Bearing Israel’s flag

The Women’s American Football in Israel team is hoping to win the Flag Football World Championship in Jerusalem.

With 29 teams from 20 countries set to participate in the Flag Football World Championship, it will be the largest world championships held in Israel in any sport (photo credit: NERIA GRANEVICH)
With 29 teams from 20 countries set to participate in the Flag Football World Championship, it will be the largest world championships held in Israel in any sport
(photo credit: NERIA GRANEVICH)
It all started 10 years ago, with a few teenage girls throwing a ball back and forth on the sidelines of a football pitch.
Later this summer, some of those girls and the Israeli national team they helped found will look to become the flag football world champions in Jerusalem.
The Kraft Family Stadium will host both the women’s and men’s IFAF Flag Football World Championship, August 12-15, and Israel’s women are hoping to cap a remarkable journey with an historic medal.
Women’s American Football in Israel (WAFI) was founded in 2004, with the league currently consisting of 14 teams, all centered in Jerusalem, and over 200 women competing in both fall and spring leagues.
It was Myra Kraft, the late wife of Robert Kraft, the American business magnate and owner of the NFL’s New England Patriots, who urged the president of American Football in Israel, Steve Leibowitz, to establish a national women’s team.
“Myra Kraft insisted that there must be women playing,” said Leibowitz, with the Kraft family still fully funding the women’s national team as well as many other American football programs in Israel. “She said it is not acceptable that this is football for men only and there must be women athletes out there, so I sought them out.
A bunch of girls were standing on the sidelines watching the guys play flag football. Some of the girls would come out to watch their brothers or boyfriends, or just wanted to watch football.
“So I approached them and asked them if they would be interested in playing and not just watching. They said yes, and I said that they need to find me a group of 12 of them and I will find you a coach.”
The national team made its international debut shortly afterwards, finishing fourth in a tournament in the Dominican Republic. Israel’s women’s side soon became an international powerhouse, winning the Big Bowl Flag Football Tournament held in Walldorf, Germany – the biggest flag football tournament in Europe. The team finished in third place in Walldorf this year, claiming a medal in the event for the seventh straight time.
Flag football is a non-contact version of the more violent and physical tackle football, which is played in the NFL. Blocking, tackling and kicking are not allowed in flag football.
The Israeli women are currently ranked third in Europe and fifth in the world, and they believe they can scale the podium in Jerusalem.
“We have been working for this for a long time, nine years at least, and our goal is to get up on the podium,” said Adena Brickman, who plays cornerback and is the defensive captain of the team. “We have been working very hard and we have home-court advantage, so we can only hope things will go well.”
Brickman, 30, who works as a nurse at the capital’s Hadassah University Medical Center, is one of a handful of players who have been part of this almost from the start.
Besides having their travel abroad paid, for thanks to the Kraft family, the roster doesn’t receive any additional financial support. However, representing Israel is about so much more than money for Brickman and her teammates.
“Obviously it would be nice to be paid because I could spend more time practicing, but I don’t need the money to continue playing,” she said. “I’m happy just representing the country.”
Offensive captain Yael Freedman, 25, a receiver, echoed her teammate’s sentiment.
“Just the honor of representing my country is enough for me,” said Freedman, who is a physiotherapy student at Ariel University. “We definitely want to be on the podium in the world championship. It is going to be tough because there are four very strong teams, but I believe we can do it if we keep working hard like we are doing now. I hope to continue playing for a long while. It is not easy with school, but I love football and I love representing my country, and I wouldn’t want to give it up.”
Yonah Mishaan has coached the women’s team from day one, with the roster practicing together twice a week and the players training by themselves the rest of the time.
“Most of the girls are part of the structure we built over the last decade,” said Mishaan. “They work very hard to be No. 1 in the world, and I believe we will achieve that one day. It is just a function of time.”
Mishaan is expecting a very difficult challenge in the world championship, but he believes in his team.
“We should definitely be in the top five,” he said. “If we play very well we have a shot at the third place spot. Second or first will be a dream come true, but we definitely have the potential.”
Over half of the players on the women’s and men’s teams are Orthodox, and Leibowitz says that the IFAF has learned to accept the special needs of the Israel flag football national sides.
“As far as I know, we are the only Israel national teams in any sport that won’t play on Shabbat,” said Leibowitz.
“We have the international federation trained that if they want us there, they have to accommodate us schedule- wise. The last tournament we played was during Succot and we brought a Succa and Sefer Torah, as well as glatt-kosher food.”
Both Brickman and Freedman said all the players coexist in an ideal way, and that their religious requirements are all respected.
“In the first year it was all Orthodox girls, most of them out of local yeshivas and seminaries who were insistent on playing with skirts,” Leibowitz explained. “But the sport is now developing and is bringing in secular girls and Israeli girls. In the beginning it was children of immigrants and now it is a real mixture, with some girls who can hardly speak English.”
Leibowitz said he has been lobbying for 10 years to bring the event to the Jewish state. With 29 teams from 20 countries set to participate, it will be the largest-ever world championships held in Israel in any sport.
“We are hoping that this world championship will bring a great deal of awareness among the Israeli public to the existence of this sport,” Leibowitz said. “We are hoping there will be some tailwind from hosting this tournament, to get lots of fans to come out – and we expect that will help us to expand the sport.”
In the meantime, the women’s national team is completely focused on the upcoming world championships, hoping to make history.
“We are a real national team,” said Mishaan. “When you have that flag on, you have a responsibility to represent the country properly. I think this world championship will also give a lot of people a different perspective of what Israel is about. They are going to come and see a country which is a beautiful place to live in, with some problems.”