September 25, 2018

American Jews Bat for Israel in ‘Heading Home’

Every four years, 16 countries compete in the World Baseball Classic (WBC). In 2017, Israel wasn’t expected to qualify, let alone win any games. But led by 26 Jewish-Americans with Major League and minor league experience, Team Israel became the underdog success story of the tournament.

“Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel,” which screens April 29 during the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival (LAJFF), documents the miracle on the field as well as the players’ personal journeys as they connect to Israel and their Jewish roots.

Since having at least one Jewish parent or grandparent was the only criterion for joining the team, many of the players had little or no connection to Judaism. All but two had never been to Israel before they donned blue-and-white uniforms and Magen David-emblazoned caps.

“I was really curious what it meant for these guys to not only discover their faith and Israel late in life but also what it means to be a Jewish athlete, experience anti-Semitism and deal with your Jewish fan base,” filmmaker Daniel Miller told the Journal. “Do you acknowledge it? Are you proud of your Jewish identity? Do you flaunt it? I was curious about how they were as Jews now and what this experience would make them become.”

The film shows how the players are affected by visits to Yad Vashem and the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and by the challenges of suddenly becoming part of an international news story while trying to focus on winning each game.

Miller, who co-directed and produced the film with Jeremy Newberger and
Seth Kramer, said the focus expanded from the initial question of how Israel would change the men “to how it feels to represent Israel on the world stage, in terms of politics and anti-Semitism. Everyone now knew they were Jews. It wasn’t just a personal journey, but a
public one.”

“Heading Home” has been a crowd-pleaser at Jewish film festivals and a hit with younger audiences.

“Heading Home” also “shatters the myth of Jews as nonathletes,” Miller said.

Santa Monica native Cody Decker, who grew up idolizing Jewish players Sandy Koufax and Shawn Green, suggested that the Mensch on a Bench doll he’d seen on an episode of the “Shark Tank” TV show would make the perfect mascot. He brought the plush figure to practices and games, much to the public’s delight. When Team Israel qualified for the WBC, the company made it a life-size version.

“The Mensch captured the silliness of the situation and the sense of humor underlying it so nicely,” Miller said. “Now we have a guy in a Mensch costume at screenings. People love it.”

“Heading Home” has been a crowd-pleaser at Jewish film festivals and a hit with younger audiences at Hebrew schools, yeshivot and Little League gatherings, Miller said, and he anticipates a similar response at the LAJFF.

“We’re very excited to play L.A. for a bunch of rabid Jewish baseball fans,” he said. The film will be released in theaters in late summer, with online and on-demand availability
to follow.

Miller, who received an Emmy Award nomination for his 1997 documentary “The Trial of Adolf Eichmann,” said he has always felt “very connected to Israel and to my faith.” While that might not have always been true of the American Jews on Team Israel, he believes they benefitted from their shared experience.

“I’m not sure if they’re lighting candles on Shabbat or fasting on Yom Kippur, but all of them have sworn to visit Israel again,” he said. “As a result of doing well in this tournament, their
pride has grown, reinforced by the acceptance of their peers that they’ve done something great.”

“Heading Home” will be screened at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on April 29 at Laemmle’s Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino.