Outside a subway station on New York City’s Upper West Side, Ron Glickman, 28, covers his forehead with a seeker’s salute as he stands atop a two-foot ledge, looking for a teammate to emerge from the underground throng. Even with the neighborhood’s high concentration of Jewish residents, Glickman’s navy beanie and sky blue jersey, both bearing the star of David, stand out on this dark but reasonably warm November evening.
By day, Glickman works in sales for El Al airlines.
His most intriguing sales pitch to date has been the revival of a 100 year-old Jewish soccer club: Hakoah.
"I learned about Hakoah when I was 17" at Beit Hatfutzot: The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, Glickman said. "I was shocked to find out that a Jewish club was so dominant in Europe in the 1920s."
Founded in Vienna in 1909, the Hakoah sports club was established in part to dispel myths of Jews as physically inferior; it was closed by the Nazis in 1938. Hakoah’s soccer team was not only a premier team in Europe, but on the international stage, too. Its American tour in 1926 — during which players were received by President Coolidge — was blamed largely for the team’s dissolution, as some star players left for more lucrative offers in the United States.
"Later 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. It felt like destiny," Glickman said. Today, Hakoah clubs exist in several countries, including Israel, Argentina and Austria. But the international prestige of the club’s soccer heyday hasn’t been matched.
If the amateur North Jersey Soccer League isn’t the top flight in its sport, you wouldn’t know it based on how Glickman prepared SC Hakoah Bergen County for its inaugural year of competition.
"In our league alone there are Hispanic, Circassian, Turkish, Irish, Caribbean clubs etc." Glickman noted in an e-mail. "Places like the JCCs that dot America are great but extremely insular. I don’t recall seeing them field teams in competitive amateur leagues here in the U.S. like our counterparts do throughout Europe, Africa, Australia and South America."
"Back in the late 1970s and through the 1980s there was a Jewish team that played in the league called the Fairlawn Maccabees," said John Sealy, the COO of the New Jersey league and a veteran player from around that time. "They did very well most of the time; from my recollection they were always a team to contend with." In 1990-1991, a team named Maccabee led its division in goals scored.
Whether or not it’s a historic undertaking, what sets Hakoah BC apart is its leadership. With guidance from his older brother, Dov, a 35-year-old Harvard-educated father of four, Glickman procured a field at Farleigh Dickinson University; navigated insurance, registration and other logistics for NJSL, 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 is flush with the logo of Glickman’s employer.
Another sponsorship, All Ways Travel in Paramus, N.J., was obtained through a business acquaintance, Jeff Kail. Kail, the company’s president from Ridgewood, N.J., is not particularly active in his local Jewish community. Asked about his motivations for sponsoring Hakoah BC, he replied plainly: "I like Ron and I’m a sports enthusiast." But with Kail’s son, Matt, having recently completed his last year of NCAA Division III ice hockey at Worcester State College, the idea of a Jewish sports club carried another level of significance. "As a matter of fact, there was a [Maccabiah Games] in Israel last year for ice hockey, and my son was hoping to get on one of those teams. But by the time he found out about it, all the rosters were filled."
Glickman’s recruitment saga resembles the opening sequence of an elite action squad flick. It began with an unsuccessful attempt to woo expats from Israel’s professional leagues. Although his advances were turned down, Glickman caught a break after Harel Nahar, a former player for Hapoel Herzliya, noticed a flyer posted in Tenafly, NJ; the first non-Glickman on board, Nahar’s ball-handling skills and success recruiting a few other Israelis to the team earned him team captain honors. Glickman’s next move was methodically targeting Jewish college talent.
"We searched local CUNY and other college rosters for Israelis or Jewish surnames," recalled Glickman in an e-mail.
Glickman sent an e-mail to Hunter University’s coach addressed to senior forward Omri Lifschitz. It was an easy sell.
"My father grew up in Ramat Gan, and Hakoah Ramat Gan was his club," said a nostalgic Lifschitz. "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.”
A recent Yeshiva University graduate from Philadelphia, defender Joshua Pransky is one of the more religious members of the team. "I actually went to Yeshiva so I could play NCAA sports," he said. "I have been waiting to play on this level of soccer because once I left the NCAA, there’s a lot of rec leagues and stuff, and I wasn’t really interested in just playing around; I wanted to play in something more serious, and this is it."
Glickman was also resourceful in making use of Jewish newspapers and other periodicals, primarily the bi-monthly Jewish Sports Review.
"I knew that Major League Soccer players like Jonathan Bornstein and Benny Feilhaber were honored when they were at UCLA," Glickman explained.
But despite its decidedly Jewish character, Hakoah BC comprises a head-scratching mix of traditional and ecumenical. Unlike Hakoah Vienna, who played U.S. tour matches on Saturday, Hakoah BC abstains from all activity on Jewish holidays and Shabbat.
"It’s a matter of policy," Glickman asserted, "regardless of whether the players are religious or not. I honestly believe if you’re representative of the community, you have to be representative of the entire community, whether that’s secular or religious."
Or of another religion altogether.
Only half of the Hakoah BC roster claims Jewish lineage, and half of those are Israeli born. Glickman is a naturalized Israeli citizen, and returned to the states two years ago after having served in the Israeli military. Seven languages are spoken by team members: French, Hebrew, Norwegian, Swedish, Arabic, English and Spanish.
Hakoah BC found several international players via online postings on the website NJ.com, among them Saeed Sulemana-Baba, a Saudi-raised Ghanaian midfielder who played Division I soccer for Western Michigan University and recruited a friend to play, as well. With nine goals apiece, Sulemana-Baba and Israeli teammate Michel Assayag are tied for the NJSL’s second tier scoring title with nine goals apiece.
Filling out the roster of 20 are some of Glickman’s high school teammates from Teaneck. Among them is Saah Hali, a devout Christian and a Liberian refugee whose family’s story was detailed in a 2006 article about his half brother, National Football League player Tamba Hali.
However eclectic, the team gels rather well on the field. A goal in the fifth minute of a recent game against Emeralds FC indicated that they are quick to identify opponents’ weaknesses. The final score was 6-2, capped off with a light-hearted exclamatory post-huddle "Shabbat Shalom!"
“You saw probably one of the better games," said goalkeeper Alex Nazarov. "And we’re starting to get better and better every single time; I don’t think we have a match in this lower division.”
Advancing to the highest level of the NJSL — called the World Division — would require Hakoah to finish at the top of the U.S. West Division, or else making a strong statement like winning the league’s annual league cup. In that tournament, Hakoah BC had a strong showing against World Division team Ramapo FC. Tied 3-3 after overtime, the game was suspended during penalty kicks when the stadium lights went out. (A league ruling ordered the penalty kicks to be rescheduled for a later date, to be agreed upon by both teams.) Glickman and Lifschitz both agreed that a top three finish in the U.S. West Division would be a significant accomplishment in the team’s first year.
The eclectic composition of the new Hakoah makes for some interesting cross-cultural encounters. Glickman regularly transports the same two passengers to games: Lifschitz and the other Saudi-raised player, a mild-mannered medical school graduate who studied in Africa, but eschewed playing soccer there after sensing that players tended to resolve differences on the field with violence. On the way back from the Emeralds FC game, the gentile passenger was amused to learn that many Israeli curse words are borrowed from Arabic.
With the team banding together and the season underway, Glickman is already in pursuit of another serious pitch:
"After I moved to the Upper West Side, my mom gave me an ultimatum of two years to get married."