Raising the flag

football 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
football 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Tellingly, one of the most successful sports programs for women and girls in Jerusalem is one that is not generally associated with Israeli sports and one that receives no public funding: Women's American Football in Israel (WAFI). WAFI was founded some three years ago, when Steve Leibowitz, the president of American Football in Israel (AFI), noticed a number of girls watching the boys play and decided to give them an opportunity to be more than just spectators. In the interim, WAFI has grown from two teams to a league of 13, with more than 120 players ranging in age from 12 to 40, plus a course that trains girls in the basics of the game. It also has a national team that recently took second place in the Flag Oceane competition in Le Havre, France, the largest American football tournament in Europe, and fourth place in the 2006 European Championships. "I don't know of any women's sport that is so organized or as big in Jerusalem," says Yonah Mishaan, WAFI's volunteer coach. "We put a lot of effort into this and it is paying off." WAFI plays a kind of American football known as flag football, a non-contact variation of the traditional tackle football. It has the distinction of having the only women's national team with a majority of observant players. "In this respect, we are unique," Mishaan continues. "We do not play on Shabbat. For religious girls and women, this is one of the few options for taking part in organized team sports." All WAFI's support comes from the private sector, including local and overseas businesses. Its chief sponsors are Myra Kraft, wife of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and Fieldturf CEO John Gilman. The league plays in the $750,000 two-year-old Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem, giving it the kind of first-rate facility many other women's (and men's) teams in other sports can only dream about. For the future, Mishaan looks to adding more teams and starting a farm system similar to US sports to prepare players for the league and the national team. He also is optimistic that WAFI may soon host a women's international tournament on its home turf.