Editor’s Note: Rob Birkenbelt joins LAS to write about his experiences in Israel, teaching lacrosse to a brand new group of passionate enthusiasts. The experience of traveling to Israel was clearly amazing, and the first hand Grow The Game clinics were pretty amazing too. The future is bright for lacrosse in Israel…
At the 2012 NCAA lacrosse final four weekend, I had the good fortune of meeting Scott Neiss, the executive director of the Israel Lacrosse Association (ILA). I mentioned to him that I coached my daughter’s youth lacrosse team, and he mentioned to me that in the summer of 2013 they were going to have a youth lacrosse camp in Israel. I am not quite sure how the conversation went from there, but the subject of me going to Israel to coach came up at some points. Fast forward 13 months to July 2013, and I found myself in the city of Ashkelon in southern Israel, just 5 miles from Gaza, coaching at a youth lacrosse camp.
Equipped with the three Hebrew words I remembered from my childhood (the words for “yes”, “no”, and “here”) and a passion for the game of lacrosse, I showed up for my first day at camp. A little bleary eyed from my long flight, I was welcomed by 50 or so Israeli boys and girls ages 10-14 that had never played the game before. Due to the efforts of the wonderful ILA staff, promotional outreach programs to local school gym classes were made in the months preceding the camp. In no time these enthusiastic kids that spoke English to varying degrees (some very well and some none at all) had more than doubled my Hebrew vocabulary to include the words for “ears”, “eyes”, “foot”, and “low”. It is amazing how much lacrosse can be taught using such a small vocabulary!
Despite the language barrier, the kids fell in love with the game. For four days we worked hard in the hot Israeli sunshine from 9 am to 1 pm. Each morning the kids showed up eager to show the coaches what they had mastered the day before and even more eager to learn more about this great game.
Having coached youth girls teams at home for the last 6 years I mainly worked with the girls. I was not alone. Members of the ILA were there. These are a group of truly amazing young people that are dedicated to making lacrosse the national sport of Israel. In addition, there were coaches from the Israeli mens national team that were there mainly for the mens national team tryouts (for the FIL 2014 championships in Denver), a few dads of players trying out for the national team, some members of the Israel womens national team, other volunteers and even members of the Turkish national team that were in Israel for a series of games against various Israeli lacrosse teams.
With the nearest lacrosse store many thousands of miles away, gear in Israel is tough to come by. Each day the kids used loaner gear that was donated and brought over by various sources. Lacrosse balls are a precious commodity so at the end of each practice a vigorous ball hunt was performed by everyone involved.
After a day or two of skills and drills, small scrimmages were organized and the kids jumped at the chance to actually play lacrosse. Despite the heat, the boys eagerly geared up and were thrilled to show off their gloves, pads and helmets. The girls also were excited to show off their skills in a game format. And like that we had youth lacrosse being played in Ashkelon, Israel!
In the evening, during the week of the camp, there were games between Israel Premier League lacrosse teams (mainly North American emigrants), national team tryout hopefuls (mainly Jewish North American players that play or recently played college lacrosse at the DI to DIII or club level) and the Turkish national team. In attendance for these games were many of the youth lacrosse campers getting to see high quality lacrosse and, like many kids in America, dreaming about one day playing for their national team.
Why Ashkelon? Ashkelon, a city of about 110,000 people is a sister city with the lacrosse hotbed of Baltimore, Maryland. Through the efforts of this sister city relationship, it was decided to hold this camp in Ashkelon and grow the game from there.
Despite the language barrier and the fact that most of these kids had never touched a lacrosse stick before, the kids loved the game and their 4 day lacrosse camp. Youth lacrosse clinics will continue in Ashkelon through the efforts of the ILA and efforts are being made to spread the game to other Israeli cities. The ILA is using lacrosse to build bridges between the Arab and Jewish kids in Israel. Youth leagues are being formed so these kids can actually play games on a regular basis.
Through the very generous support of STX each camper went home on the last day of the camp with a new STX stick. My fellow coaches and I did even better: we got to go home with the wonderful experience of coaching these kids.
Perhaps the most profound endeavor Israel Lacrosse has taken on this summer has been their aggressive youth development activities. Led by David Lasday, former Peace Players International program director, former NCAA standouts Noach Miller (Vermont ’10) and Seth Mahler (Whittier ’10), and recent All-American Matt Cherry, (Dickison’13) 1,500 Israeli youth have participated in lacrosse clinics.
The youth development team has gone into schools, community centers, children’s homes and absorption centers spreading the game and sharing their passion for the sport with the excited children of Israel. Similarly, the youth development team has aimed to have a strong sense of social responsibility by using the game of lacrosse as a vehicle for community and peace building. The Israel Lacrosse Association has collaborated with Peace Players International, the Turkish National Team, and other organizations to use the sport of lacrosse to build bridges and change perceptions.
In addition to the youth development team, players trying out for the national team avidly participated in the clinics, leaving with smiles, pictures, and unforgettable memories. Visiting Coach David Hartmann reflected on an experience in which a young Israeli girl said, “don’t worry, we will change you.” Through a choked up voice, he described being moved in ways he could never imagine, and that he was in fact forever changed by his interactions with the Israeli children. Stories like these echoed throughout group meetings as each player, coach, and staff member shared anecdotes from their own experiences in these clinics.
The youth development team is in the process of continuing and capitalizing on their efforts this summer by implementing a youth league in Ashkelon starting in October. Similarly, the ILA is in the process of creating a co-existence lacrosse program that will feature Arab and Jewish Players from Jaffa. Lastly, advancements in the Baltimore-Ashkelon partnership will enable youth players from Baltimore to play alongside Ashkelon children as they develop relationships and create memories that will last a lifetime. The ILA has plans to use lacrosse to facilitate leadership development in the youth of both cities as they share their passion for this special game.
Whether it is for personal development, exercise, or to build relationships, the Israel Lacrosse Association is working day and night to make lacrosse the national sport of the Jewish State.
To find out more about Israel lacrosse check them out on line at www.lacrosse.co.il