I make no pretensions of being a loyal soccer grandma. But my husband and I have come from Jerusalem to Binyamina early enough to catch a soccer game on a short winter Friday afternoon.
We learn that a lot more is happening than kicking a spherical ball toward a goal.
Our grandson Elon, eight, is already in his purple team uniform. His soccer shirt doesn’t bear the name of his school or the winery across the street. It says “Tzav Pius,” which literally means “conciliation order,” a sort of charge to ease conflict.
“Tzav Pius” – a wordplay on the Hebrew term for military call-up, tzav giyus – is the name of an organization that was created in 1996 to address the schisms in Israeli society, particularly between so-called “religious” and so-called “secular” Jews. Soccer clubs like the one Elon belongs to are the oldest project of the NGO, which aims at creating a more cohesive society.
There are more than 70 Tzav Pius soccer clubs around Israel. Why is one necessary in one of Israel’s veteran towns?
Binyamina was established in 1922 and named after Baron Edmond Benjamin James de Rothschild by European Jews of the Third Aliya. Nearby Givat Ada was established 17 years earlier, and named for Adelheid, the baron’s Italian cousin and wife. The municipalities were combined in 2003, with some 15,000 residents together.
In the 1950s, more traditional Jews from Iraq, Persia and Morocco moved in, finding employment in the citrus orchards and vineyards of the region. They lived in small homes on the west side of town and sent their children to the state religious school there.
Elon is in fourth grade in that school. It was tottering not long ago, with fewer than 10 pupils in each grade, reflecting the drop in the town’s religious sector.
In the last decade, some 100 observant families have moved into Binyamina.
Many of the adults were officers in elite IDF units. Most have strong academic credentials and careers: computer engineers, lawyers, academics, army officers, even a pilot. They migrated to Binyamina from the big cities, drawn by the charming small-town atmosphere and the convenient location. The Binyamina Railway Station allows convenient commuting to Tel Aviv and Haifa, and the new hi-tech centers in Yokne’am and Caesarea are an easy drive away. Most of the newcomers have bought homes on the “religious” west side, walking distance from the school and their synagogue with its many community activities.
The state religious school began filling up and for the first time garnering accolades. In last year’s national achievement tests in second and fifth grade English, math and Hebrew, the children in the religious school for the first time outscored the other schools in town. The religious community printed posters to celebrate and change the stereotype of their community in the upscale town.
Nonetheless, rarely did the pupils on the west side mix with those on the east side. The growing arrival of Shabbat-observant Jews has made some of the veteran residents nervous about possible coercion.
That’s where the soccer club comes in. Supported by Tzav Pius, it is run in the community center under the auspices of the Israel Football Association. No games take place on Shabbat. Boys from both sides of town signed up. Elon and six of his school classmates are among them.
THE SCHEDULE pinned to the refrigerator lists the location of today’s matches: Kafr Kara, an Arab town in Wadi Ara.
The Binyamina boys will first play against youngsters from Kafr Kara, and then against boys from Haifa in the Kafr Kara stadium.
Waze lists the stadium, and off we drive, 20 minutes through pretty farming country, mostly vineyards. While we park, Elon runs off to join his teammates.
The homes around the stadium are large and lovely. Kafr Kara is a little more populous than Binyamina-Givat Ada. And it’s the municipality with more doctors per population than anywhere else in the country: 14.8 per 1,000 citizens. The range of elementary schools includes a bilingual Hand in Hand school called Bridge Over the Valley, where Arab and Jewish children study together. The Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation set up a leadership development program there. Who knew? Talk about breaking stereotypes.
Kara means pumpkin in Arabic, and pumpkin seeds are ubiquitous on the bleachers. But sitting won’t work. The soccer field has been divided into quadrants, with four games going on simultaneously so that all the boys can play. Coaches shift players in the middle of the action, which means we and the other parents and grandparents keep moving, too.
Even so, it’s difficult to keep an eye on Elon. As handsome and talented as our eight-year-old grandson is, all the boys on the field look pretty much the same. They’re slim with short trendy haircuts and identical brand-name cleated soccer shoes. They’ve been well taught, using newly acquired skills of charging and punting. In Hebrew and Arabic, coaches are shouting commands, and families are shouting encouragement. Elon, a forward, and the Kafr Kara forward often go head-to-head after the ball.
The Binyamina team squeaks to victory. Cheers. Handshakes. Good sportsmanship. The kids from Haifa take the field.
Whom are you rooting for? I ask a boy on the Kafr Kara team, now watching on the sidelines.
He thinks for a minute. “Binyamina,” he says. “But both teams are good.”
Indeed, Binyamina wins again.
Before the game Elon said that of course he already knew all the names of the boys from the other schools on his team. At the match, he introduced himself to the Kafr Kara players in the little Arabic he knows and asked them their names. “They’re hard to remember,” he says, shrugging.
Later, at the Shabbat table, Elon suddenly remembers the name of the star forward. “Bashir,” he says. “His name is Bashir. And he’s a really good player.”
Just boys playing soccer on a Friday afternoon.
A lot more is happening than kicking a spherical ball toward a goal.
What a fitting way to bring in Shabbat.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.