Bowled over: The South African contribution to lawn bowls in Israel

“Not only are Israelis competing with the best in the world but also sitting on the sport’s top world sporting bodies."

Israel national lawn bowls team from 1953: Percy Manham, Wellesley Aron, Jack Raphael and Max Spitz (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel national lawn bowls team from 1953: Percy Manham, Wellesley Aron, Jack Raphael and Max Spitz
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“Hard to beat” was the message that resounded at the 2015 European Lawn Bowls Championships held in Israel earlier this month.
Although the UK came out as the eventual champion, the mantra “Hard to beat” referred to no particular country’s competing team, but to the host country Israel.
“Twelve European countries competed. It was the first time the championship was held in Israel and all the European players and their organizations said it was the best championship ever,” said the president of the Israel Lawn Bowls Association Maurice Lavin. “They praised our efficient organization and overwhelming warm hospitality.”
The Championships were hosted at the Ra’anana and Ramat Gan Bowls Clubs.
“What was quite amazing,” revealed Lavin “was that the teams arrived in the midst of a sudden outbreak of terrorist attacks all throughout Israel and not one player or team canceled despite the many inquiries.
“In fact, the Israeli sport channels that were televising the championships were literally ‘bowled’ over by this lack of fear and welcome support for Israel. The participants all said they never felt safer.”
“Bowlers aren’t moffies!” quipped an Israeli spectator, exposing his South African pedigree.
“Let’s hope it rubs off on the Bokke!” remarked another alluding to the Springbok team at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in the UK.
Hosting the championships in Israel was, as one Israeli official commented, “reaching the crest of Everest” and represented a long an inspiring journey of South African contribution to the founding and development of lawn bowls in Israel.
Playing a game of bowls may not have seemed an important priority to most Israelis after the War of Independence. There was the dire security situation and the desperate state of the economy, but full credit must go to former South African Max Spitz, who is revered as the father of lawn bowls in Israel.
The late Norman Spiro, originally from Durbanville outside of Cape Town and former President of the Israel Lawn Bowls Association, said, “In the early 1950s, Max dreamed of bringing bowls to Israel, but did not anticipate the bureaucratic hurdles and what would have broken the back of lesser mortals did not apply to Max – he had nerves of steel.”
Supported with his “A team” of fellow South African Olim Percy Manham, Jack Raphael and Lazar Braudo, Spitz convinced the mayor of Ramat Gan, Avraham Krinitzi – who had absolutely no idea what bowls was about – that the sport was vital for Israel’s survival.
They showed Krinitzi slides of the Balfour Park Bowling Club in Johannesburg with its beautiful gardens and flowers. The mayor was delighted and said, “You want a park? Why didn’t you just say so? I love parks!’’ and granted permission to lay down two greens on the banks of the Yarkon River.
This was all very well, but nothing would go far without quality greens. So South Africa sent “bowling green expert” Dave Millin to Ramat Gan to advise on the laying of the first green and brought with him grass from the Houghton Bowling Club in Johannesburg – and so in 1950, the first bowls club in Israel was opened by South African immigrants.
This was followed a few years later by a second club at Savyon outside Tel Aviv. Soon afterwards bowls was recognized as a Maccabiah sport.
It was at the Maccabi Games in 1953 that saw the first Israeli Lawn Bowls team – which included transplanted South Africans Spitz, Manham and Raphael – participate when they competed against South Africa and the former Rhodesia.
During his tenure as the president of the Israel Lawn Bowls Association in the 1970’s and 80’s, Capetonian Jack Rabin oversaw the opening of five new clubs – Netanya, Ra’anana, Haifa, Jerusalem and Kfar Maccabiah.
In 1972, Israel participated in the World Bowls Championships and since then, both the men’s and woman’s teams have participated in the event which is held every four years.
Eight years later, Israel won the Rinks bronze medal in the woman section of the World Bowls Championships – a stunning achievement.
A few years later “Bowls for the Blind and Visually Impaired” was co-founded by another former South African, Alex Goldsmith, who formed his own nonprofit focusing on spreading the sport for the blind among the younger generation.
One cannot write about Israeli lawn bowls without mentioning Cecil Bransky.
Referred to as “one of the all-time greats of South African bowls,” and “one of the finest allround players in the world today” when he made Aliya in 1980.
One South African sports writer lamenting his departure wrote that “to watch [Bransky] in action is like seeing a scene from an Al Capone movie. With his hat tipped forward resting just above the eyebrows, and his ever-present cigarette pointing from his mouth towards the target at the other end of the green, he looks the part of the cool, calculated killer.”
South Africa’s loss was Israel’s gain and within three years of his arrival, Bransky came in a close second place to tennis plater Shachar Perkis as “The Jerusalem Post Sportsman of the Year.”
He had finished sixth in the singles of the men’s World Bowls Championships and was runner-up in the World Indoor Championships, which in no small way contributed to the rise in popularity of the game in Israel.
Many titles and medals, both local and international would follow over the ensuing years by Bransky and other rising Israeli bowlers, including the inimitable Jeff Rabkin, a former Capetonian.
Israeli bowls holds the distinction as being the only sport in which an Israeli was ranked No. 1 in the world. Listed at the top of the World Bowls Association rankings, Rabkin obtained five medals at World championship level. He won the Israeli singles championship seven times and the masters sixteen times as well as gold medal at the Hong Kong Classic Pairs.
All these achievement were documented and reported on by Spiro, who made Aliya in 1962 and, after serving on the national executive for 25 years, was honored as Lifetime President of Israel National Bowling Association for playing a major role in promoting bowls to Israelis.
The success of bowls in Israel is perhaps best reflected in the common language of Hebrew being spoken on many of the greens throughout the country.
“Today we are attracting younger players who are Sabras. Large clubs like Savyon, Kiryat Ono and even Ramat Gan are totally Israeli. This is an excellent sign and bodes well for the future.”
In fact, the current Israeli singles champion, Tzvika Hadar, is a Sabra who was also appointed President of the European Bowls Union in 2013 and who held the position for two years.
“Not only are Israelis competing with the best in the world but also sitting on the sport’s top world sporting bodies,” noted Lavin.
Who would have imagined that planting grass from the Houghton Bowls Club on the banks of the Yarkon River would sow the seeds of bowling greens across Israel? While the future of the sport lies with Israelis, its proud legacy is embedded with those fine inspiring South Africans who chose to make Israel their home, bringing with them their talents and their passion for bowls.
As the recent visitors to the 2015 European Lawn Bowls Championships collectively expressed: Israel is “hard to beat.”