(JTA) — For Jews around the world, this year will be remembered for Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks on Israel and the subsequent war in Gaza. The fallout has reshaped nearly every aspect of Jewish life in Israel, the United States and beyond — and the sports world is no exception.
The conflict has permeated pro sports, with many teams and athletes showing public support for Israel in the process.
But even before October, many of the top Jewish sports moments of the year concerned Israel — and unprecedented Israeli success on the international stage in baseball, soccer, gymnastics, football, lacrosse and other sports.
Here are the Jewish Sport Report’s top 10 Jewish sports moments of 2023, presented chronologically.
1. Jacob Steinmetz strikes out three MLB stars at the World Baseball Classic
In March, Israel competed in the 2023 World Baseball Classic in Miami with its most talented roster yet. A number of MLB players joined the squad, including Joc Pederson and Dean Kremer.
Though Israel won just one of its four games — a 3-1 comeback victory over Nicaragua — it was an exciting week. Off the field, Israel’s Twitter account went viral, while Israel and the Dominican Republic codified their friendship. And Jewish fans showed up loud and proud.
But the most notable moment on the diamond came during a 10-0 loss against the Dominican team, when 19-year-old Orthodox prospect Jacob Steinmetz struck out three MLB players: superstar Manny Machado, 2022 World Series Most Valuable Player Jeremy Peña and two-time All-Star Gary Sánchez. Steinmetz began the 2023 season in the Arizona Complex League, one of the lowest tiers in minor league baseball.
“It was awesome,” said Steinmetz, the first Orthodox Jew drafted into the MLB, after the game. “Coming out here in front of a sold-out stadium, with all the Dominican fans and the Israel fans, was something that I’ll never forget.”
2. Domantas Sabonis is joining the tribe
In April, we learned that NBA star Domantas Sabonis had begun the process of converting to Judaism — which will make the 6-foot-10 three-time All-Star the best Jewish player in professional basketball.
“He loves [Judaism] and really wants to be a part of it,” said Sabonis’ wife Shashana Sabonis (née Rosen), who is Jewish.
Sabonis regularly studies with Los Angeles Conservative rabbi Erez Sherman, who said the Sacramento Kings big man is serious about learning and keeps kosher. The Sabonis couple had a Jewish wedding in 2021.
“People that follow me [on social media] see how we do the holidays and Shabbat, and I think it’s really fun for the Jewish community to see that representation in basketball,” Shashana Sabonis said.
3. Israel makes a stunning run the FIFA U-20 World Cup
Israel’s first-ever appearance in the FIFA U-20 World Cup got off to a rocky start, even before its players took the field. In March, FIFA revoked hosting rights from Indonesia after the country objected to Israel’s participation.
But when the tournament kicked off May 20 in Argentina with 24 teams from around the world, Israel went on a miraculous run that included wins over Uzbekistan, Japan and powerhouse Brazil. Israel lost 1-0 in the semifinals to the eventual tournament winner Uruguay but beat South Korea to capture third place.
“We are not players, we are a family with an amazing coach,” midfielder Roy Navi said after the victory. “I feel on the top of the world now.”
Less than a month after Israel’s third-place finish, Israel’s under-21 team made it to the semifinals of the UEFA European Under-21 Championship — earning the squad a spot in the 2024 Paris Olympics.
4. Israeli soccer star Manor Solomon joins the “Jewish” Premier League club
It was a big summer for Israeli soccer. The news continued when Israeli star winger Manor Solomon signed a five-year contract with the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club — the London-based Premier League club with a rich (and at-times controversial) Jewish history.
Tottenham fans — who include many Jews — have for decades called themselves “Yids” and the “Yid army” in an affectionate way, but last year, the club asked fans to stop using the term, which many consider an antisemitic slur. The Athletic reported that London’s Jewish community was a plus for Solomon and that Tottenham has a following in Israel.
Solomon, who plays for Israel’s overall national team (he’s too old for the U19 and U21 teams), had enjoyed a breakout first year in the prestigious Premier League with Fulham last season, scoring in five straight games from Feb. 11 through March 6. He was the first Israeli player to ever achieve the feat, and the Kfar Saba native’s success on the pitch drew interest from powerhouse clubs across Europe.
