Global lacrosse community welcomes a formidable new member–Israel

Israel made a smashing debut at the 2014 World Lacrosse Championship in Denver this month, finishing seventh out of 38 teams, just three years after the first game was ever played in the country. 

Facing much more experienced teams, the Israelis came away with a 6-2 record, outscoring opponents by a cumulative score of 120-47. Both losses were by a single goal. (Canada upset the United States 8-5 to win the championship final.)

Lacrosse came to Israel only three years ago, following a young New Yorker’s 2010 Birthright experience. At the poignant moment of reflection, when the trip leader asked, “What are you going to do for the Israel you have just encountered?” Scott Neiss responded, “I’ll bring lacrosse to Israel.” 

Then a young executive who had worked for several professional lacrosse leagues in the United States, Neiss is now a Tel Aviv resident and Israeli citizen. He recruited coaches with world championship experience, established lacrosse training centers in Israel, combed the country for aliyah-niks who had played the sport in North America and raised more than $700,000 to help players compete at the highest levels.

A year after Neiss’ Birthright experience, I went to Jerusalem to referee the first lacrosse game played there. Larry Turkheimer, a Los Angeles businessman and one-time lacrosse All-American at the University of North Carolina, enlisted Jeff Alpert, then a UCLA student, and me as a l’dor v’dor referee duo. (I was 63, Alpert was 21.) Maybe “draft” is closer to Turkheimer’s approach than “enlist”: 

“Israel has just been admitted to the Federation of International Lacrosse, even though there’s never been a game played there. The first game is next month and they need a ref. You’re a teacher, you’ve got the summer off — use some frequent flier miles and do the game.” 

Fast-forward to this summer. Alpert and I got the same offer, only this time it was to officiate Israel’s pre-tournament games at the world championships. Whereas the 2011 game in Jerusalem had been ragged at its best moments, the 2014 Israel contingent in Denver comprised two teams — championship and development — with coaches, managers, trainers, photographers and an entourage of parents, siblings and other supporters. 

And there was definite promise. As it turns out, the number of accomplished Jewish lacrosse players is disproportionately high, and those veterans rallied to the Israel team. Head coach Bill Beroza was captain of the U.S. team that won the 1982 world championships, and defensive coach Mark Greenberg was his teammate. 

Players Ari Sussman and Casey Cittadino are veterans of Major League Lacrosse, the 14-year-old professional league started by Angeleno Jake Steinfeld. Ben Smith is assistant coach at Harvard, where he played as an undergraduate. Back-up goalie Reuven Dressler is a 41-year-old Tel Aviv physician who starred in an NCAA tournament while at Yale. 

Israel’s first pre-tournament game in Denver pitted the team against the Iroquois Nationals, ESPN’s darlings of the tournament because of their invention of the sport millennia ago and its renaissance due to record-setting accomplishments in the 2014 college season by brothers Lyle and Miles Thompson at the University of Albany. Although the two teams didn’t meet during the tournament — the Iroquois finished third and Israel was seventh — that first scrimmage showed Israel could compete against the teams in the tournament’s power pool.

That first scrimmage was our introduction to the 2014 team. Usually when the refs walk up to the playing field, we get pretty cold looks from the players on both sides. We think we’re there to make certain the game is safe, fair, fun and fast. Most players think we’re there to put them in the penalty box and generally mess up everything. For our work in Denver, Alpert and I wore striped shirts with an Israeli flag patch above the left pocket, instead of the Stars and Stripes patches we usually wear working in the U.S. The Israeli players saw our patches and actually smiled at us, many saying, “Hey, ref, cool.” 

In lacrosse, defenders need to communicate when their opponents create an advantage requiring a defensive response. In the argot of American lacrosse, the player who is ready with that response shouts, “I’m hot!” to his colleagues. The logic of the words is: If there is a breakdown, I’m the individual who will solve it. 

Israeli lacrosse players communicate differently, both in language and logic. On the playing field, they speak Hebrew to each other, even though most of the players learned the sport in the U.S. But instead of shouting, “I’m hot,” they say, “Ani rishon,” literally, “I’m first.” The logic of these words is: If there is a problem, I will be the first to go solve it, and I know others will be coming to support me. Perhaps this linguistic variation arises from the culture learned in Israel Defense Forces (IDF) service, where leaders say “Follow me as we go in!” not “Charge!” Whatever its origins, the Israeli defensive system worked.

The players concentrated on their sport responsibilities during the games, but the tumult at home was never far from their thoughts. Neiss set the tone with a message to his team and supporters on the eve of the tournament, saying in part: “We press forward, and continue onward with our mission to bring joy to the communities of Israel through sport during this difficult time. Our youth camp has continued this week despite threats in Tel Aviv. We’ve scholarshipped children from the south of Israel who have been relocated to the center, away from the border with Gaza. We will continue with our lacrosse camp in Ramla next week unless the [IDF] Home Front Command Unit instructs otherwise. It’s with this attitude that we press forward, and make our debut in the World Games. … We will not be deterred.”

Four candidates for the team did not travel to the U.S. because of their IDF commitments. Matthew Cherry, one of the team’s leading scorers, will begin his IDF training next month. In four years, with those commitments hopefully completed, Cherry and his mates hope to compete at the world championships in Manchester, England.

The challenges faced by the Israeli team in Denver were trivial by any comparison to current events in the Middle East. Once, while playing against the Netherlands at Colorado University in Boulder, Colo., a dozen or so geriatric Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions supporters showed up with anti-Israel signs and a bit of chanting. 

Getting no response from the athletes or the rest of the crowd, they left before halftime. 

Neil Kramer is dean of faculty emeritus at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills. He has played, coached and officiated lacrosse for more than 40 years