Most people may not know it, but Israel has a national lacrosse team.
The sport, with native-American roots dating as far back as the early 12th century, is one of the fastest-growing in the world – and as usual, Israel has joined the party late. But although the sport was only introduced to the Jewish state in mid-2010, men’s and women’s lacrosse have qualified to represent the country in a prestigious international competition taking place in Europe this summer.
“There’s something extra special about walking out onto the pitch with the Star of David on your shirt, getting ready to sing ‘Hatikva’ with the flag raised,” Natasha Kalmanson, a loquacious young Zionist from England who plays on the women’s national team during time off from her studies at Tel Aviv University, tells The Jerusalem Post. “It sounds like a cliché, but representing Israel in Europe would be a dream come true.”
The history of lacrosse in Israel began with an American immigrant named Scott Neiss, who recognized in 2010 that there was a growing crop of talented, athletic immigrants searching for connections with their countries of origin. Neiss founded the National Lacrosse League, dedicated to the development of the sport in Israel. The Federation of International Lacrosse eventually recognized the league as an associate member in April 2011.
AT FIRST a medley of young enthusiasts wanting nothing to do with the relatively slow soccer of which native Israelis are enamored, the program quickly evolved into a semi-professional league, featuring a women’s national team and two men’s clubs – one based in Tel Aviv and the other in Jerusalem – that come together to form a men’s national team. Though originally popular with Jewish athletes studying or working in Israel, the teams now feature sabras, immigrants, and even haredim (the ultra-Orthodox). Many of the players served in the IDF, and a number of them are in the midst of their military service.
“I was inspired to start Israel Lacrosse on a Taglit-Birthright trip in 2010,” Neiss tells the Post
. “The trip was a life-changing experience for me, and I was surprised that for a country with such a strong American influence, there was no lacrosse.... I made aliya in February and have been working exclusively on Israel Lacrosse since.”
Besides thriving thanks to the sport’s athletic component, members of the National Lacrosse League have been volunteering their spare time to teach the game to disadvantaged children across the country. Partnering with Bring It In – Israel, a non-profit organization dedicated to connecting Jewish children to Judaism and Israel through sports, the lacrosse players ran more than 20 free youth clinics in 2011, beginning in Netanya and making stops in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Bat Yam, Ashkelon and other locations. The players and staff are devoted to the program, and will relaunch clinics this summer.
Kalmanson says all of her teammates feel that they have been given a historic opportunity in representing the Jewish state.
“Growing up in England, my main connection to Judaism has been Zionism,” she says. “I’m passionate about Israel. That’s why I’m here.”
She adds that she is absolutely sure all of her teammates share her feeling.
“When they told us that we had a chance to represent Israel, our whole team started buzzing. I don’t think we would get that feeling representing any other country,” she says.
In the 17-country competition taking place in Amsterdam this June, the men’s national team is scheduled to play friendlies against The Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and France, and will then move on to group matches against Slovakia, France, Norway and Wales. If successful in the group stage, they will have the opportunity to play in a championship bracket beginning late on June 27. The women’s schedule has yet to be released.
The interim goal of the National Lacrosse League is to field an Israeli national team at the 2014 World Cup in Denver, Colorado.
Israeli sports have largely disappointed in recent history. The national soccer team has consistently failed even to qualify for a major international competition, and the basketball program’s greatest accomplishment has been sending Omri Casspi to the NBA.
Maybe it’s time to give lacrosse a chance.For more information on Israeli lacrosse, visit http://www.lacrosse.co.il/