to be a serious enthusiast to make a four-hour drive to play the game. But if they built one in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, the American immigrant hockey players and fans would come.

The only ones who would be more excited - immigrants from Russia and Canada.

Israel's junior baseball team.Credit: Yaron Erel

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