The Baptist Village of Israel lies about an hour northeast of Jerusalem. The grounds are reminiscent of a peaceful summer camp. Orange trees surround cabins and dorms and picnic tables. There's even an olive tree. In just a few weeks, on the Baptist Village football field, the very first Israeli national team will face Maranatha Baptist Bible College of Wisconsin in a game of American football.
We're not used to hearing much happy news from the Israel in America. We hear about the mounting tension with Iran and its nuclear program. We hear about bombings, rocket fire and missiles. We don't hear much about sports, about friends getting together at the end of the week to learn, laugh or let off steam with a few vicious tackles on a football field.
That's why David Hartstein, an Austin, Texas-based documentary filmmaker, had to make the trip to Israel in March 2011 when he heard about the growing Israeli Football League. Every news story he read or heard about Israel was usually something bad. But football? This stood out. Now Hartstein has hours of unedited film of hundreds of stories from the men who started from scratch to build a culture of American football in the tiny State of Israel. As of now, it's called "Untitled Israel Football Project."
"One the one hand, you could say, 'It's just football, who cares?' But there's a lot more going on,” Hartstein says. You've got missiles flying overhead ... and this is a great outlet for them.”
Not only will the May 17 game against Maranatha be the first official game for the newly formed national team, formed of the best players from the 10 teams in the Israeli Football League, it will be the first time the Israelis have played 11 on 11 (they're used to playing 8-on-8) on a full-size field. They're hoping the international matchup draws a little more attention to the slowly growing emergence of the game. Only seven years ago, they were playing without pads.
In 2005, 14 men got together for a pickup game, not knowing that they were planting the seeds of the IFL. More players joined every year. They were surgeons and engineers, students and garbage men, lawyers and soldiers. They were Israelis, Americans and even Palestinians. Although Israel has had touch and flag football teams since 1989, soccer reigns supreme and many had never touched a football.
By 2007, they had some protective gear, in large part thanks to New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, a steadfast supporter of Israel and now, the financier behind the IFL. The football stadium in Jerusalem's Saker Park is named for the Kraft family. The Patriots logo is painted in the grass.
"We love the game of football, we love the state of Israel," Kraft tells Hartstein in one scene of the film. "So merging special things in our lives has always been what we’re about. Our family has tried to build bridges in anything we do and I think the game of football is one of the best building of bridges for a community that I've ever seen."
Israel Bowl I was held in 2008. The media had begun to take notice, especially when they caught wind of the camaraderie between Israeli and Palestinian players. Of course, there’s no denying the gravity of how a sport of any kind can cause people to ignore one of the most significant social, political and religious conflicts of the last 100 years. It’s part of what makes sports so great.
"I hate this settler," one Arab player says to his Israeli coach, a scene Hartstein caught on camera.
"It's true, I stole his land," says the Israeli. The men laugh, and then they just go back to playing football.
For a few hours each week, these things just don't seem to matter to the players. From day one, all they've wanted is to play the game.
"I would say we're about 15-20 years away from football being a professional sport in Israel," says Uriel Sturm, a Canadian-Israeli who dropped his career as an attorney in Toronto to move to Israel. He's now the commissioner of the IFL and the sports editor of the Jerusalem Post.
"Forming the national team and playing the first international game is good, it gives our players something to look forward to," he says. "It solidifies our existence."
American tackle football fits seamlessly into Israeli culture. Israelis are aggressive and passionate people. When American kids are packing for college, Israelis are packing for the army. Tactical thinking is ingrained early and competition is natural.
"Universal army service puts pressure on our youth to be physically fit," says Steve Leibowitz, founder and president of American Football in Israel, a non-profit that merged with the IFL.
Structure and discipline? It comes naturally. Israelis do their homework, but truly learning the complicated sport isn't easy, especially in your 20s and 30s.
"These guys didn't grow up grasping the rules," Sturm says. "What are the penalties, what are four downs? It has to be explained."
And defense is the biggest challenge. The games are high-scoring affairs, dominated by offense and less-than-stellar attempts at slowing it down.
Once the players learn, there's the matter of creating a fan base that knows the sport and wants to watch games. It might be a slow process, but it's happening. High school teams are forming, more fans are crowding Kraft Stadium and other fields across the small state for games. The players and fans in Israel see football through the same rose-colored glasses as Americans.
"It's very foreign to them, but it has that sexy caché," Sturm says. "The cheerleaders, the heroes, it's very Hollywood. It's something Israelis, and really a lot of foreigners, like to tap into."
