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

Israel falls in world lacrosse quarterfinals

Israel’s debut in the World Lacrosse Championships ended in the quarterfinals with a 9-8 loss to Australia.

In Wednesday night’s game near Denver, Israel nearly tied the score with five seconds remaining and a one-man advantage, but a shot by Matthew Cherry was turned away.

Ari Sussman tallied three goals and Cody Levine had two for the Israelis.

Israel, which formed its lacrosse team just four years ago, will still play a meaningful game Friday against England. An Israeli victory would clinch a top-six finish in the tournament and placement in the elite Blue Pool for the 2018 world tournament in England.

In Thursday’s semifinals, third-ranked Australia will face the top-ranked United States, with Canada opposing the Iroquois Nation. The championship game is scheduled for Saturday.

Against Australia, Israel jumped to a 4-1 lead in the opening quarter and held a 5-4 edge late in the third period. Australia gained the lead to stay in fourth quarter.

Israel, with a roster about evenly divided between American immigrants to Israel and U.S. residents, had outscored its first five opponents by a combined 88-18.


An Israel sports success story: lacrosse

Israel may not have qualified to play in soccer’s World Cup, but it’s doing quite well in another international sports competition.

Israel’s national team continued its dominating play in the World Lacrosse Championships, advancing to the second round with an 18-9 victory over Ireland on Monday afternoon in Denver.

Its next game will be Tuesday morning against Germany, which defeated the Czech Republic, 9-5. Tuesday’s victor will advance to the quarterfinals.

Israel was paced Monday by Lee Coopersmith’s five goals and two each by Cody Levine, Daniel Leventhal, Noah Miller and Benjamin Smith. Matthew Cherry contributed three assists. Goaltender Henry Altschuler earned the win, playing the first 60 minutes.

Over the weekend, Israel swept its three preliminary-round, “pool play” games in decisive fashion, defeating Sweden, 19-4; Solvakia, 17-2; and South Korea, 19-2.

“We knew we had a good squad, and we’re playing pretty well,” Scott Neiss, Israel Lacrosse’s executive director, said following Monday’s win.

By the close of play Monday, Israel was one of the final eight teams remaining of the 38 that began the tournament. The world’s top six teams — the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, England and the Iroquois Nation — are playing in their own group, known as the Blue Pool, with the top two teams automatically jumping to the semifinals and the third and fourth teams to the quarterfinals.

Should Israel finish among the top six teams in Denver, it would be slotted in the prestigious Blue Pool for the 2018 World Lacrosse Championships, which will be played in Manchester, England.

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.

Season’s end means mixed emotions for mom

It’s 2 p.m. on a Saturday, and I’m sitting with a dozen other women in the bleachers on a field in Palos Verdes.

I’ve had to get up at 6 a.m. start driving at 7 a.m. to get my son here at 8 a.m., and I know I’ll be here for at least another couple of hours. I’ve lived in Southern California for 30 years and driven around quite a bit, but I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting Palos Verdes.

There are some pretty houses here and quiet streets, and I’m told there’s a golf course or two nearby, but for the life of me, I haven’t been able to find a bathroom or a place to buy a cup of coffee anywhere in the area. So I’m irritable and hungry and more than a little sunburned, wondering out loud why I have to spend my Saturday in this fashion — it’s not as if I don’t have a life, you know, or as if I’m doing the world a favor by sitting here.

I’m not feeding the homeless, or doing a beach cleanup, or raising money for Hadassah and ORT and the Israel Defense Forces. I’m here because my youngest son, who is 14 years old and in eighth grade, is playing goalie on a lacrosse team for his school.

Never mind I didn’t even know what lacrosse is, or how to spell the word, until my son started playing three years ago. Lacrosse is what my kids call a “white person’s sport” — like rock climbing or sailing — stuff you do on the East Coast if you’re white and Catholic and go to Maine for the summer every year. My son doesn’t consider himself “white,” but I’m told he’s a good goalie, and he loves his teammates and takes great pride in representing his school, which is why I’ve been getting up at the crack of dawn to go to his games all season or driven at night to faraway fields to pick him up.

One thing I’ve learned through this experience — aside from the fact that there are no bathrooms or coffee shops in Palos Verdes — is that I am not, and will probably not become, what you’d call a lacrosse mom.

Not that I don’t celebrate a win or hurt when his team loses, but I’ve been around this block — with other children and other sports — twice already, and I’ve emerged from it more or less unscathed.

I’ve been through 12 years of team sports, swim meets and tennis matches, not to mention five-day-a-week practice sessions and all the additional driving and mental juggling that go along with having three kids playing sports at the same time, and I have yet to take any of it as personally as I see some other parents do.

I don’t get as passionate about winning or losing, am not willing to change my kids’ schools so they can play on a better team, don’t keep a mental tab of the season record of every team my child might play and of his teammates, as well.

As far as I’m concerned, unless the kid’s bound for the Olympics or playing in the World Cup, I’d rather not wander the desert for 40 years — or sit in these dusty bleachers — so he can play a game.

On the way home later, I take a few wrong turns, get completely lost and finally have to stop and ask directions from a guy who’s selling cherries from the back of his truck. By the time we actually get on the freeway, I am nothing if not relieved that I’ve survived this day and will live to tell my husband about it.

Next to me, my son, not the demure type, is unusually quiet.

“Aren’t you glad you won?” I ask.

He nods.

“Are you tired?”

We drive some more. Then he says, “You know mom, this was my last game in middle school.”

I take a minute to process the information. Yes, it’s true, the school year is about over. Yes, next year, my son will be in high school. He might or might not play sports, but either way, he’ll be too old to have his mom go to his games.

My two older kids, who are in college, similarly banned me from every high school activity they were involved in except, mercifully, their graduation.
This is good, I think.

This means I’m done with the games and the driving, the water bottles and orange rinds and end-of-season pizza and trophy-giving. I’m done with having to be “team mom” because no one else wants the job, having to report to the school’s “parent sport coordinator” like we’re Marines in the midst of a war, getting e-mails from her or some other top-ranking “sport mother” about proper protocol for serving cake at victory parties. Done with standing on a soccer field for two hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon when I could be writing or working out or doing whatever else people do when they have a life.

I’m done with watching my kids race across a grass field and marveling at the beauty and strength of youth. With holding my breath every time they serve, gasping when they miss, feeling elated when they don’t. With seeing them volunteer to take the penalty kick that will win or lose the championship game and asking myself where they got this kind of confidence. With watching their tanned, slim bodies glow in the water against the afternoon sun as they glide back and forth through the lane, wondering how much longer they can keep the pace, how much longer I can hold on to them before they slip out of my hands and away to where I won’t see them.

Gina B. Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her new novel, “Caspian Rain,” will be published this fall. Gina Nahai’s column appears monthly in The Journal.