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Israel Winter Service Trip: Using History, Education to Grow the Game

Israel Winter Service Trip: Using History, Education to Grow the Game

Until leading the adventure, I never imagined the impact the Israel Winter Service trip has on not only lacrosse, but on the lives of anyone involved. From growing the game in schools, to visiting some of the world’s most historic locations, no stone was left unturned this winter.

Normally, events, and experiences are easy for me to write about. A simple formula of: this happened, and this is what my experience was, and here’s my take afterwards. For the Israel Winter Service Trip, to put it basically, so much happened. I have so much to take away from it, that I really am having trouble imagining how one simple article could surmise the entirety of the trip.

How Israel Makes the Game Grow

For 11 days over the holiday season, 52 high school students from America had the opportunity to experience and explore culture and history, all while using lacrosse as a vehicle. I would without question say I’m envious that these kids got to see the world as young adults, much younger than my first ventures. I can’t be too bummed out, however, because I was fortunate enough to be able to tag along.

Our good friends at Israel Lacrosse were hosting their fifth edition of the Israel Lacrosse Winter Service Trip over the break. Jewish American high school kids, aged 13-18, flew halfway around the world to explore a country rich in cultural significance and history.

Israel Winter Service Trip: Using History, Education to Grow the Game

This wasn’t a lacrosse touring team, nor was it just a trip to a couple museums with a tour guide. The two were blended together and in conjunction; a superior product has been provided and improved over the past 5 years.

I flew home just before Christmas to see family. I’ve been out at the ski resorts these past four winters working, so being home six days before the holiday was a big deal for me! Seeing as I was already stateside, I was asked to help get this trip off the ground (literally) and meet the kids at the airport.

One Small World

On my way to the terminal, I got talking to the State Troopers riding the tram. Added security for the holidays meant that Troopers were coming down from Upstate to assist. Sure enough, one Trooper was from my home town, and his son is coming up through the program and had my father for a coach just this past summer.

I wasn’t even out of the country and I was having “small world” moments.

Our terminal was chaotic, and it was awesome. Each Winter Service Trip kid had procured a bag full of equipment to donate to the development of youth lacrosse in Israel. In addition to their own personal luggage, there was a heap of bags that stood equal to all of my five feet ten inches.

A delay, a layover, and nine time zones later, we arrived in Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel-Aviv. Customs was a breeze, and only one solitary bag of the 100+ checked luggage bags that left JFK didn’t make it. Of course, the bag belonged to the kid who had his bag lost the last time he flew to Israel as well.

Then we got all of the players checked into the hotel without issue that first night. I don’t think half of them knew what day it was, or why the sun wasn’t up. I threw my lot in with the jetlagged half, so I headed home to my apartment, just down the street in Netanya to try and correct my clock.

Hit the Ground Running

I was unaware that a truck had been used to bring all the donated gear, to the tune of 61 bags, to my apartment. My house already served as the de-facto home for all of the Israel Lacrosse equipment, but this was a whole new level. The living room was stacked halfway to the ceiling with bags. In my exhaustion, I ran (walked) and did a swan dive (flop) on the top of the pile. Oddly enough, helmets and shafts aren’t soft and cuddly just because they’re piled up in bags.

The best way to get the Service Trip Troopers out of the clutches of the evil jetlag was to set them right to task. The sun was up, they were up. The first day, and the next few mornings to follow, consisted of a school visit.

The term “school visit” is comprised of the words “school” and “visit”. It simply means to visit a school. This is simple. However, the impact of these school visits is anything but simple. I make roughly four school visits a week, but none of them compare to the energy and enthusiasm brought on by the Service Trippers.

Three factions of American high schoolers were dropped off at three different schools on the first day. The ages of the local Israeli kids were more or less matching their peers teaching them lacrosse, so right away there was a connection.

Teaching the mechanics of throwing and catching was quite the sight. Some of the WST kids spoke Hebrew really well from either attending Jewish schools or just from learning it with family. And, on the other end of the spectrum, there were those with me, who speak next to none.

The classes swing from order and instruction, to the chaos of kids chasing balls all over, with shouts and screams of pure enjoyment rivaling the decibel levels of your whistle. They’re awesome, and our WST kids fed off that energy and doubled down on it.

Over the course of the 11 days, I believe we had five days where we did visits to over a combined 11 schools! Some of these schools we’ve been coming to regularly in efforts to recruit for local clubs, but some of these visits had Israeli kids seeing lacrosse for the very first time. That’s truly something special that I’ll never get tired of.

