Pitching peace in the Middle East

A new program teaches Israeli and Arab youth to play ball together.

THE BASEBALL LE’KULAM program brings together Arab and Jewish youths who learn to play baseball thanks to the organizers, Play Global, Israel Association of Baseball and JNF. (photo credit: YOSSI ZAMIR)
THE BASEBALL LE’KULAM program brings together Arab and Jewish youths who learn to play baseball thanks to the organizers, Play Global, Israel Association of Baseball and JNF.
(photo credit: YOSSI ZAMIR)
It’s a warm Friday morning as a troupe of ballplayers walk onto the field looking relaxed with their baseball gloves and bats. The smell of freshly mowed grass lingers in the air, with the sun’s rays lighting up the players’ faces.
They divide up into four teams: the Pirates, Yankees, Giants and Red Sox. The games are punctuated by occasional bouts of laughter and encouraging words and tips from the coaches at hand.
Compared to the professional baseball franchise of North America that stretches from coast to coast, the baseball scene in the Middle East and in Israel is far different. And in this case, the players on these very American-sounding teams are actually Arab and Jewish seventh graders from Ramle and Modi’in, located about 20 kilometers apart.
The kids are participating in a pilot program called Baseball Lekulam or “Baseball for All” in English, run by the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB), the international nonprofit Play Global, with financial support from the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund.
“I LOVE to hit the ball,” says Adam, 12, an Arab, who attends the Orthodox Christian School in the mixed Arab-Jewish city Ramle. “And I love the schnitzel served at lunch.” His friend Sagi, a Jew from Modi’in, nods in agreement to his friend’s statements.
Baseball for All has given Adam and Sagi the opportunity to play ball for the first time in their lives and interact in a way that may not have been possible before – as Arab and Jewish kids living in different cities.
The nine-month program which began in March entailed three baseball sessions and overnighters at the Baptist Village’s baseball field, located outside Petah Tikva, which also has dining and housing facilities.
In between the three practice sessions, two family nights were also held in Ramle and Kibbutz Gezer. All the sessions were held in Hebrew, English and Arabic.
The 25 participants in the December session – who started the program as sixth graders – played ball and joked with one another during the final session as good friends. Hugs and high fives ensued after one kid made it to home plate.
“All the kids learned to play baseball from the same standpoint – as beginners,” explains Nate Fish, the national director of the IAB and one of the planners behind the program. “The kids from Modi’in were a bit more familiar with baseball, as some come from American homes.”
In order to draw interest to the program from the Israeli-Arab community, Fish contacted Amal Abu-Sif, a PhD candidate from the Department of Social Work at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who has worked extensively on coexistence projects in Israel and has many connections with the Israeli-Arab and Palestinian communities.
“Amal connected us with a Christian Orthodox school in Ramle, and we went to speak with the principal and parents to convince them about getting their kids to join this program."
“While baseball is less known in the Israeli-Arab community, we somehow got across to the parents and school administrators how great this program would be,” explains Fish. “They then helped scout out the kids that would be best suited for this.”
Once Fish had 15 Arab kids from Ramle and 15 Jewish kids from the greater Modi’in area fully committed to the program, the first session took place in March.
“At first the mingling between the kids was slow, and so we had them interact through different icebreakers and games. But by the third session, no one was paying attention to who was who.
The kids were just hanging out together on the field and off,” says Fish.
“It was amazing to see how the kids grew over this past year and how much they’ve learned about this American sport.”
The last session of the program was supposed to have taken place in October, but it was postponed to December due to concerns raised by parents in light of the security situation.
“The kids still wanted to meet back in October,” comments Fish. “They like hanging out.”
“It’s been so much fun meeting new people and just having fun together!” exclaims Joad, 12, from Ramle. “What I love about baseball is running and throwing the ball. I love using up my energy,” she adds.
BASEBALL COACHES Sami Salman of Ramle (left) and David Leichman of Kibbutz Gezer.
(Photo credit: Yossi Zamer)
INDEED, BASEBALL for All is just as much about coexistence as it is about raising awareness about the sport of baseball in Israel.
There are around 1,000 people involved with the IAB’s programs, clinics and teams, and the number of baseball players is growing, albeit slowly, according to Fish. Many of the kids who took part in this pilot program will continue to play baseball on local teams.
Fish is a former minor leaguer from Ohio who made aliya in 2013 to help strengthen Israel’s baseball program as the director of the IAB, which was founded in 1986 to promote baseball culture in Israel.
He came to Israel with extensive baseball experience, having played for Germany, Argentina, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. He played baseball for Tel Aviv Lightning in 2007 during the inaugural season of the now-defunct Israel Baseball League, the first pro baseball league in the Middle East. Fish also coached the Israeli national baseball team in the European championships.
