Israelis Get Inside the Huddle and Embrace American Football
JNS.org – Many Israelis came to work bleary-eyed on Monday morning, having stayed up all night watching the New England Patriots defeat the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII. While the low-scoring affair certainly wasn’t the most exciting of championship games, that didn’t dampen the jubilation.
As Steve Leibowitz, president and co-founder of American Football in Israel (AFI), told JNS, “the Patriots are Israel’s team.” Leibowitz says that the Patriots became Israel’s favorite NFL franchise thanks to the nearly two-decade old friendship between the AFI and Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his late wife Myra. The Krafts have been the biggest supporters of football in Israel, assisting in the funding of the construction of a small Jerusalem football stadium in 2000, known as Kraft Family Stadium, near the Machane Yehuda outdoor market, and the new Kraft Family Sports Campus on the outskirts of the city, which opened in 2017, boasting the country’s only full-sized regulation football field.
The sports complex is a multi-million dollar facility built in partnership between the Krafts, the city of Jerusalem, and Israel’s lottery authority. It was inaugurated in the presence of the Kraft family, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, and 18 NFL Hall of Famers, who were invited to Israel for a week of touring by the Krafts.
While American football in Israel remains the fifth most popular sport behind soccer (European football), basketball, volleyball, and handball, the game has exploded in popularity since Leibowitz and a friend, Danny Gewirtz, started the AFI in 1988 with a handful of players playing “touch football.”
Today in Israel, more than 2,000 men, women, and children participate in seven different leagues of flag and tackle football. In addition, Israel sends delegations of both men’s and women’s teams to compete in international tournaments.
In fact, both the men’s and women’s flag squads are ranked in Europe, and according to Leibowitz, for the first time ever, “Israel is hosting the European Flag Football Championships from Aug. 29 to Sept. 1 at the new Kraft Family Sports Campus.”
Betzalel Friedman is the AFI’s director of tackle football and commissioner of the adult men’s Kraft Family Israel Football League (IFL). He tells JNS that currently more than 800 adults and high school players, who are in a separate league known as the Kraft Family Israel High School Football League (IHFL), play the traditional form of the sport with full pads and helmets.
Friedman pointed out how the sport is growing in Israel. While the flag leagues originally consisted of American players who were studying in Israel after high school or American expats, “in the tackle football leagues, over 80 percent of the players are born Israelis and don’t have American parents.”
He believes that “tackle football appeals to Israelis — the physicality, the camaraderie, the strategy. It’s actually good preparation for military service because football shares so many aspects, including hard work, perseverance, discipline, and teamwork. And it also prepares you for life in general.”
Friedman says some teens actually start playing football in high school, take a break to fulfill their service in the IDF, and rejoin the game after they finish, playing in the adult league. “Those soldiers who aren’t in combat units usually play on through during their time in the IDF,” he said.
Several players who started playing competitively in the IFL ended up playing NCAA football in the United States. One former IFL player is currently an offensive lineman for a Division II school, while another made the team as a walk-on for Michigan, a Division I Big Ten powerhouse. However, he spent his career on the bench. That being said, Friedman feels that the level of play in the IFL is on the rise, as kids start to play at an earlier age.
But in order to have a professionally-run sports league, certified coaches are necessary to enhance players’ skill sets, as are accredited referees to oversee the games. That is where Ori Shterenbach comes in. He is the AFI’s sports director, and in addition to being in charge of player development, he also oversees the certification of coaches and referees.
Shterenbach tells JNS that in order to coach football in Israel, a coaching license through the Wingate Sports Institute near Netanya is required. At the same time, two or three times a year, professional coaches are flown in from the United States to run clinics for players in order to boost their skills.
In terms of referees, Shterenbach says that in the past two years, a training course for officials has been established, while the International Federation of American Football has sent representatives to assist in the training. Israeli referees have also flown to Europe for additional clinics.
He believes that the future for football in Israel is bright. Similar to comments made by Friedman, Shterenbach tells JNS that, “American football fits for Israelis in more ways than you would expect — the strategy, tactics, and the aggressiveness. It is my job to open the world of football to the youth in a way so they can understand that football is a way of life. It is something that they can grow more and more through, and develop their skills more and more, and one day represent our country on the international level.”
While some may consider football to be a man’s game, that’s certainly not the case in Israel. Myra Kraft was the driving force behind the launch of the women’s program. During one of her many visits to Kraft Stadium, she noticed that the girls were casual observers watching the boys play, and she felt passionately that they deserved an opportunity to lace up their cleats as well.
Rachel Shmidman, director of the Flag Football Leagues and also a player in both the women’s league — Women’s American Football in Israel (WAFI) and on the women’s national flag team — notes that the women’s national flag team has medaled at international tournaments. She says that 140 women currently play football in Israel, either in WAFI or in one of the coed leagues.
She tells JNS that she is hopeful that the women’s national team will win the European Championships as the host country this August. When asked what playing football means to her, Shmidman, 27, says “football has been my home, my friend, my escape, and my center of gravity since I was about 13 years old. It’s a sense of belonging — knowing there are other women who share your passion for a sport we all love.”
She adds, “I was the weird kid in high school who walked around with a funny egg-shaped ball. [I was] the commander in the army who gave up precious hours of sleep to watch games at 1 a.m., the college kid who had to debate between watching the Super Bowl and taking a final at eight the next morning (the Super Bowl usually won). Football has been the one constant in my life for almost 15 years, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Yonah Mishaan, a legendary player and coach in both the flag and tackle leagues, currently serves as the vice president of Football in Israel. He tells JNS that he is grateful for the support shown by the Kraft family, as well as the support from Ayelet — an organization representing non-Olympic sports in Israel. Regarding American football, he says “we are slowly but surely climbing the ladder as one of the powerhouse team sports in Israel.”
He believes that through the establishment of more and more after-school youth clinics and additional leagues, football will continue to grow.
“The next step, or in Hebrew hachalom hagadol [‘the big dream’],” says Leibowitz, “is to build several more football sports centers around the country. One in the south, one in the north, and one in the center to complement the one in Jerusalem, and we will be well on our way to becoming the third strongest team sport in the country.”
As for big dreams, the Patriots celebrated their sixth Super Bowl win on Sunday night.
In addition to supporting football in Israel, Kraft has business interests in the country, and is well-known for his philanthropic work in Israel and around the world. This June, he is set to receive the Genesis Prize — what some consider to be the “Jewish Nobel” — at a ceremony in Jerusalem. Kraft has already decided to donate the $1 million monetary award to projects that combat antisemitism and the delegitimization of Israel.
But for now, Leibowitz is savoring victory — and the fact that the Most Valuable Player in the game was Julian Edelman, who identifies as Jewish, and several years ago made a special visit to Kraft Family Stadium in Israel to run drills with the younger players and give them some advice on football and life.
“Football in Israel has a new hero,” says Leibowitz, explaining that in addition to Tom Brady and Robert Kraft, now there is Julian Edelman — the Israel-identifying, Jewish-identifying Super Bowl MVP.
“It will take us a little while to process that fact,” he says, “but we have a Jewish NFL MVP who has visited Kraft Family Stadium, and we hope to have him back here very soon in the future.”