Israel Education Playbook
Sports are an organic vehicle to reach North American Jewish youth where they are paying most attention and are most engaged. Growing up in North America, Jewish youth play, watch and talk sport, not to mention sport video games and sport collectibles. They even dress sports, wearing jerseys with professional players’ names on them, baseball caps and kippot with team logos, and T-shirts with sports brands like Adidas, Nike and Under Armour. Sport is where youth find their community. It is a language they understand fluently. The status and influence of sport inundates daily life from sports practices, to watching games on TV, to attending games at high school, college and at the professional level. As Jewish educators and Jewish institutions, how can we utilize sport to build our community and strengthen our children’s connection to Israel?
Understand the Environment
The first step to connecting young Jews to Israel through sport is understanding the environment. Where can they connect to sport and how? What sports do Jewish youth play? What sports exist in Israel? What leagues? What teams? How do youth pick the players and teams they cheer for? What players would North American Jewish youth connect to?
The American Jewish Sports Environment
Young North American Jews play basketball, baseball, soccer and volleyball. They are swimmers, and track and field athletes. Some play football and many love to watch it. Over the past four years, as director of youth development for Israel Lacrosse, I have come to discover that today there are more Jewish players playing lacrosse at the collegiate level than any other sport. Lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in America, and there are plenty of young Jews playing it.
The Israeli Sports Environment
In Israel, soccer is by far the number one sport, followed by basketball. Volleyball is growing and handball has established leagues. North American sports like American football, hockey and baseball are starting to make their mark, benefiting from the presence of Jews from North America who have made aliyah. In my case, our goal this year with Israel Lacrosse is to create high school leagues in Kiryat Gat, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ramla, Tel Aviv and Netanya.
While sport does not hold the same status in Israel as in America, the professional leagues and national teams continue to get stronger. Unlike North American youth who play sports in seasons, Israelis pick one sport to play the whole year. Foreign soccer and basketball players are brought in to boost the level of play at the professional level, but there are restrictions on how many can be on the team or play at a time. A Jewish player from North America, who can make aliyah and become a citizen, is perceived to be a valuable addition to a professional team.
Here are several key elements Jewish educators and institutions can utilize in order to leverage the power and appeal of sports to connect young Jews to Israel.
As Jews, young people will often identify with Israeli athletes and national teams as a part of national and religious pride. Obviously, they pay more attention to them when they are successful. In order to capture the attention of Jewish youth, every national team accomplishment should be celebrated, documented and shared with them. To stay on top of Israeli national team successes, follow Israeli national organizations on Twitter and Facebook, such as Israel football, basketball, lacrosse, baseball, hockey, volleyball, the Olympic committee of Israel and Ayelet, the organization for non-Olympic sports in Israel. These organizations produce videos, blog posts, player interviews and game recaps that can provide plenty of content. Videos of practices, games and highlights will capture their attention. They will be captivated by the common but endlessly intriguing sports narratives such as David vs. Goliath, big comebacks and crushing defeats.
For the most part North American youth cheer and support the professional and college sports teams of the city in which they live. With the sister cities program, this can extend to Israel as well. At Israel Lacrosse we utilize sister cities to connect our North American supporters to city clubs in Israel. We started youth lacrosse in Ashkelon because it is paired with Baltimore. Our supporters from Baltimore cheer on our Ashkelon youth teams and our premier club, feeling a strong connection to their Israeli counterpart. Jewish lacrosse players from Baltimore come to visit Ashkelon to coach the kids and play for the premier team. Young players from Baltimore yet to visit Israel collect second-hand equipment to send to Ashkelon youth starting to play lacrosse. Going the other way, players from Ashkelon have played on the Baltimore JCC Maccabi teams. This example proves how effective the sister cities program can be in building a connection between young American Jews and Israel through sports. This season our plan is to work on strengthening the relationship of Kiryat Gat and Chicago.
