(JTA) — Days after Israel’s under-20 soccer team shocked the world with a third-place finish in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, another one of the country’s national teams is looking for international glory — this time in a sport played by few in Israel.
The 2023 World Lacrosse Men’s Championship begins on Wednesday in San Diego, and Israel is ranked seventh among the 30 teams. They were ranked second in Europe coming into the tournament.
Those rankings might surprise the average Israeli. Today, the Israel Lacrosse Association estimates that between 300 and 400 Israeli children and teens play the sport across the country, and that’s after over a decade of recruitment and youth development. Israel’s national lacrosse team is mostly made up of American-born Jews. The lacrosse association, based out of the Daniel Kraft Family National Lacrosse Center in Ashkelon, was founded by one American in 2010 and is currently run by another American.
But two of the 23 players on the national team are Israeli natives, and the women’s national team has one native Israeli, too — something Israel Lacrosse Executive Director Ian Kadish says is a meaningful increase in how the sport is spreading.
“We are now getting to a really exciting point in our organization where a lot of that leadership and a lot of that energy is coming from native-born Israelis,” Kadish told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Yakov Silberlicht, who is Israel Lacrosse’s director of youth development and the men’s team captain, pointed to another telling statistic: Israel’s under-21 men’s team, which competed in Ireland last summer, featured 19 native Israelis out of 23 players. And the women’s under-21 team, which is preparing for the U21 European Lacrosse Championships in Prague next month, is also almost entirely Israeli.
“That’s what gets me fired up and makes me tick and gets me out of bed every morning, is just opening that door and offering the opportunity to those young [Israeli] men and women to be able to play for our national teams,” said Silberlicht, who is also an American expat.
Even in areas where lacrosse is more prominent, such as Canada and the Northeast United States (which have combined to win every edition of the first 14 men’s world championships), it is still considered a niche sport compared to baseball, football and other major sports. According to a study by the Aspen Institute, 466,000 Americans aged 13-17 played lacrosse in 2019, compared to the more than 2 million who play baseball and the more than 3 million who play basketball.
David Wiseman, who tracks Israeli sports for his popular Facebook page Follow Team Israel, commended Israel Lacrosse for the progress it has made, including the opportunities it has opened up for female athletes.
“The fact that they can get it flourishing in Israel is remarkable,” he told JTA. “They’ve punched above their weight by like 3 million percent.”
Israel has also begun hosting international tournaments, including the 2018 men’s international championship and the 2019 Women’s European Championship. (During the 2018 men’s championship — the biggest-ever contest, with 46 participating teams — Israel offered free tours of Jerusalem to the teams and their delegations.)
Originally from Utica, New York, Silberlicht, 31, has lived in Israel for 10 years now. That was never part of his plan.
Growing up, he said he didn’t know much about Israel or have interest in visiting. But after he graduated from college in 2013, an opportunity to play lacrosse in Israel fell into his lap, and he went for it.
He started off coaching and playing for the national team in the 2014 championship, where Israel finished in seventh. What was initially intended to be a year-long stay turned into six more months and six more months after that, until eventually Silberlicht found himself staying permanently. He served in the Israel Defense Forces in a combat role from 2015 to 2017.
“My Jewish identity wasn’t super strong growing up. I think that that’s partially because something like Israel Lacrosse didn’t exist,” he said. “I didn’t want to go to Sunday school because I wanted to go play sports instead… Had I had something like [Israel Lacrosse] to relate to and to identify with, I think that it could have stuck a little bit more and been more meaningful to me.”
Kadish’s introduction to Israel Lacrosse was similar. Growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah, Kadish, 27, said he “could not have cared less” about Judaism or Israel. But as a college lacrosse player, he participated in a lacrosse-themed Birthright trip — which his organization still runs today.
“I had that transformational moment that how many kids have when they come and visit Israel, where I’m like, ‘Oh, wow, this is way different,’” Kadish recalled.
He extended his stay, founded a youth lacrosse team and began playing on the national team. Years later, he splits his time between the United States and Israel, and he runs the Israel Lacrosse Association. He too plays for the national team.
Kadish said he values the opportunity to “allow kids to form their own unique relationship with Judaism, with Israel, through their passion of sport.”
Much of the organization’s recruitment happens through grassroots efforts, including school visits, service trips and relentless outreach. Kadish acknowledged that they have to “work hard as hell” to overcome the predominance of soccer and basketball in Israel.
But 13 years into Israel Lacrosse’s existence, Kadish said it’s the progress that has been made in the organization’s youth engagement that he is most proud of — more so than a No. 2 ranking in Europe and the hosting of international competitions in Israel.
“When you’re on a lacrosse field in Israel with all these kids running around just being kids, you’re like, ‘okay, this is what matters, this is why I do this,’” Kadish said. “When I see a young Israeli kid who I physically put the stick in his or her hand for the first time at the school visit, and now that player is on the sideline, coaching other kids in Hebrew — you see this full-circle moment.”
In other international arenas — namely baseball — Israeli teams have attempted to recruit the most talented American Jews they can find to compete on behalf of Israel, regardless of the players’ past connections to Israel. In lacrosse, Kadish said they try to avoid that tactic. While much of the team is American-born, Kadish said he seeks people who have spent time living in Israel and are committed to the organization’s work.
“What is at the core of our mission? What is Israel lacrosse about? It’s about developing the sport of lacrosse in Israel,” he said. “And it’s about engaging the Jewish Diaspora. If you haven’t helped us, if you haven’t been a part of those things, I’m not sure you deserve the right to play on Team Israel.”