There are, of course, plenty of differences in Israel. No Friday night lights, as that would interfere with the Sabbath, although the IFL welcomes players of any religion. More and more Israelis are going to the games. At Kraft Stadium, fans sip cold beers and enjoy hot dogs, though tailgating hasn't quite taken off. They've invented their own team cheers. But actual cheerleaders? Well let's just say the more observant Jews would frown upon the skimpy outfits.
Still, there's more separating IFL players from NFL players than the fact that the latter make millions of dollars, date supermodels and are revered as celebrities. The chain of command rules in the NFL. It's not a players' league where every voice matters. A brutal hierarchy exists from the commissioner down. What the man above you orders, goes in the NFL. Unions are the only things that grant players leverage. In the IFL, everyone feels that they deserve to be heard, and they'll fight to make sure it happens. The players see the league as very flat.
Although the players haven't received a single paycheck from the IFL, when news of the NFL lockout spread, the IFL players were inspired. They wanted to unionize – yes, a league of unpaid players wanted to form a union. It didn't happen. But it shows how much influence the NFL has.
"Everyone has a favorite American player – there's no consensus," Sturm says, though he admits the Patriots' sponsorship of the league means Tom Brady, who visited Israel in 2006, is certainly topping the popularity charts, along with Drew Brees. Sturm also confessed his love for Tim Tebow with a simple, "How could you not love him?"
Leibowitz remembers how excited the Israelis were to meet Brady.
"A little child football player went up and asked for his autograph. Brady responded by saying, 'I will give you mine if you give me yours.'"
Still, it wouldn't do justice to the players to say the only reason they take time from their families, jobs and even the army to play football is the idea of being like Americans. It’s pretty simple – the aggression that comes with football feels damn good. Just ask Erez Kaminski, who plays left tackle for the national team.
"What do I like about football? I could write a five-page essay about that. But let's just sum it up. I don't like football, I love it. I love the intensity. I love that feeling you have just before you hit someone. Your heart's racing, you’re not sure if you are low enough…you want to hit him hard and not lose balance. I love the feeling of getting up after a hit and the play is still going."
It seems Kaminski was waiting for football, and football was waiting for him. He grew up playing basketball, but was always reprimanded for his aggressive defense. The same thing happened when he tried water polo.
"And then out of the blue I saw a poster in my school that said there were ‘open games’ in Haifa every Sabbath…so the next weekend I went to see what it was all about. They were playing real schoolyard football, 20-30 year-old guys. No gear, no pads and no helmets, just mouth guards and a lot of love for the game. Once I played, I could never go back to anything else."
The 22 year-old earned the nickname "Shrek" after showing up for that first game in a blindingly bright green shirt, still wearing braces and sporting a mess of curly blond hair.
Kaminski is about to live the dream of a lot of young, hopeful Israeli football players. He’s heading to Birmingham Southern College to play his favorite game.
"It's hard to go to another intense, very demanding place [football and college] especially in regards to the fact that I just got out of the army, and most of the guys here take at least a year before starting school," Kaminski says. "I am leaving all my life here, but that’s what you need to do sometimes in life in order to do something great."
He hopes to return to Israel and coach in the IFL part-time. As long as there are guys like Shrek with such a love of the game, it seems football can only keep growing in The Holy Land.
"We have 2,000 players in flag and tackle programs. Ten adult tackle teams and eight high school tackle teams," says Leibowitz. "We will never be as popular as soccer or basketball in Israel, but our popularity is growing and we can eventually become the third most popular sport in the country."
The Maranatha Bible College matchup is set for May 17. Sturm, who "never makes predictions," thinks the Israelis have a shot. No matter what happens, he's looking forward to giving the Israelis some positive PR.
Yonah Mishaan, the national team's head coach and a former player and coach on the Big Blue Jerusalem Lions, remembers a 2001 flag football tournament in rural La Havre, France. After the game, a woman approached him and asked him to turn his head to the side.
"Your nose isn't long enough," she remarked, adding that she expected him to have tail and horns. Rather than getting upset, Mishaan and a teammate continued talking with the woman and her friends. They talked about football and drinking. He wanted to show her that they were just two regular guys who happened to be Jewish, happened to be Israeli.
"That's what football does," Mishaan tells Hartstein in the film. "Where else do you get a chance to make a small difference?"
Leibowitz says it will be a great opportunity for the Israelis to truly see how far they've come. The Americans are in their off season, and the Israelis will have adrenaline on their side. So, if you had to put your money on someone, the new guys may not be a bad bet.
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