Israel | Religion & Jewish Life | Sports

Nascent Israeli lacrosse team sticking out, surprisingly, in European tourney

Israel's national lacrosse team practices as it prepares for the European Lacrosse Championships, its first tournament. (Israel Lacrosse Facebook Page)

(JTA) — Israel’s national lacrosse team is clinging to a one-goal lead with 20 seconds remaining when the referee blows his whistle — the Wales coach wants a stick check on an Israeli player.

The challenge fails, the stick is legal and the Israelis go on to upset heavily favored Wales, 14-13, on June 25 in the European Lacrosse Championships in Amsterdam.

“It was a desperation move but was completely within the rules,” says Scott Neiss, executive director of Israel’s nascent lacrosse program, who studied communications and business at St. John’s University in New York. “If we were on the other side, we would have done the same thing.”

Beating Wales, ranked 11th by the Federation of International Lacrosse, is a monumental victory for the 18-month-old Israeli squad in a tournament full of them.

Competing in its first international tournament, unranked Israel is riding a Maccabean 4-0 run into its quarterfinal matchup with host Netherlands on June 27. Israel will finish no lower than eighth in the 17-team field.

“We’ve come to achieve everything we set out to do [at the tournament],” says team captain Mathew Markman. “Everything from here on out is icing on the cake.”

The squad is gaining attention for quickly adapting to the game — and the competition. Its supporters are hoping the surprise tournament showing will help catapult lacrosse onto the Israeli athletic scene.

“We’ve had a program a year and a half; we’ve been together as a [national] team two weeks now,” says head coach Bill Beroza, an inductee into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in the United States and the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

The program is the brainchild of Neiss, a 27-year-old sports management whiz from Oceanside, N.Y., who moved to Tel Aviv earlier this year to build a national program. He began brainstorming the idea for a national lacrosse program as a participant on Birthright Israel’s free 10-day trip to Israel in 2010, sneaking away from Birthright activities to attend meetings with prospective partners.

Less than two years later, the program has gained official recognition from the Culture and Sport Ministry, enabling it to play in the European tournament.

Neiss sees unique advantages — and opportunities — for expanding lacrosse into a national sport. For starters, aside from padding, sticks and a couple of nets, the startup costs are minimal — the game can be played on any field.

“Rather than buy a state-of-the-art facility for a few, I’d rather buy 400,000 lacrosse sticks and put them in people’s hands,” Neiss said.

Can lacrosse be a different athletic import to the Jewish state? Other North American sports that have made aliyah have had mixed results.

The Israel Football League has enjoyed success, but the Israel Baseball League collapsed after a single season in 2007. The baseball league’s stated aim of fielding an Israeli team in the 2013 World Baseball Classic may yet come to fruition.

Of lacrosse, Neiss says, “I think it’s the best-kept secret in sports. Because it’s such a cult sport in the U.S., players feel an obligation to promote it more so than others.”

With Johnny Appleseed-like gusto, the team — comprised mostly of North American olim or their children — have been planting the seeds of the sport in Israel, running a dozen youth clinics in the past year and holding an exhibition game recently in Turkey.

The team also markets itself in Israel by donning gear in public.

”We’ve seen it on the beach; people see our sticks and ask, ‘What is that’?” says New Jersey native Stephanie Tenenbaum, the interim director of the women’s lacrosse program.

One challenge for the national team is the array of experience of its players. Some stopped playing after high school. Others, such as Markman, came with Division III varsity experience at Oberlin College.

“We don’t have a lot of depth, but we have a lot of heart,” Beroza says.

“One ‘stereotypical’ guy has peyes and wears tzitzis,” says assistant coach Mark Greenberg, describing Yochanan “Jared” Katz, who made aliyah about eight years ago. Prior to arriving in Israel, Katz played midfield for Colorado State University.

“At first I didn’t know who he was because when he moved to Israel he changed his name,” Neiss says.

Greenberg says of Katz, “He’s smaller and frail, but he goes out there. He will hit a guy and knock him over.”

The European Championships also feature a non-championship tier “festival tournament” for men and women. Like other international sports, the Federation of International Lacrosse places a quota on the number of non-citizen players a team can field in championship play; in lacrosse it’s four. So unlike other nations that reserve their festival teams for B squads, Israel has recruited Jewish talent from the United States hoping they might eventually join the national team.

“This is a small country of 7 million people,” Neiss says of his new country. “There’s no reason we can’t use [the tournament] as a carrot to recruit resources and within 20 years make lacrosse the national sport of Israel.”