Hockey as ‘hasbara’?

Canadian media mogul Sidney Greenberg was just awarded for his contributions to the local film industry but he has set his sights on using sports as public diplomacy for Israel.

Greenberg 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Greenberg 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Sidney Greenberg was 30, in 1967, he came to Israel with his older brother Harold at the invitation of fellow Canadian Charles Bronfman, for an economic conference aimed at encouraging Jewish businessmen in the Diaspora to invest in Israeli businesses.
“People were throwing out numbers like $50 million, $60m. I looked at my brother and said, ‘What are we doing here?’” recalled Greenberg on Sunday in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. “I turned to the guy next to me and introduced myself, and found out he was the son of Baron de Rothschild.”
Bronfman presented the Greenberg brothers, who had started a local camera shop in Montreal that had become a multimedia empire called Astral, as the people who would rescue the floundering Israeli cinema business.
The two bought Geva Studios, the country’s first production company, for $5m., and immediately set to work.
On a tour of the studios, Sid Greenberg knocked on the supposedly soundproof wall of the recording studio. “What’s this made of?” he asked.
Straw, they answered.
“I said, ‘Oh boy, I think we have a problem here,’” he recounted with a laugh.
Greenberg oversaw Geva Studios for a number of years and encouraged the relatively late switch from black and white to color in 1969. He remembers fondly the disastrous cowboy movie he brought to be filmed here, which ended with dozens of broken bones and concussions because the directors couldn’t find any riders in the country who knew how to do stunts on horses.
On Sunday, he accepted an award from Cinematheque benefactor Lia Van Leer, head of the Jerusalem Film Festival, which runs through July 16.
The award honored his contributions to the film industry in Israel, and noted that Geva Studios, which the Greenbergs later sold to Israeli owners, is celebrating 50 years in October.
But Greenberg’s investments here have expanded far beyond the film industry to sports, culture and sciences.
In addition to being a generous benefactor of the Canadian Friends of Hebrew University, his real passion is encouraging the use of sports as public diplomacy for Israel across the world. He was the head of Maccabi Canada from 1985 to 1993 and a board member of the Canadian Olympic Committee from 1983 to 2003. He organized the first Russian delegation to the Maccabi Games in 1989, with 100 athletes, and was responsible for forming Maccabi Russia.
Today, he is the financial force behind the Canada-Israel Hockey School in Metulla, which grew from a struggling program at the rink with 30 local participants, to a flourishing after-school program for 300 Druse and Israeli students across the Golan.
The nascent team surprised the world when it won the 2010 championships in the 12-year-old division of its league, in the prestigious International Pee-Wee tournament in Quebec.
“Parts of Canada are very anti-Semitic,” Greenberg explained. But when the Israeli team won, “the whole mentality changed.”
He added, “These are the best ambassadors that Israel has. The consul-general couldn’t believe what the Israeli kids could do [for public diplomacy].”
Now, the Israeli national team is invited to tournaments in Sweden, Switzerland and Finland, countries that are traditionally not bastions of Zionist support, he said.
ON SUNDAY, Greenberg met with the mayors of Metulla and Majdal Shams to reflect on the past year and a half of operation and plans for the future of hockey in the country.
As the Canadian painted his vision of Israel hosting the premier youth summer hockey tournament, his enthusiasm and passion crowded out any room for doubt.
Hockey is already a given in Metulla, a village of 2,000 tucked in among the foothills of the Hermon. Since the “Canada Centre” rink was built in 1995 with other Canadian donations, it has struggled to support a hockey team due to the astronomical costs of importing the amount of gear needed for the contact sport.
Enter Greenberg, who has invested more than $150,000 per year in the school and attracted high-profile names like Air Canada, which agreed to ship all of the gear for free, and the National Hockey League (NHL), which is donating new and used gear and making a documentary about the team.
“You need to be a crazy Jew, in the best way possible, to donate this amount of money to keep this thing going,” said Metulla mayor Herzel Boker at the meeting with Greenberg.
