American football scores a touchdown in Israel

New England Patriots owner addresses the crowd at the re-dedication of the Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem.Forget high tech, shared values, and the love of democracy – what really brings Americans and Israelis together is the pigskin.This was convincingly demonstrated …

New England Patriots owner addresses the crowd at the re-dedication of the Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem.Forget high tech, shared values, and the love of democracy – what really brings Americans and Israelis together is the pigskin.

This was convincingly demonstrated last week when the owner of the NFL Super Bowl champions The New England Patriots – Robert Kraft – re-dedicated the Kraft Family Field in Jerusalem, where over 1,000 Israelis are involved in the American Football in Israel (AFI) league.

Amid an atmosphere that was a cross between a spirited high school football event and a traveling carnival, around 500 people attended the ceremony which included ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and ‘Hatikva’, all-star and exhibition games by both men’s and women’s teams in the AFI, a surreal game of catch between suit-clad Kraft and Israeli Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and traditional American delights like barbecue and beer. Not to mention the official 2004 Super Bowl trophy on display – the first time that it has ever been displayed outside of the US.

Before the official festivities, a group of burly, Israel high-schoolers – mostly of American descent – strolled onto the brightly lit field for the first time since the project to upgrade the five year old facility by installing the ultimate artificial grass surface for recreational areas.

“Oh baby, this is good,” one teen exclaims in slangy English, as he high-fived his buddy.

“Go kick some butt,” a pig-tailed, sweat-shirted, female 16-year-old yelled to a tall, lanky boy – both sporting similar red t-shirts with the logos in English of one of the team sponsors. Moments later, two teams were on the field competing with a concentration that rivaled the Pats and the Eagles on Super Sunday last month.

The fact that such a scene could take place in the capital city of Israel is testament to the commonality of Israeli and American interests and values, according to Kraft.

“The Patriots has been able to win, because we stressed the team – everyone putting the team ahead of their own individual objectives. I see some parallels between the state of Israel and the Patriots in the sense that we have people from a lot of different racial, social and economic backgrounds all coming together for a greater purpose. And in many ways, I see the same think in Israeli culture,” Kraft told reporters at a press conference he attended with his wife Myra and son Daniel.

More than 1000 men and women take part in the adult and teen football leagues. The top men?s league includes 52 teams which compete for the Israeli championship – dubbed the Holyland Bowl. While most of the participants are of American origin – or are children of American parents – more and more players are native Israelis according to league founder and president Steve Leibowitz.

“We’ve created a community of American football in Israel, of people who for them, football is more than a sport,” he told ISRAEL21c. “Our field has become a place for them to go and meet friends, to play ball of course. It’s become a central part of the English-speaking community in Jerusalem, and native Israelis are joining in.”

League coordinator Jay Abramoff agreed that the time has come for American football to bust wide open in Israel.

“It’s an exciting game to play – in the last three years, the league has doubled in size. It’s clear that people want to play football in Israel. And it’s not just transplanted Americans but native Israelis who have been part of our high school training program for 11th and 12th graders,” he said. “Football is something that Israelis and Americans now have in common – whether it’s on the field, or just getting together to watch games and hang out on the sidelines.”

When Leibowitz launched the AFI in 1988, he had no idea it would become so popular and expand to its current level. But an evolving relationship with Kraft resulted in initial funds to build the multi-purpose sports facility in 1999. Leibowitz said that this week’s renovations gives the field the potential to become the leading sports facility in Jerusalem – we’re going to put football even more on the Israeli map.”

“The fact that Mr. Kraft chose to come to Jerusalem right after the Super Bowl shows how we have become a strategic partner in this project of bringing football to the rest of the world,” he said. “Now we want to take it to the next level, gain support from the NFL and see football here rise to the level it is in Europe. We’d like to open a tackle league and a well-developed outreach program for youth.”

One youngster who won’t need the outreach program is Ahuva Odenheimer, a 16 year old high school student from Efrat near Jerusalem. She joined the women’s league, like most of her friends, because it looked like fun.

“About a year ago, some of my friends and I were watching some boys we knew play in the high school league,” she told ISRAEL21c. “We went up to the organizers and said why isn’t there a girls league? And they said, ‘well if you get enough girls interested’.”

Thanks to a donation from Myra Kraft, the women’s league was launched soon after, and last summer Odenheimer and teammates represented in the Dominican Republic, as the Israeli team finished fourth in the women’s World Cup of Flag Football.

Originally from California, Odenheimer said her family was not interested in football – “they’re good Jewish boys” – but that she and her friends have picked up the bug, and even play pickup games at home.

Her thoughts on the new field? “The new field is unbelievable – we were so happy to play on it. Thank you Robert and Myra Kraft!”

Moments later, Kraft walked out onto the field for the evening’s main ceremony. “In our lifetime I never thought I’d be able to feel the special ruach [spirit] of hearing the American national anthem,” said Kraft. “And then hearing Hatikva gave me the chills.”

At the end of the event, he lifted the silver Vince Lombardi Super Bowl trophy amid whooping from the audience. According to Leibowitz, the excitement generated by the crowd was genuine and heartfelt.

“We’ve taken the best of what America has to offer – nobody creates sports in a pure sense like the US. That’s why an event like the Super Bowl captures the interest of so many Israelis,” he said.

For players like Odenheimer, the fact that American football is being played in Israel sends a special message to Americans.

“A lot of people in America probably think that we have no life here growing up, and we only go into the army. This shows them that just because there’s terror, doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time,” she said.

Kraft is also heartened by such far-reaching implications derived from his philanthropic investment in Israel – (“The media still create the image that Israel is not a safe place. The fact that I’m willing to come here right after winning the Super Bowl [says a lot]“) – but he also has some selfish reasons.

“I love America, I love Israel, I love Jerusalem, and I love American football.
To be able to bring that all together here is a great sense of joy for our family,” he said.

“It wasn’t until we dedicated this field in ’99 here in Jerusalem that we won three out of the last four Super Bowls. I don’t think it’s a mere coincidence,” he added with a smile and twinkle in his eye.

League coordinator Abramoff – who was running back and forth between the games with a clipboard and whistle, was a little more realistic. “I’m not a particularly religious or superstitious guy, but you never know…” he said.

For his part, Leibowitz was just looking forward to watching the sixth Holyland Bowl which took place over the weekend.

“It’s not the Super Bowl, but we’ve got the best Jewish players in the world.”