Lacrosse blooms in the desert

“Building a team for 2014 is the exciting part, but it’s all the other work that needs to get done …” William “Bill” Beroza’s voice trailed off as he imagined the hard road ahead. He’s referring to the next lacrosse world championship, which will take place in two years, and Beroza faces the daunting task of coaching and preparing an Israeli team for competition in a sport that doesn’t have much history in the Holy Land. But that doesn’t scare Beroza; sitting in a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Wilshire Boulevard recently, he seemed excited about the prospect of bringing the sport he loves to the state and people of Israel.

Lacrosse is a contact sport played by both men and women. The national sport of Canada, it has long been popular in the American Northeast. In classic field lacrosse, teams of 10 players square off, with attackers trying to score by bypassing the opposing team’s defenders to reach the goal using their distinct, netted lacrosse sticks. And though the sport has developed a reputation as an upscale sport of elites because of all the gear involved, in reality it’s cheaper to play than football and hockey.

Beroza, who is Jewish, grew up in Hempstead, Long Island. His skills as a lacrosse goalie took him to Roanoke College in 1973, and then to Team USA, where he played in the world championships and helped the United States defeat Australia for the world title in 1982. They also led to him being inducted into both the lacrosse and Jewish Sports halls of fame. So when Scott Neiss, a then-24-year-old lacrosse enthusiast decided to make it his mission to bring lacrosse to Israel after visiting the country on a Birthright trip, Neiss knew just where to turn.

“Scott … called me up and said, ‘If we have a team that gets a chance to play in the World Championships in 2014, would you coach?’ ” Beroza remembered. “I said, ‘Scott, how are we going to get a team?’ ” And so, the process began. “It wasn’t just a quick, whimsical thing,” Beroza said.

Finding players, for one, had its challenges. Beroza and Neiss organized some games in Israel to check out the local talent. “There were a handful of people that actually were Israeli-born who played in the games,” Beroza said. “Then there were some people who were American-born who’d moved to Israel, made aliyah.”

In the age of YouTube and Google, some of the Israeli talent had gotten their skills in unorthodox ways. “Ironically, a couple of players, one in particular … actually went on the Internet and started learning how to play lacrosse,” Beroza quipped, laughing. “He got a stick on his own, ordered it through a mail-order catalog.” Although the player had never been in an actual lacrosse game before, his skills impressed Beroza and his staff.

Then there were the Americans in Israel. “One of the goalies, Ben Levine … he’s from Pennsylvania, he lives there, runs a hotel there, but he’s a goalie and is now an Israeli citizen,” Beroza said. It was from such diverse origins that Israel lacrosse drew its initial talent.

The inaugural Jerusalem versus Tel Aviv game, pitting Israel’s only teams — both created by Israel Lacrosse — against each other, took place at the Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem on Aug. 13, 2011. Beroza and Neiss expected a modest crowd, but to their surprise, as many as 400 people showed up to watch what turned into an exciting game that was decided in the final seconds. And though Beroza’s Tel Aviv squad lost to the Jerusalem home team, he was more than happy with the result. 

But a couple of games in Jerusalem were hardly the apex of Neiss’ and Beroza’s ambitious plans. Jerusalem was great, but they wanted Europe, and then the world. But to do that, they’d need money and supplies, which was where Larry Turkheimer, Beroza’s childhood friend, came in. Turkheimer had played the sport in college at the traditional lacrosse powerhouse the University of North Carolina, and he now runs a successful marketing business in Los Angeles. When Beroza asked him to help out with fundraising, Turkheimer leapt into action.

Turkheimer is bullish on the prospects for lacrosse in Israel. “Being over there, you see there’s a lot of great athletes, and now you’ve just got to get a stick in their hands, and then the sport will grow.” But to do that, they need help from the Jewish community in America. “Our biggest challenge right now is to find a way to fundraise, and to get to the right people to help us put money in the bank for Israeli lacrosse, because the sport is recognized in Israel, but is not supported by the Israeli sports foundation.”

Beroza is also aware that it’s going to take some big American donors for their cause to really move forward. “We can either get a dollar at a time, or a million from five people,” Beroza said. “There are teams everywhere that are starting that face the same challenges we are.”

Beroza is in it for the long run, though. “It’s not going to be something that’s going to happen in a year or two or three, it’s going to take 10 years; it’s going to take 15 years, 20 years — you know, Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

To that end, Beroza and Turkheimer are building bridges in the United States, scouting for funds — and even for players, as American Jews are eligible to play for them — and jokingly musing about convincing a professional lacrosse player like Mitch Belisle to convert, so he can play for the team. 

Turkheimer, for one, definitely sees a light at the end of the tunnel. “When I came from the East Coast to Los Angeles, there was no youth lacrosse at all. Six years ago, when youth lacrosse started, there were 30 kids who came out here in West L.A. And today, the West L.A. lacrosse league has over 600 kids playing.”

Now what Beroza needs is a good showing at the European Championships with his fledgling team, “to put us on the front page instead of the second page.” In a country where lacrosse is as foreign as cricket is to most Americans, exposure is the surefire way to get kids with a stick in their hands. And that’s the future.