Hakoah soccer makes a comeback—in New Jersey
Even in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Ron Glickman stands out with a navy hat and sky-blue jersey both adorned with Stars of David.
Glickman, 28, doesn’t always dress this way – his day job is in sales for El Al Airlines. But when he’s getting ready for a game, this is his uniform.
Glickman is one of the key players behind the New Jersey revival of a century-old legendary Jewish soccer club, Hakoah, which started in Vienna before World War I and was shuttered by the Nazis on the eve of World War II.
Now, more than half a century later, the Hakoah name has been revived by Glickman and his brother with SC Hakoah Bergen County, a team comprised of Jewish and non-Jewish players playing its first season in the North Jersey Soccer League.
Glickman, a native of New Jersey, first learned about Hakoah on a visit to the Diaspora Museum, Beit Hatfutsot, in Tel Aviv during a trip to Israel. The Hakoah athletic club was established in 1909 in the Austrian capital in part to dispel myths of Jews as physically inferior. Its teams competed in a variety of sports, including a renowned water polo team. At its peak, the Hakoah soccer club was a leading team in international play.
“I was shocked to find out that a Jewish club was so dominant in Europe in the 1920s,” Glickman said.
Ever since, Glickman dreamed of starting his own Jewish soccer team with the Hakoah name. He made aliyah after high school and served in the Israel Defense Forces but later returned to the United States.
About two years ago, Glickman began work in earnest to put together a Hakoah team. With guidance from his older brother, Dov, Glickman procured a field at New Jersey’s Farleigh Dickinson University. They navigated insurance, registration and other logistics for the North Jersey Soccer League, and procured sponsors to help defray costs. The iconic Hakoah Star of David crest that adorns the upper right corner of the team’s jersey also bears the logo of Glickman’s employer, El Al.
SC Hakoah Bergen County isn’t the first Jewish soccer team to play in an amateur league in New Jersey. From the late 1970s through the early ‘90s, a team called the Fair Lawn Maccabees played in the league, according to John Sealy, the league’s COO and a veteran player from around that time.
“From my recollection, they were always a team to contend with,” Sealy said.
In fact, this isn’t the first Hakoah team to play in America; the original Hakoah team from Vienna came to the United States on a tour in 1926. Glickman later learned that his great-grandfather was among the tens of thousands of fans who turned out to see Hakoah play during that visit.
“Finding out my great-grandfather was one of those people who went to the Polo Grounds to see Hakoah when they came on tour here in New York, and knowing how big of a soccer fan he was, it just felt right,” Glickman said of his starting a Hakoah team. “It felt like destiny.”
By the 1920s, Hakoah had become so famous that President Coolidge received the squad on its U.S. visit. Ironically, the U.S. visit was blamed for the team’s dissolution, as some star players left Europe for more lucrative offers in the United States. Some of those players helped assemble the New York Hakoah team.
The original Hakoah club in Europe was formally shut down by the Nazis in 1938.
In recent decades, Hakoah clubs have cropped up in several countries, including Israel, Argentina, Switzerland—and Austria. But the international prestige of the original club’s heyday has not been matched.
That hasn’t stopped Glickman from taking his role on SC Hakoah Bergen County seriously. For Glickman, it started with the choice of a league—he did not want to play in a Jewish league but in one with more challenging competition—and extended to recruiting.
First, Glickman tried to woo expats from Israel’s professional leagues, albeit unsuccessfully. Glickman caught a break when Harel Nahar, a former player for Israel’s Hapoel Herzliya, noticed a recruitment flyer for Hakoah in Tenafly, N.J. Nahar’s ballhandling skills and success recruiting a few other Israelis to the team earned him team captain honors.
Glickman then went in search of Jewish college talent, looking for Israeli or Jewish family names on college rosters. That’s how he found forward Omri Lifschitz of Hunter University in New York.
“My father grew up in Ramat Gan, and Hakoah Ramat Gan was his club,” Lifschitz told JTA. “His friends used to play there. Most of my friends, their parents used to be Hakoah supporters, so it’s like I’m keeping the tradition. It’s very sweet for me.”
Another recruit was defender Joshua Pransky, a recent Yeshiva University graduate.
“I actually went to Yeshiva so I could play NCAA sports. Once I left the NCAA,” Pransky said, “I wasn’t really interested in just playing around, I wanted to play in something more serious, and this is it.”
Despite the team’s obviously Jewish character, half its members are not Jewish. Among them are Saeed Sulemana-Baba, a Saudi-raised Ghanaian midfielder who played Division I soccer for Western Michigan University, and Saah Hali, a devout Christian and a Liberian refugee whose family’s story was detailed in a 2006 article about his half-brother, NFL linebacker Tamba Hali of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Seven languages are spoken among Hakoah team members: French, Hebrew, Norwegian, Swedish, Arabic, English and Spanish.
Still, the team does not play on Jewish holidays and Shabbat, unlike its Viennese namesake, which played matches on Saturday.
However eclectic, the team gels well on the field. In a recent game against Emeralds FC, Hakoah teammates were quick to identify their opponents’ weaknesses, scoring in the fifth minute. Capping off a 6-2 victory, the players reveled in a light-hearted exclamatory post-huddle “Shabbat Shalom!”
Advancing to the highest level of the league, the World Division, would require Hakoah to finish at the top of its current U.S. West Division or win the league’s annual cup. In the league cup tournament, Hakoah had a strong showing, tying World Division team Ramapo FC 3-3 after overtime before the game had to be suspended during penalty kicks because the stadium lights went out.
Now that the team is doing well, Glickman is thinking about his next big undertaking.
“After I moved to the Upper West Side,” he said, “my mom gave me an ultimatum: two years to get married.”