“You are doing holy work.”
All of the participants pay a nominal monthly fee of NIS 56, which covers insurance and other incidentals. In America or Canada, the fees for a hockey season – which runs for about half of Israel’s season, from November to March – can run to $1,000, plus hundreds of dollars for equipment, skates, skatesharpening, helmets, and special jerseys that fit over the pads.
None of the gear is available in Israel and must be shipped from overseas. When the icecleaning Zamboni died just 10 days before a competition in 2010, Greenberg had to pack and ship a 3,000-kg. Zamboni to Israel in a matter of hours.
But no one at Metulla’s ice rink sees any problem with encouraging an expensive sport that is only possible with large foreign donations.
“I dreamt of playing hockey my whole life. I used to play rollerblade hockey in Jerusalem, and when I heard about this, I thought there was a catch,” said Asher Platzky, a Kiryat Shmona resident whose two daughters and son all play hockey in Metulla.
“It’s the fastest sport, it’s really something special,” he said.
“The whole idea of this sport is very new for us,” said Dolan Abu Salh, the 34-year-old mayor of the Druse village of Majdal Shams, which sends a busload of students to train twice a week in Metulla with their Israeli peers.
“But people don’t understand what it does for the child. It means they’re expending their energy in the right way, in the correct way, and it’s good for the parents, too, when their kids come home exhausted but rich in experience,” he said.
More than 100 Druse students from a variety of villages participate in the hockey school, making up a third of its students. Until recently, 15 students came from Ghajar, which is located half in Israel and half in Lebanon.
Some of the students had to cross the Lebanese border twice a week to come to hockey practice. After violence on the border following Nakba Day, the Ghajar students were forced to withdraw from the program, but plan on resuming their involvement at the beginning of the season in September.
On Sunday, the school held its closing ceremony for the season, which runs from September to June. All of the students – from five-year-old boys whose large hockey uniforms almost brushed the ice as they staggered around in circles, through the teenagers on the national team, turning slick moves – gathered for a summer send-off that recognized the most improved players, as well as Greenberg’s support of the program.
“Parents are coming up to me, saying their kids never want to miss practice. It’s amazing – this is what it’s all about,” said the Canadian benefactor as he watched a group of nine- to 12-year-olds skate in figure-eights behind their coach.
“Look at how many kids there are!” he exclaimed.
“When you spend money, you don’t want to see just 10 kids.”
Greenberg has stars in his eyes over the team and the possibilities on an international level. He envisions hockey as a hasbara (public diplomacy) powerhouse – mentions of the Metulla ice rink in major media outlets, positive stories about the success of the Druse- Israeli team in a country with no ice, missions of Israeli and Canadian teams crisscrossing the globe to each other’s countries in displays of solidarity and understanding. Canadians, the Swiss, the Swedes and other hockey fans will understand Israelis best when they can relate to a shared passion, Greenberg believes.
But Boker’s views have a more local focus: Putting Metula on the map as the home of hockey in the Middle East will fill hotel rooms and restaurants and support other local businesses in the country’s neglected periphery.
The town’s claim to fame isn’t about to be challenged anytime soon, as it is the only ice skating rink in Israel. But Greenberg has plans for that as well: He’s playing with the idea of helping develop the country’s three largest “hockey” teams – in Rishon Lezion, Bat Yam and Tel Noar/Yahud, where they play and practice on rollerblades – to form a functional and competitive youth league. Future plans could include rinks in other parts of the country, such as the Center or possibly even Eilat.
The thermometer was approaching 30º outside on Sunday. Some of the skaters inside were wearing tank tops and gloves, others wearing modest religious skirts or large kippot. “Teenage Wasteland” blasted from the speakers as kids of all ages slipped and slid across the ice during scrimmages, knocking each other over with abandon and smacking their sticks on the rink when they scored.
“They are learning about a sport they never would have otherwise,” said Greenberg, as another team took the ice for a practice scrimmage. “It’s just amazing.”