As any hard-core Jewish sports fan can tell you, there is a rich history of Jews in baseball and basketball. But Jews in football? Not so much.
As Geoff Schwartz wrote in “Eat My Schwartz: Our Story of NFL Football, Food, Family, and Faith,” the 2016 book he penned with his brother, Mitchell, “When Mitch arrived in the league, we instantly accounted for at least 20 percent of all Jewish players in the NFL, or probably more.”
This helps underscore the noteworthiness of the scene that played out on a recent sunny afternoon on a borrowed field in the San Fernando Valley: 16 young men, all Jewish, working on tackling, pass routes, blocking and footwork. This is the football team from Milken Community High School, the private Jewish institution that neighbors the Skirball Cultural Center.
While there is no organization that keeps tabs of such things, according to head of school Gary Weisserman, theirs is what appears to be just a handful of Jewish high schools across the country that field a football team. Like other schools with small student bodies and a football program, Milken uses eight players on offense and defense, rather than the usual 11, and competes on a field that is 80 yards by 40 yards, compared with the full-size field that is 100 yards long and just over 53 yards wide. Milken plays against other independent schools throughout Los Angeles in games set up by the coaches. This year, the Wildcats have just seven games.
Flag football is a more common offering at area Jewish schools. Shalhevet and deToledo high schools have teams, according to their websites, as do Milken’s middle school and Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge. The Alice and Nahum Lainer School (formerly Sinai Akiba Academy) usually fields a middle school flag football squad each fall, but this year there wasn’t enough interest among students to put together a team.
Football has been at Milken Community High School for only six years. According to Weisserman, a lot of attention is placed on safety. “We make sure we have the latest technology, in particular for helmets,” he said. “We always have a full contingent of trainers. We try to minimize the risk.”
The sport arrived at Milken one year before Weisserman, who came from one of the few other Jewish high schools with a tackle football team, Scheck Hillel Community School in Miami.
“Being a Jewish school does not mean you can’t have an outstanding athletic program,” said Weisserman, a Detroit native who admits to being a “fair weather” football fan.
“One of the things we have found, when students apply to high school in particular, they want a full high school experience,” he said. “That includes a full athletic program and other opportunities. … Football is one of those opportunities that there is still significant demand for.”
Unlike other teams at the school — which use tryouts to fill the roster, with cuts as part of the process — everyone who wanted to be on the Milken football team this year made it.
“When you’re able to offer a competitive athletic program, it goes a
long way toward school spirit and toward that school spirit culture,” Weisserman said. “Last year at the [California Interscholatic Federation basketball] championships, we had to move to another gym for the finals because we had over 2,000 people coming. That’s exciting.”
This year’s football team, which as of Oct. 6 had a record of 1-2, does face some challenges, particularly its youth. There are just two seniors on the Wildcats — co-captains Yoni Ben-Naim, 17, a running back, linebacker and strong safety, and Jordan Kalman, also 17, who plays center on offense as well as defensive end — and four juniors. The rest of the squad is made up of sophomores and freshmen. One of last year’s top players left for a school that plays 11-on-11 football, and another former player decided to focus on basketball.
The changes this season also include the Wildcats getting a new coach, Elliott Turner II, a Texas native who now calls Highland Park home.
Youth and changes aside, Kalman, an Indianapolis Colts fan, said he expects the Wildcats to do “all right” this season. Since joining the team in his freshman year, it has not had a losing record. He did concede, though, that the Wildcats have a more difficult schedule this season.
“The teams we are playing are bigger schools,” he said. “Faith Baptist is known to be an eight-man football powerhouse. They have been a top school in California for years. … But we’re going to use our minds and abilities to ‘out-mind’ our opponents.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by the
“All these kids, they think a lot,” Turner said. “They ask a lot of questions. They see [football] like a coach, not a player. They are very heady, very smart. I feel like other teams are like little robots.”
The Milken team, he added, also has “a lot of heart and tenacity. … They just don’t quit. It’s not in their nature. Even when they make mistakes, they keep pushing. They keep working hard.”
Kalman said, “I think we all play with a chip on our shoulder.”
“It’s unique that we’re a Jewish football team,” said Ben-Naim, who splits his NFL allegiance between the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers. “A lot of people might look at us and think of us as an underdog, kind of how we’re perceived through history. They might think we don’t know what we’re doing. There’s a stereotype. … Every day [we’re] trying to prove them wrong, to break away from that stereotype.”
For Ben-Naim and Kalman, this season does have a bittersweet aspect. As much as they’d like to have a successful final campaign, according to Ben-Naim, “We’ve come to the realization that we need to be more focused on making the team self-sufficient and competitive without us next year; that is, more preparing for the years to come rather than focusing on the present.”
He added, “It’s hard from a senior perspective to say that it’s not about this year when it’s your last year. As a senior, it’s not our place to try to show our stats and score as many touchdowns as we can. It’s like l’dor v’dor, preparing the next generation for football. It’s important to us that football [at Milken] doesn’t finish in a few years. We’re a very new program. We’re more focused [on making sure] that kids know that Milken has a football team.”