The writer is president of American Football in Israel
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Leaving Helsinki International Airport en route to the European Championship of American Flag Football, the Israeli women's team was met by a couple of skinheads. At least that's how it appeared to us. We saw two 20-something, muscular, shaven- headed tough guys, dressed in battle fatigues.
A woman working for the Finnish tournament organizers appeared on the scene to inform us that these two "gentlemen" would be our guards and escorts during our time in Helsinki. My first thought was, "who's going to guard us from our protectors?" Taking a closer look at our escorts, I realized that something was slightly askew. Their jackets were Israeli military police issue. Their boots were those of IDF paratroopers. They had multiple tattoos, all on themes of Jerusalem and Israel and devotion to God. A picture was starting to emerge. Our "skinheads" were really a couple of tough-looking Christian Zionists.
They were also Finnish football players who answered a league ad for volunteers to help out during the tournament. Our new friends volunteered to give up four days of work in order to "have the honor" of protecting and escorting the Israeli team.
The Israelis who vied for the Championship of the European Federation of American Football September 16-18 are all American immigrants or children of olim. They speak English and Hebrew interchangeably. With one exception, they are unmarried and deeply religious, yeshiva-educated young women ranging in age from 14 to 26. All are strong Zionists devoted to making their lives in the land of Israel.
I saw potential for problems here. How will our players relate to their escorts? Will there be missionizing going on? Will the Finnish hosts attempt to flirt with their young Israeli visitors? The answers to the last two questions were no and no. The men were perfect gentlemen. However, they did expose the team to unreserved and emotionally expressed love of Israel. And this, coming from two men whose country claims to be the home to Santa Claus.
The "bulldogs," as we affectionately referred to them, spoke of the Finnish people as "the Lost Tribe of Israel." As proof, they showed us words that were the same in Finnish and Hebrew. They repeatedly stated their devotion to Israel, expressed their willingness to fight and die, if necessary in defense of the Jewish nation.
The team hotel was a 15-minute walk from Helsinki's only kosher deli, synagogue and Jewish Community center. All the meals and the Shabbat were spent at the Jewish community center. So, several times a day, one bulldog led the way, while the second guarded the rear.
Helsinki has a very small Muslim population and little or none of the anti-Semitism is currently felt in this area of Europe. There has also been none of the terrorism experienced in London and Spain. However, there are a fair share of seedy looking characters in downtown Helsinki but with our bulldogs around, nobody was going to mess with our team.
Time now to introduce the "bulldogs," Mika Hakkanen and Petri Untamala. Both trained security men, earning their living by protecting facilities in the Finnish capital. During the walks, the players seemed to take turns gravitating to their hosts, wanting to know what made them tick. What they heard was clear and two-fold: The Jews are God's chosen people, and the land of Israel and all of its people must be protected from its enemies.
Mika and Petri spent about 16 hours a day with the team. If we needed water, they ran to buy it. They schlepped boxes of kosher food, and helped out by running dozens of small errands. We invited them to join us for meals at the synagogue. They donned black kippot and joined in singing Hebrew songs.
It turns out that their favorite music is Jewish religious tunes imported from the Holy Land. When the team won its first tournament game against Sweden, the bulldogs were our biggest fans. An exciting 14-12 victory decided only on the last play of the game. Due to Shabbat restrictions, the Israelis would not play on Saturday.
Israel was forced to play three straight games on Friday. Tired from its tough victory over Sweden, Israel then lost to eventual tournament winner, Finland. Their third game in a row was against France. Israel had enough talent to beat the French, but lacked the stamina and lost the contest that ended less than an hour before the onset of the sabbath. Israel ended the first day of competition with a record of 1-2.
Throughout Shabbat, Mika and Petri comforted the Israeli players.
"You are Israeli," they said. "You are winners in our eyes, no matter what happens on the field."
The tournament continued on Saturday with Finland (4-0) easily beating France, Sweden and Austria to notch a perfect record.
France (3-1) beat Austria and Sweden to finish second and gain a place in the final against Finland. For Israel, the title was lost before the game on Sunday morning. What was left was a chance to beat Austria and earn a berth in the bronze medal game against Sweden (1-3) which won a tight victory against Austria.
Of all their games, the Israelis most wanted to play well against Austria. Several of the players had visited Auschwitz on school trips this summer and all were quite familiar with the Austrian role in the Holocaust. The players heard inspirational words from Coach Yonah Mishaan. When game-time came, these yeshiva girls were ready to rock. They rolled over Austria, knocking it out of the tournament. But once again the need to play back-to-back games against a team with fresh legs took its toll on Israel. Sweden beat Israel in their second meeting and the bronze medal was not to be.
The bulldogs teared with emotion when the granddaughters of Holocaust survivors defeated the Austrian women. They comforted the deeply disappointed players, including some who wept after they lost the bronze medal game to Sweden.
Mika and Petri were sad about the loss, but even sadder that the Israelis' visit was coming to an end. During the final evening together, the bulldogs spoke seriously about wanting to make aliya, and perhaps live in Yad Hashmona, the kibbutz in the Jerusalem hills created by like-minded Christian Zionists.
The next morning it was time to fly home.The bulldogs led the team to the airport at 6:30 a.m. They gave us an amazing gift. During the four-day period, they had managed to videotape the team at leisure and at play. Each player was given a DVD with a cover reading, "Israel my beloved." After handing out the discs, these two tough Finnish men stood in the middle of the Helsinki airport, crying like babies. We all shed tears. They cried because they would miss us and the reality of Israel that we brought with us. We cried with happiness, and took comfort in knowing that Israel has two friends such as these.
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Steve Leibowitz, president of American Football in Israel can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.israelfootball.net
The Israeli Women's Flag football team was sponsored by Myra Kraft, wife of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft; Fieldturf CEO John Gilman, www.Diamonds.com
Send your comments >>
Elliott, Tel Aviv, Israel: What a beautiful and inspiring story about the two Christian Zionist bodyguards and the heroic efforts of the football team. Is it possible to get the e-mails of the Bulldogs to express our gratitude for their help and devotion?
Jared Rosenberg, Toronto, Canada:
Kol hakavod to the Christian Zionists from Finland! You're awesome! Thanks for volunteering to protect Israelis!
Grantman, Atlanta, GA, USA:
At first the headline, "Bulldogs and Football Girls" made me curious as to what the heck was going on with our university's football team? The fact that it's also in the middle of football season made me click on the link.
What a great, great story. I completely agree with the previous writer, Elliot in Tel Aviv. Let's get these email addresses and send wonderful notes. Who knows, maybe someday they'll wind up in Athens. (Georgia, that is, home of the Dawgs.)
Ahuva, Efrat, Israel: I am a player on the Israeli flagfootball team and before we left Helsinki I exchanged email addresses with our new friends. Mika's email is: email@example.com and Petri's is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Since I have said goodbye to these two geltelmen they have both written emails to me expressing concern and wondering about how I am doing now that I am back in israel. They are true mensches and we have much to learn from them about the love of Israel and Zionisim.
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