The eyes of the world are focused on the soccer fields of Brazil, but a group of Argentinian Jews here has a slightly different focus. For them, the World Cup is an excuse to make a three-day, 1,700-mile pilgrimage to sites of both soccer and cultural significance.
Mariano Schlez, Maxi Klein and Damian Beker decided to combine their love of sports and their love of Jewishness in a World Cup project called Judíos Fanáticos del Fútbol (Jewish Soccer Fanatics). They started planning big after they won a micro grant of about $5,000 from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
“We got in touch with synagogues and other Jewish institutions in Brazil, and they all opened their doors to us and were only too happy to hear that we wanted to take these Jewish travelers to visit them,” Schlez said.
Like them, many soccer fans will drive to Brazil from Argentina; in fact, host cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo are already bustling with foreign license plates. But the trio have something else in their minds as they travel the road joining two of the fiercest rivals in world soccer.
“To play a soccer match on Copacabana Beach and then to celebrate Havdalah with everybody as the sun goes down, that’s going to be a grand moment,” said Schlez, 38, who works as a gym teacher at two Jewish schools in Buenos Aires.
Schlez’s wife, Paola Salem, runs a travel agency and is the brains behind the organization. Though she is staying in Buenos Aires to take care of their two young children, Salem has set up the infrastructure, including the group’s page on Facebook, now with almost 400 members. Most come from Argentina, but there are also soccer aficionados from Israel, the United States and Brazil itself who use the page to exchange tips about ticket sales, accommodations, how to stay safe or where to find a good kosher deli.
The idea is to set up a committee to welcome Jewish soccer fans, create connections and help them learn about local Jewish life. The busy schedule includes meals for the Sabbath, city tours focused on Jewish heritage sites and friendly soccer matches in seven of the 12 cities that will host the tournament.