American football has become one of the fastest-growing sports in the country.
By YOCHEVED MIRIAM ROUSSO
Homesick? Thinking that autumn isn't quite the same unless you can hear the inimitable sound of football? Real football, that is - American football, complete with quarterbacks, end-runs, and hail-Mary passes?
American football is one of the fastest-growing sports in Israel today. This year, at least 70 teams from all over Israel - more than 900 players - will be offering all the excitement of the game played on US soil. The AFI (American Football in Israel) season opens this year on October 28 - 29, and registration for all teams is underway.
American football is a relatively new sport in Israel, says Josh Hasten, who is an avid player and the AFI's youth director.
"It started in 1988, when a couple of friends from the US - Steve Leibowitz and Danny Gewirtz - made aliya. After they arrived, they realized that there was no real American football being played anywhere. They decided to get something going, and now we have teams all over the country with youth groups in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Har Adar, Modi'in and Efrat. We're hosting our first international competition next February and have a new stadium in Jerusalem. The sport is really catching on," says Hasten.
Last season, the Education Ministry's sports authority granted the AFI organization official recognition as the sport's governing body. Granted, some teams play no-contact flag football, but that adaptation allows many more groups of people to participate - like women and co-ed teams.
"There are several leagues within AFI", explains Hasten. "The largest league is for men ages 16-40, with players from all over the country. This spring we had our first men's contact nine-on-nine league, which is played on a field twice the size of the other leagues. Each team plays 10 regular season games, followed by the playoffs and bowl games, with the finale being the Holyland Bowl, the national championship game. Last year, the Cobras from the Ner Ya'akov yeshiva beat Lyons Capital in the Holyland Bowl game."
Most media attention has focused on the WAFI, the new women's national team, founded in the spring of 2004.
"The women's team is doing really well. They won the championship in the Flag Oceane Tournament in Le Havre, France last June. The women play six-on-six, non-contact. Last year there were seven teams with about 100 players. We're expecting more this season," says Hasten.
In Israel, the sport is inclusive, reaching out to many who would not otherwise be involved in any sport, let alone football. An especially innovative Integration through Sports program mixes immigrants from North America, Ethiopia, and the former Soviet Union, together with Israeli youngsters, and teaches them to play sports together.
"We had 175 kids in our summer camp last summer. That's amazing, for something like this," says Hasten.
Who plays American football in Israel?
"A large number of players are young people who are here to study at a yeshiva or college. They love football and want to play. But there are also a lot of us older guys who made aliya, who love the sport. Some of our best players are Israeli-born, who got interested when they saw the sport on TV. Thousands of people have played with the AFI in Israel, and we're even sponsoring an alumnae game in New York on November 20. They can all come and remember their days in Israel," says Hasten.
Support for AFI comes from many sources. The biggest boosters are Robert and Myra Kraft, owners of the New England Patriots.
"The sport got a tremendous boost when the Kraft family donated a new stadium for us," Hasten says, noting that the Kraft Family Stadium was constructed on a vacant lot in the center of Jerusalem, not far from the Central Bus Station.
"It was an unused, stone-strewn old soccer field in 1999 when the Krafts - who are great Zionists - agreed to build a stadium. The Krafts have taken a lot of interest in football in Israel. First they built the stadium, then last February they upgraded it by adding synthetic turf, spectator bleachers, and a press box. Now we have comfortable facilities for everyone which, in turn, will make the sport even more popular."
Importing American football to Israel requires a few adjustments.
"We don't play on Shabbat. We play on Friday mornings at 9 a.m. and finish about 1 or 2 p.m., then again after Shabbat with the games sometimes going until 11 p.m.," explains Hasten.
"Our women's team recently returned from Helsinki, where they just missed a bronze medal. Part of the reason they didn't do better was that they played three of their four opening games on a single day, to avoid playing on Shabbat. That's physically tough for anyone," Hasten says, noting that in general, everyone was very accommodating about the Israeli team's need to observe Shabbat.
"Most of the women players are observant. They even designed their own uniforms to give greater consideration to modesty. In some ways, we're a little different."
Part of what attracted the Krafts to support football in Israel was this diversity. Founder Steve Leibowitz, editor of IBA News and president of the AFI, recalls how the Krafts became involved.
"We'd taken Mr. Kraft out to the field, and while he was there an army reserve soldier arrived. He'd just come off duty and was wearing his rifle and tzitziot (ritual fringes). The kids clustered around the guy, getting sports tips from this religious soldier who was also a player. I think there was something about that scene that convinced him that helping establish football in Israel was really worth his while," he says.
"I believe that we are the only national sports federation that accommodates the needs of religious players," says Leibowitz, noting that when the women played in France, they held a Shabbat service and ate kosher food brought in from Paris, a two-hour train ride from Le Havre.
Everyone seems to benefit from the emerging sport. Earlier this year, Robert Kraft spoke at the dedication for the newly refurbished stadium.
"Everyone was excited to hear him speak," Hasten says, "but when he held up the Patriots' Super Bowl trophy - making its maiden voyage outside the US - the crowd just went wild. Kraft told the fans that it was only after he had built the stadium in Israel that the Patriots went on to win three out of the last four Super Bowl games."
AFI's website: www.israelfootball.net
Josh Hasten can be reached at email@example.com