Planting All Kinds of Seeds

Flights, setbacks, and the general grind of trying to grow this game and share it with the world can honestly wear on you more than one would think. But, when you see a fourteen-year-old kid light up and you know darn well the hooks are in for life… it’s a feeling that makes it all worth it and anyone who’s done the good work of sharing the game can tell you that. For these high school kids to understand how much they actually have to give, even in their young years, it’s an incredible lesson that they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Israel Winter Service Trip: Using History, Education to Grow the Game

Obviously, these trips were in the mornings, when school was in session. Different days of the week would have us doing different things for the remainder of the day. One day would be a school visit followed by a tour of Caesarea, where the Romans established a port city thousands of years ago. Other school visits would be further North, allowing us to tour the Bahai Gardens, the ancient city of Akko, and to get a beautiful view of the northernmost city of Haifa.

Other days with school visits didn’t really have much of a cultural side, and focused on giving the kids an afternoon of intense lacrosse instruction and drilling at the Wingate Institute. The Wingate Institute will be the main venue for the upcoming 2018 FIL Men’s World Championships being held in Netanya, Israel, July 12-21. These kids were getting a first-hand look and feel for the fields that fifty nations will be competing on later this year. Not sure how YOU feel about that… but I’m of the opinion it’s kinda sorta really pretty neat.

Getting Back to the Lacrosse

The Wingate Institute played host to a number of different lacrosse events throughout the trip. Having more practices and games at the facility has given Israel Lacrosse a better look at what day to day operations will be looking like for the Worlds later this year. I can say that if you’re coming, you’re 100% in for a treat this summer! If you’re not coming, you’re 200% missing out and I’d advise you to reconsider!

Israel Winter Service Trip: Using History, Education to Grow the Game

One of the most anticipated lacrosse events of the week was Winter Service Trip versus Israel. National Team players, chaperones, and some of the other top talent players living in Israel combined to give the young guns a lesson on what lacrosse looks like if you want to play at the next level.

Both boys and girls played their hearts out against the senior teams, but experience and physical maturity proved too much for the youngins. This game was an awesome experience for all who played, and I think I’m safe in saying that some of the Winter Service Trip players might be finding themselves standing on the opposite sideline in a few years.

Following an Storied Path

We’ll come back to the lacrosse aspect of the trip, as I think it’s important to keep blending the sport-specific side with the cultural immersion these kids were able to experience.

Following the Israel vs. WST game, we took one whole day as a group to head down south to see some of the most popular sites on the planet. We kicked off our day with a hike and tour of the mountain fortress of Masada. Masada was the last of the Jewish rebel hideouts, far atop a mountain in the middle of the desert. We hiked up the same trails that Roman siege weapons were hauled up thousands of years prior, and the sheer scale of the whole thing was nothing short of impressive.

Following the Masada tour was a quick trip down the road to the Dead Sea. We could see the sea from high atop the mountain of Masada, and the world famous waters were a welcome treat for weary legs. The Dead Sea is famous for it’s amazingly high salt content. Organisms cannot exist in such iodized waters (Read: DEAD Sea), and the waters are most known for their ability to float a swimmer effortlessly. I figured SOME degree of effort would be required to actually float, but to our collective astonishment, you simply had to just sit down in the desert waters and you would be suspended effortlessly to the point where it challenged preconceived notions of what’s really possible in the world… and underlying theme of the entire trip.

Israel Winter Service Trip: Using History, Education to Grow the Game

We had plenty more to be done on our trip, including a stop at Yad Vashem. Yad Vashem is Israel’s museum dedicated to the preservation and remembrance of those murdered in the years of the Holocaust. I’m glad I went, but I didn’t enjoy it. As far as a museum goes, it was beautifully done and I really think I got the most out of my time, but it’s really hard to say you “enjoyed” your time in a Holocaust museum. I value spent and the experience gained, and I think that’s the best way to say that.

Time Standing Still

Our final stop of the day would be the most prolific and recognized religious location in the world. We spent the late afternoon into the evening in Jerusalem. This is a place you should see. That’s coming from arguably the least religiously inclined person in the world.

Israel Winter Service Trip: Using History, Education to Grow the Game

I really do think that just to walk the streets and see the sights that have been seen by billions of eyes over thousands of years… it connects peoples of the world across time and across all that we believe separates us.

The Western Wall is an impressive sight. We were there a little later than the normal hours that most people are there to pray and visit, and after seeing a google image of how many bajillions of people are normally there, I was thankful for this intimate experience. To stare at the Wall, for it to stare back. To leave a note, regardless of religiosity, asking for the same peace that hundreds of generations have asked for… it was special. I recommend it.

