Israel, Meet Lacrosse

Most Sabra Kids Have Never Heard of the Sport — Until Now

Lacrosse Faiths: Israeli Lacrosse’s practices are conducted regularly in English, Hebrew and Arabic; players on the field observe Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
israel lacrosse
Lacrosse Faiths: Israeli Lacrosse’s practices are conducted regularly in English, Hebrew and Arabic; players on the field observe Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

By Danielle Schlanger

Published June 21, 2014, issue of June 27, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Taglit-Birthright brought Scott Neiss to Israel. And Neiss, in turn, brought lacrosse.

That’s the story, more or less, behind Israel Lacrosse, a not-for-profit organization engaging Israeli boys and girls ages 8 to 18 in the sport. Neiss, who worked as a general manager for several professional lacrosse teams in the States, founded the group in 2010 following his Birthright trip.

“Lacrosse gave me a purpose to come to Israel,” Neiss said.

Lacrosse, which enjoys wild popularity in parts of the United States, involves a rubber ball and stick with a pocket at the end with each team aiming to score more goals than its opponent. Even though Israel has a national lacrosse team, most Israeli children with whom the group works have never heard of the sport, much less have held a lacrosse stick.

“Kids have never seen anything like it before,” said Noah Miller, director of development and social responsibility for Israel Lacrosse.

Without reliable access to grass fields, the program is scrappy, utilizing green space and schoolyards, or basketball courts and gyms, to give children room to learn the game. Practices are conducted regularly in English, Hebrew and Arabic; players on the field observe Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Boys and girls play on separate teams.

“I like to think of us as social entrepreneurs,” Miller explained. He described how lacrosse is being used for community development to reach marginalized youth.

In order to capture the imagination of young Israelis, the organization goes into schools, community centers, children’s homes and orphanages and introduces them to the game.

“On a typical day, we will go into a school in the morning to teach a P.E. class,” Jacob Silberlicht, one of Israel Lacrosse’s program directors, told the Forward. “We bring lacrosse sticks and teach children the basics of the game. Later in the day we have our ‘chug,’ or after-school program. This is when we have practice for our youth team.”

Today there are 200 boys and girls playing lacrosse in Ashkelon, a coastal city in Southern Israel.

“We have a very strong presence in Ashkelon,” Miller said. “We are going into schools every day, providing mentorship and getting lacrosse in as part of the daily curriculum.”

Miller also mentioned that many of the players in Ashkelon come from impoverished families, and that lacrosse provides an outlet for the area’s Ethiopian, Russian and Moroccan youth to play alongside one another.

“We use this game to energize the demographic that’s really in need from this kind of mentorship” Miller said.

Ashkelon is also about 10 miles from Gaza and is sometimes the target of rockets launched from the territory, many of which are intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system. In the city, a siren signals an impending attack, and many of the young Israelis who live there have spent time in bomb shelters.

Matt Cherry, a Dickinson College graduate and Pennsylvania native who made aliyah a year ago, is now a program director at Israel Lacrosse. Cherry recounted an incident this past December, right before what was many players’ first match ever, when his team had to take shelter in a community center. After 10 minutes, the squad was out on the field.

All of Israel Lacrosse’s staff members play on the country’s national team, largely comprising members from the Jewish diaspora. The group leverages that prestige to get would-be athletes interested. It also gives them a tangible goal for which to aspire.

Miller is one player on the national roster who runs a high school coexistence program in Jaffa for Jewish and Arab players. Growing up in Vermont, Miller, an American, had played lacrosse for most of his life, eventually taking his talents to the University of Vermont team. Following his college graduation in 2010, Miller donned a blue-and-white jersey for the Israeli national squad. Ultimately he chose to quit his desk job working in corporate leadership development and to make aliyah to help the country’s youth program grow.

Israel Lacrosse also makes a concerted effort to engage the American Jewish community with its organization; for many young Jews in the States, lacrosse is an inextricable part of their identity. The group relies heavily on equipment donated through drives, and young American Jewish lacrosse players travel to Israel to partake in service learning projects with the group. Many lacrosse players have adopted the cause for their bar and bat mitzvah projects, helping Israel Lacrosse reach more would-be athletes.

Come September, the organization will begin programs in Netanya, Haifa and Ramla, a city in central Israel.

“I see a bright future for lacrosse in Israel,” Silberlicht noted. “You can see it in kids’ eyes when they pick up a stick for the first time, that they are not going to put it down.”

Danielle Schlanger is a graduate student at Columbia University. Her freelance work has appeared in The Huffington Post, the New York Daily News, the New York Post, Business Insider and in The New York Times blog on Fort Greene and Clinton Hill.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.