It’s interesting to note that Israeli fans cheer on their teams using songs and tunes from Jewish history and prayer. Going to an Israeli sporting event can often feel like a “Maccabiah” color war at camp, each team representing a city with their colors, logos and history. The logo of Elitzur Ashkelon basketball club, for example, has Samson pushing down the columns of the Philistines. The logos, history and culture of these teams can serve as great material for in class reports and projects, engaging students with the lure of sports while at the same time imparting interesting and important facts about Israeli history, culture and politics.
Maccabi Haifa and Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball teams play exhibition games in North America in order to connect with the Jewish community and expand their brands. They hold clinics run by their players alongside their games. Similarly, the Israel Lacrosse national team plays four to five exhibition games each year in North America against local colleges and other national teams. Alongside the women’s and men’s national team games we put together boys’ and girls’ teams made up of Jewish youth from the area to play as Team Israel, wearing the blue and white. Israel baseball and hockey would find similar success while playing exhibitions in the states. More and more of these events and games are being streamed online. All of these organizations need help reaching your students, and connecting to them is a win-win. Having the opportunity to play as Israel in North America, wearing the Jewish star on their helmet or jersey, and hearing Hatikvah before the game build local community and pride in Israel.
In the area of Jewish sports heroes, we have always thought too small. We have waited for them to come to us. We let the media tell us who is a Jewish sports hero. Sandy Koufax, arguably the most famous Jewish sports hero, sat out the World Series because of Yom Kippur in 1965, already 50 years ago. The NBA player Omri Casspi is an amazing ambassador for Israel both in his community of Sacramento and to the cities he visits; his recent trip bringing over NBA basketball players to Israel was great public relations. However, we need to increase the number of, and opportunities for, these sports heroes and ambassadors. The status and influence of professional athletes is tremendous, and their impact on young Jews can be significant.
How and where do we find these sports shlichim?
Israel is full of sports shlichim. There are amazing role models such as point guard Lior Liphitz, who has played professional basketball for 12 years. Lior, originally from Beer Sheva, has played for Jerusalem, Netanya, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Kiryat Gat, and the Israeli national team. Four years ago I worked with Lior with Netanya Hoops For Kids, a community giveback program where players volunteer to coach at-risk kids. We organized for Lior to visit four camps in Georgia and North Carolina for the summer, and ran basketball clinics that taught Hebrew. At the clinics Lior was able to tell the kids about what it takes to be a professional basketball player in Israel and what it’s like to represent his country in international competition. These camps, along with several others, have brought Lior back each of the past four years. It has now become a project of the Jewish Agency. While Lior is definitely special I have come across many more Israeli athletes who have the ability to connect to Jewish youth in America. Eli Hackmon, one of Israel’s FIFA Soccer referees, officiates top soccer matches in Europe as well as professional games in Israel. Sports figures like Eli and Lior have the power to engage Jewish youth in America.
Each year 15-20 Jewish basketball and soccer players from North America come to Israel to play in the professional leagues. They make aliyah and play one or two seasons in Israel. These are sports shilichim in your own backyard. They may not have learned a lot of Hebrew, but they most likely picked up the words used on the field or court. These players need to be found and engaged. Furthermore, they need to be packaged and sold to Jewish youth as Jewish sports heroes. Our role as educators is to help them hone their narrative and teach them how to communicate their experience playing in Israel to build a connection with Jewish American youth.
At Israel Lacrosse we call it swag. More than any other sport, lacrosse claims to be about the swag, with cool jerseys, shorts, helmets, socks and cleats. However, every sport has its apparel. We create shooting shirts, warm-up shirts, with Hebrew sayings like Acharai—“After me”—and Beyachad—“Together.” This a very tactile way to get young American Jews involved and connected to Israeli sports.
Israel provides youth Jewish sports teams to support, follow and play on. Social media gives North American Jews the ability to follow Israeli teams. Events in North America offers youth the opportunity to participate in clinics and possibly play for Israel. The accessibility of national and professional teams allows for educators and students to communicate directly with players and teams. Sports shlichim, Israel sports stars, can have tremendous influence when packaged and marketed as heroes. Sports can be the trigger to ignite a strong and proud relationship with Israel and the Jewish community.