Beyond Greenberg and Koufax: Jewish calendar-related sports conflicts become an Israeli dilemma

By Beth Kissileff and Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: Israeli women’s lacrosse team member Sara Greenberg wields her stick. Credit: Donna Pedersen.

When baseball legends Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax both famously refused to play crucial games on Yom Kippur, Greenberg during the 1934 American League pennant race and Koufax in the 1965 World Series, their decisions were personal and did not impact their teams’ ability to take the field. Israeli teams in international competitions, however, have recently been faced with that very dilemma.

In July, the Israeli national women’s lacrosse team chose to forfeit a World Cup game against the Haudenosaunee Nation team because the match fell on Shabbat and could not be moved. The Israeli team, which would have finished seventh place among 19 teams in the tournament with a victory, instead automatically finished eighth.

Additionally, the Israeli Tennis Association in August announced its refusal to play a Davis Cup match against Belgium that was scheduled to take place this Yom Kippur, Sept. 14. The International Tennis Federation eventually ordered the match to be moved to Sept. 15, but decided to fine the Israeli team more than $13,000 due to the costs that resulted from adding a day to the tournament, Yedioth Ahronoth reported.

Jeffrey Gurock, the Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University, explains that American Jews are generally accepted by their host society, and that the Christian world has come to recognize the importance of the High Holidays within Judaism, meaning it is simply “up to the Jewish player to decide whether he wants to play or not.” But when it came to the Israeli tennis team being fined in international play over not competing on Yom Kippur, and the World Cup’s inability to move the Israeli lacrosse team’s Shabbat match, Gurock saw the moves “as a political statement.”

“As far as Israel is concerned, unfortunately, it speaks to where Israel is seen by the international bodies,” Gurock tells JNS.org. “A sports metaphor can be applied to the United Nations. It speaks to how isolated and unaccepted Israel is by the world. It’s very unfortunate, but that’s the difference between America and Israel.”

Despite the impediment it presented on an international stage, the Israeli women’s lacrosse team was unyielding about the issue of competing on Shabbat. In fact, when Scott Neiss, executive director of the Israel Lacrosse Association, launched efforts to bring the sport to Israel, part of his thinking was that if the sport was to be accessible to Israelis of all religious backgrounds, it could not be played professionally on Shabbat. 

Neiss tells JNS.org that not playing the sport on Shabbat is a “national identity issue.” El Al Airlines, he notes, does not fly on Shabbat, and many other aspects of the country shut down on the day of rest. The lacrosse programs (both men’s and women’s) that Neiss launched in Israel “want to reflect and represent that,” he says.

Among the Israeli team members who played competitive lacrosse in college was Katie Mazer, whose University of Pennsylvania (Penn) team was Ivy League champion from 2007-2009, made Final Four appearances in 2007 and 2009, and reached the national championship game appearance in 2008. 

Asked how she would have felt about a Shabbat-induced forfeit at Penn, Mazer responds, “I think I would have been angry and unhappy about forfeiting a game in college.”  

But on the Israeli national team, Mazer’s attitude regarding Shabbat was different. She says that once “you are in Israel and actually feel and see Shabbat and what it means and celebrate,” the day of rest takes on new meaning. Mazer says she was pleased with the Israeli team’s decision to forfeit because it was “for a bigger purpose.” 

Neiss, whose efforts brought the sport to the Jewish state, was not an obvious candidate to either make aliyah or start the lacrosse programs. He does not play lacrosse himself, and he attended St. John’s University in Queens, NY--not a hub of Jewish life. 

“I’m the kid that wasn’t supposed to move to Israel,” Neiss says.

But both during and after college, Neiss worked full-time for a professional lacrosse league and volunteered for the U.S. national lacrosse program. At age 25, he visited Israel for the first time on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip.

In the summer of 2011, Neiss was able to pilot lacrosse programs for both men and women in Tel Aviv, while splitting his time between New York and Tel Aviv and meeting with potential funders. The first funders of the Israeli programs launched by Neiss were American Jews who were passionate about lacrosse.

Neiss realized in December 2011 that if he were to focus on the project fulltime, the “only place to do that was in Israel.” He made aliyah in February 2012. Now he continues to help lacrosse-playing Jews make the same move to Israel.

The coach for the Israeli women’s team, Lauren Paul Norris, came on board through old-fashioned “Jewish geography.” Currently a Division I college lacrosse coach at High Point University in North Carolina, Norris attended the McDonogh School in Baltimore with the older sister of one of the players on the Israeli women’s team. Neiss flew Norris to tryouts in January 2013 in New Jersey, where she assisted in evaluating players for the team and eventually agreed to coach it.

Norris, who had never been to Israel before this summer, now plans to bring her mother to the Jewish state when she coaches the team for the next World Cup in four years. She says being in Israel felt “comfortable” to her, and that Tel Aviv “felt like New York City with Hebrew everywhere.”

Mazer, the team member who also serves as co-director of the Israel Lacrosse Invitational Tournament, had been working for Teach for America in Oakland, Calif., and was planning to begin graduate school in social policy and social work. She had been to Israel with her family at the time of her bat mitzvah, and then again on a Birthright trip at age 18, but never expected to be living in the county. 

A tryout for the Israeli lacrosse team changed all of that. Now an Israeli citizen, Mazer lives in the “lacrosse house” where some team members reside and says her stay in Israel is “indefinite.”

“Don’t tell my mom,” she jokes.

Mazer says she hopes that as a result of the Israeli lacrosse team’s World Cup forfeit, which shows that it is possible to play high-level lacrosse but still be able to sit out in observance of Shabbat, an Orthodox girl in Israel will “have sports as part of her life because of our decision.”

The Haudenosaunee Nation—a group of Native Americans whose team was the one that benefited from the Israeli team’s forfeit of the Shabbat game, earning a seventh-place World Cup finish without having to play the Israelis for that ranking—actually invented the game of lacrosse. Kathy Smith, the Haudenosaunee team’s chairperson, respects the Israeli team’s decision to forfeit.

“We understand the importance of national identity and are respectful of the sacrifices the Israelis are willing to make to uphold what is important to them,” Smith says in a statement on the Israeli team’s website. “We are optimistic we will have the opportunity to play against Israel in a friendly game in the near future.”

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Posted on September 2, 2013 and filed under Features, Israel, Sports, U.S..