With over 900 players and a women's national team, the new season of American Football in Israel starts this week.
By YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSOIsrael-style homesick? Think that autumn isn't quite the same unless you can hear the inimitable thud and whack of a football? Real football, that is, American football, complete with quarterbacks, end-runs and hail-Mary passes?
As we all know, everything worth having is right here in Israel, and the truth is, one of the fastest-growing sports in Israel today is American football.
This year, at least 70 teams from all over Israel - over 900 players - will be kicking the pigskin, offering all the excitement of the game played on US soil.
The AFI - American Football in Israel - season opens this year on Friday-Saturday, October 28-29, and registration for all teams in under way right now.
American football is a relatively new sport in Israel, according to Josh Hasten, who's both an avid player and the youth director for AFI. "It started in 1988," he says.
"A couple of friends from the US, Steve Leibowitz and Danny Gewirtz, made aliya, but after they arrived, they realized 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 we have a new stadium in Jerusalem. The sport is really catching on."
Last season the AFI organization was granted official recognition as the sport's governing body by the Ministry of Education's Sports Authority. 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 is AFI, which is for men aged 16 to 40, with players from all over the country.
"This spring, we had our first men's contact nine-on-nine league, which 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 Yaakov Yeshiva beat Lyons Capital in the Holyland Bowl.
Most media attention this season 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," Hasten says. "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."
In Israel, the sport is inclusive, reaching out to many who wouldn't otherwise be involved in any sport, let alone football. An especially innovative "Integration Through Sports" program mixes immigrants from North America, Ethiopia and Russia together with Israeli kids, and teaches them to play sports together. "We had 175 kids in our summer camp last summer," Hasten says. "That's amazing, for something like this."
Who plays American football in Israel?
"The largest number of players are young people who are here studying at a yeshiva or college", Hasten says. "They love football, and want to play. But there are also a lot of us older guys who made aliya who love the sport. And then some of our best players are Israeli-born who got interested when they saw the sport on TV. Thousands of people have played with AFI in Israel, so we're even sponsoring an Alumni Game in New York on November 20. They can all come and remember their days in Israel."
Support for AFI comes from many sources, but 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. 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," Hasten says. "We play on Friday mornings at 9 a.m., and finish about 1 or 2 p.m. And we play again after Shabbat, with the games sometimes going until 11 at night.
"Our women's team just returned from Helsinki, where they just missed a Bronze finish. 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 tznuit, modesty. In some ways, we're a little different."
Part of what attracted the Krafts to supporting football in Israel was this diversity. Founder Steve Leibowitz, who is the editor of the IBA (English language) News and president of the AFI, told the story of the Krafts involvement on a Jerusalem Post adio show. "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 both his rifle and tzitzit [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.
"I believe that we are the only national sports federation that accommodates the needs of religious players," Leibowitz said, noting that when the women played in France, they had 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 Patriot's 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 built the stadium in Israel that the Patriots went on to win three out of the last four Super Bowl games."