One anecdotal story from Jerusalem started out as one I really didn’t understand as it was unfolding. It actually took an explanation afterwards for me to appreciate. One of our Winter Service Trip boys, Kai, had never received a Bar Mitzva, and was afforded the opportunity via our good friend Reuven. Hebrew songs and prayers confirmed Kai as a man under the watch of a city held sacred by the Jewish faith… that’s pretty sweet. I had never seen a Bar Mitzva before, and so for this to be my only experience with the tradition is something I won’t soon forget, and I’m sure Kai won’t either!

Israel Winter Service Trip: Using History, Education to Grow the Game

Back to Work!

Our long week of school visits, touring, and practices kicked into the next gear as the weekend approached. We would be in full throttle lacrosse mode for most of the rest of the trip, and the kids couldn’t have been more excited (or the coaches!).

The next day began with an exhibition game in the town of Kefar Yona in front of packed stands of Israeli schoolchildren. Screaming fans cheered on as the boys and girls each played a small exhibition game.

Following the fanfare, the group toured the Netanya Stadium where the Opening Ceremonies and ultimately the champions of the world will be crowned in July. Seeing the stadium empty provided a calm and collective moment to really get an honest opinion of the venue itself without thousands of fans and the noise that comes with it.

The real moment of the stadium tour came when the WST kids were shown the locker rooms at the end of the tour. As the group was shown into the belly of the stadium, they were brought to the locker rooms where professional soccer players and big-name musicians prepared before performances.

The doors were opened, and inside the room the fifty-odd boys and girls found their own Israel uniform hanging up. They walked around celebrating and taking photographs and it was impossible not to feel the pride in the room. All the flights, busses, practices, and all those other minutes of wear incurred while traveling that you don’t think of – all of them came to fruition as these young men and women found a uniform with their name on it a world away from whence they came.

How is this Even Reality?

Included in the gear load-out was an envelope. This envelope housed the information as to which team the player had been drafted to play for in the Hanukkah 8’s tournament to be held the next two days.
Before the tournament could start, there was one remaining challenge. The Israel Winter Service Trip would square off with the Israeli National Team. The Israeli National team also included some coaches, counselors, and other players living in country who practice with the national team (me).

The WST ladies gave the women’s team a run for their money, but in the end the senior women were able to pull out a four-goal lead at full time.

The boys were given a little more of a lesson. As Israel ramps up for the World Championships, on Israeli soil no less, these men have been working tirelessly to elevate their game, and the opportunity to go out there and demonstrate talent was taken advantage of to the tenth degree.

Israel Winter Service Trip: Using History, Education to Grow the Game

Games were fun, the mood was light, and much fun was had by all. The WST kids saw what that next level looks like, what it feels like to play against it, and more importantly they have been given the path needed to get to that next level.

The next morning would bring the talent level back down a little bit, but does not mean that intensity budged an inch (centimeter?).

Hanukkah 8 on 8

This was to be the second annual holding of the tournament. This tournament divided up the WST kids amongst Israeli players who have been tirelessly training over the past few years to improve their skills.

The games were honestly a riot. Counselors and chaperones became coaches and referees. Roommates became rivals, and friendships were forged immediately between American and Israeli players. I was fortunate enough to coach with Matt Glaser (Canterbury School) and help lead the Ashdod team through the weekend. Every single game we had was a one-goal game, proving to be as exciting as games can be.

Israel Winter Service Trip: Using History, Education to Grow the Game

Our final two games resulted in an OT braveheart that lasted more than seven minutes (longest Braveheart in Israeli history, a record that will probably stand a long time), and a championship game that was decided by overtime as well (you don’t do bravehearts in championships, everyone knows that).

A comfortable, 7-2, lead in the first half over Ashkelon turned into an uncomfortable, 7-7, tie and an even less comfortable, 7-8, overtime loss to the Ashkelon team.

The girls’ tournament was slightly less populated, as we had less WST girls and quite honestly the results domestically with girls has been a little behind the progress made on the boys side (not for long!).

Netanya fell to Herzliya in the finals, but the real winner of the weekend was the game played after the championships. All the girls were divided up again and an All-Star game was played at a superior pace and it was an excellent show from all who played.

Israel Winter Service Trip: Using History, Education to Grow the Game

The Hanukkah 8’s closing meant one thing, our time together in Israel was waning. The journey was far from over however, as the last leg of the trip proved to hold some of the dearest memories made. Our flights left at some unfathomable time in the morning from Ben Gurion Airport headed for Poland.

One Last Stop

I was honestly proud of the kids for how our travel skills augmented over the trip. We went from being clueless little muppets running into walls, losing itineraries, and forgetting things to efficient travelers with documents ready and all our ducks in a row.