But not everyone involved with managing the baseball scene in Israel necessarily grew up with the sport. Margo Sugarman, the secretary-general of the IAB and one of the Baseball for All staffers, knew nothing of the American sport as a child in her native South Africa.
She was drawn to the sport when her own son began playing as a kid and loved watching his games.
“I came across baseball in Israel as a mom,” she says.
Having lived in Israel for 27 years, Sugarman says that today she is a fully certified baseball umpire, having completed an umpire’s course, and also helps to coach the baseball team representing her home town of Tel Mond.
“I find myself on the field every week,” she says.
“I love working with kids and it’s been a great experience to be involved with Baseball for All.
“This program shows the kids that they’re not so different from each other,” Sugarman comments. “I feel that there should be a program like this for adults, too. Having preconceived notions erased at any age, both as kids and adults, is so important.”
Similarly, the president of the IAB, Peter Kurz, originally from New York, also got into baseball because of his nine-year-old son.
“I was always a fan of the game; but when my son started playing, I got much more involved.”
IN ADDITION to serving as president of the IAB, Kurz is vice president of the European Confederation of Baseball.
He serves as the manager of KKL-JNF’s Project Baseball, which supports all baseball programs in Israel, including field projects.
Kurz noted that KKL-JNF is planning to build two more baseball fields in the Jewish state.
“There are only three baseball fields in Israel,” comments Kurz, who has been volunteering to develop baseball in Israel for more than 15 years.
“There are many kids and adults who have to travel in order to play on a proper baseball diamond. We’re aiming to make baseball and the American values of sportsmanship and leadership that go with it more available to everyone,” he says.
David Leichman, one of the veteran faces of Israeli baseball, who is helping to staff Baseball for All, is currently working on locating an appropriate playing field in Ramle so that local baseball players can play on a field instead of parking lots.
A Jewish educator, Leichman grew up playing softball on the concrete pavements of Queens, New York, and immigrated to Israel in 1976. He joined Kibbutz Gezer, which was reestablished by other North American olim, near Ramle.
They believed early on that their kids needed to have the opportunity to play ball in Israel, too.
“We were probably among the few kibbutzniks at that time who also had baseball gloves. We would play softball in the sandlot,” recalls Leichman. In 1983, Leichman cleared a cornfield with other kibbutz residents and, backed by American donations, built a ball field within six weeks.
Pitching a baseball during a warmup to Joad, who uses a pink baseball mitt during the December session, the 64-year-old Leichman looks very much at home on the baseball diamond. “The beauty of what is happening here is that everyone is learning to play ball by the same rules,” he says.
A strong proponent of coexistence initiatives, one of Leichman’s closest friends was the late Samir Dabit, an Israeli Arab who owned a well-known hummus restaurant in Ramle.
“We always argued nicely about politics,” says Leichman, who first ate at Samir’s restaurant 35 years ago. “Both our families became very close over the years and Samir was a very dear friend to me.”
Dabit’s grandson Sami Salman is one of the coaches taking part in the Baseball for All program.
Salman tells The Jerusalem Post Magazine that it was Leichman who introduced him to baseball. “I’ve been playing baseball for three years now. I even saw the World Series last year! “It’s a cool sport – there all kinds of things happening on the field,” says Salman, who is studying business administration and international relations in Rishon Lezion, where he says he is the only Arab student in his class.
“Growing up in a mixed city can be confusing sometimes in regards to identity.
I went to a Jewish kindergarten and spoke Hebrew since I was young. Arabs and Jews in Ramle have always tried to coexist together,” says Salman.
“I’m not sure what I’m going to do when I grow up, but I hope baseball will always be a part of my life,” he concludes.
In addition to the IAB and Fish, USbased Play Global, which specializes in running baseball programs for areas of conflict, had a key role in producing Baseball for All. Its executive director, Tom Gillespie, who is a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates, flew in for the earlier sessions of the program, and the nonprofit also sent in visiting coaches.
“This is the first time Play Global has been involved with such a program in Israel, and they came on board right at the inception,” says Fish. “I worked with Tom on creating the pilot program.
“I wish the need for such a program didn’t have to exist; that these connections between kids would just happen on their own. But we are happy to provide a platform for bringing two cultures together.”
The final session of Baseball for All, which is set to continue for next year as well, had Fish teaching the new ballplayers how to sing the unofficial anthem of North American baseball, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
The kids sang along in Hebrew and Arabic accents, exchanging giggles and smiles with one another – the real signs of the program’s success.