We arrived later in the afternoon/early evening in Krakow. It was New Year’s Eve, and we were treated to a festive night of music and dancing in the square of the city. An exceptional and festive mood was infectious and it really was a memorable night I doubt anyone will forget for years. ANYONE can go to New York City, Vegas, or wherever for a New Year’s Eve. These kids were able to celebrate to Polish Hip Hop with fifty of their new favorite friends in one of the largest squares in Europe.

The morning was sunny and crisp, but it wasn’t as cold as one would think it would be for New Year’s Day. As far as lacrosse goes, this was the day that the vast majority of our Winter Service Trip players were looking forward to most. This was the day that they would play together to represent Israel against international teams.

A three-way scrimmage between Israel, the Polish National Team, and the Euro Stars was arranged for both the boys and the girls, bringing the number of total teams to six. Six teams that chose to travel from near and far to ring in the new year with lacrosse.

Kicking off 2018 Lacrosse in Poland!

On the sideline during the first game (Euro Stars Women v Polish Women) the epiphany came that this was quite literally the first game to be played in the WORLD in 2018. The Australians and Japanese had the Southern Crosse tournament to play, but that wouldn’t start for another few days. Unless a game was started somewhere in America, on or before 2am, on the East Coast, this was the first game! In the WORLD!

Israel’s men were dominant on the day, coming out flawless with comfortable wins over both the Euro Stars and Poland. The Euro Star ladies were also flawless, narrowly edging Poland and handing Israel they’re only loss in a thrilling overtime game. Poland didn’t come away with a win, but that is not to detract from the qualitative improvements this program has made over the past 4 years since I first was introduced to Polish lacrosse.

Euro Stars Israel Winter Service Trip Poland Krakow New Years Challenge 2018 Photo: Shutterlax.com
Photo: Shutterlax.com

The Euro Stars were a team I can selfishly claim as a product of my own creation. These games needed a third participant. In lieu of an entire club that was able/willing to play on January 1, I grabbed pieces of clubs from the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Germany, and even had a couple Slovakians along with a Scottish player!

The games themselves were a true representation of what growth and gamesmanship can look like. That would be all for the day. The final games were played under the lights in the nipping cold of the Polish Winter, followed by a hot meal with opponents-turned-friends in the gym. T-shirts, hoodies and shorts were traded. Facebook friends were made. Old teammates/opponents from the IPLL and EBLC games caught up.

Still Serving

Euro Stars Israel Winter Service Trip Poland Krakow New Years Challenge 2018 Photo: Shutterlax.comOne of my favorite sights was to see five or six Winter Service Trip kids sitting in my Euro Stars locker room in an assembly line. They were stringing up a dozen heads for some of my players who hailed from the developing Czech club, the Brno Ravens. THAT is service. THAT is an example of taking ten minutes out of your day to grow the game. Good on you, boys!

The next day was arguably the hardest. We took a bus trip to Auschwitz to tour the infamous concentration camp. I won’t get into detail about what we saw, how it made me feel, or what the group really talked about after. That was a personal experience shared by a now closely-knit small group. For me to try to describe what we saw and felt would be a disservice. Words can’t really describe what we took in and how that turned our guts inside out.

If you’ve visited a Holocaust museum in DC, or elsewhere, and think you’ve paid due diligence to the past, I implore that you really do make it a priority to see this camp. I don’t plan on going to another museum. You need to walk with ghosts. You need to see where horror and terror lived.

With heavy hearts, a somber and silent bus departed for the airport. This was where I would bid our Winter Service Trip farewell. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure what I was getting into when I signed on the chaperone this group, but I’m glad I did.

More Than a Holiday in Israel

These are kids who now have friends and teammates for life. These are young adults who have understood their own power to help out and to improve lives through sport. These are the next generation of world-changers – the guys and gals who might pass on that temp job right out of school to dedicate their time to getting out there and fixing their world, one life at a time.

Israel Winter Service Trip: Using History, Education to Grow the Game

If you don’t think lacrosse can change or save a life, I would really implore you reconsider. Giving a game is to give a community, giving an avenue to resources and help, and simply just a friend from a world away. Someone to visit, someone to ask questions. A teammate in a time when the popular thing to do in this world is to look out for number one.

I know fifty kids who are on their way to becoming fifty adults, who will be fifty teammates. Fifty kids ready to stand up for lacrosse, for Israel, and for the greater good of this world.

A month ago, I was oblivious to the Winter Service Trip and the good it does. As I’m sitting here in my apartment in Netanya, incapable of seeing my roommate over a literal mountain of donated equipment, I’m a huge fan.

There isn’t one way to best grow the game, but this certainly is one way.

Photo Credit: Ryan Hunter / Brian Witmer
Video Credit: Ryan Hunter

Visit Israel Lacrosse to learn more about the WST and how to get involved!

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