While Solomon suffered a knee injury in October that has kept him sidelined, other Jews made headlines in pro soccer around the world. Goalkeeper Matt Turner has become a starter for his Premier League club Nottingham Forest and for the U.S. Men’s National Team; goalie Daniel Peretz became the first Israeli to join the German powerhouse Bayern Munich; and New York Red Bulls midfielder Daniel Edelman has blossomed into a star in the MLS.
On the women’s side, there were no Jewish players in this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, but the ascendant National Women’s Soccer League is led by Jewish commissioner Jessica Berman.
5. Zack Gelof becomes the 18th Jewish player in the MLB in 2023, a likely record
When Team Israel player Zack Gelof made his MLB debut with the Oakland Athletics on July 14, he became the 18th Jewish player to appear in the big leagues in the 2023 season — a moment that carried multiple layers of significance.
For one thing, 18 Jewish players in one MLB season is believed to be the all-time record, according to information compiled by the Jewish Baseball News, a site that tracks Jewish baseball players. And secondly, the record-setting number is symbolic in Judaism.
Once Gelof debuted, he didn’t disappoint. The Delaware native hit 14 home runs with 72 hits and 14 stolen bases in 69 games and broke multiple franchise records for a rookie. He was named the American League Rookie of the Month in August.
The number stretched to 19 when reliever Kenny Rosenberg, who made his MLB debut in 2022, was called up to the big leagues in August.
6. Eli Dershwitz makes US fencing history
Eli Dershwitz, a two-time Olympian and the grandson of Holocaust survivors, became the first American man to win an individual world championship in sabre fencing at the World Fencing Championships in Milan in July.
Dershwitz defeated No. 1-ranked Sandro Bazadze 15-6 in the sabre final, but his semifinal win was even more notable: facing Áron Szilágyi, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and the reigning world champion, Dershwitz came back from a 10-4 deficit to advance to the final round.
Dershwitz — who celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Conservative Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts, and fenced at Harvard University — won two gold medals at the 2017 Maccabiah Games in Israel. He represented the United States in the 2016 and 2020 Olympics but failed to medal in either appearance.
7. Israel wins its first-ever gold medals at the Rhythmic Gymnastics World Championships
In a banner year for Israel on the international stage, perhaps the biggest accomplishment came in August at the Rhythmic Gymnastics World Championships in Valencia, Spain, when Israel won its first-ever gold medals at the annual competition.
Israel’s team topped China and Spain to take gold in the all-around group category and also won gold in the combined exercise, beating out China and Ukraine. The team also finished fifth in the hoop final.
“We are really happy that we managed to get this medal and that we got the chance to scream out the anthem from the podium,” said Romi Paritzki, the team’s captain, according to Haaretz. “It’s the best feeling any athlete can have.”
Israel has emerged as a global powerhouse in rhythmic gymnastics. Retired Olympian Linoy Ashram, who served as an assistant trainer to the team, became the first Israeli woman to win an Olympic gold medal with her rhythmic gymnastics victory at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Israel has already qualified for group competition at the 2024 Paris Olympics.
8. Israel wins a flag football European championship after a Shabbat forfeit
Just days after Israel’s big wins at the gymnastics tournament, the country’s under-17 men’s flag football team won its first-ever gold medal at the International Federation of American Football’s European Junior Flag Football Championships hosted in Grosseto, Italy.
Israel beat Serbia 34-14 in the championship game after defeating Italy in the semifinals. Israel’s under-17 women’s team and under-15 coed team both finished fifth in their respective competitions.
The journey to gold wasn’t easy: despite appeals from the Israeli players — a majority of whom are Orthodox — Israel was scheduled to play games on Shabbat. All three teams had to forfeit, resulting in 35-0 losses.
“Our first gold after decades of trying,” Steve Leibowitz, president of American Football in Israel, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Tough young Israeli players against the best young players in Europe. The moment the whistle blew… I knew we had finally arrived. Next thought, first we conquer Europe, the Worlds are next.”
American football is on the rise in Israel, where approximately 2,000 players, coaches and referees are now involved in the league throughout the country, including many native-born Israelis.
9. Jewish MLB players speak out in support of Israel after Oct. 7
In the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ attacks on Israel, several current and former Jewish MLB players and coaches spoke out in support of Israel, both on and off the field.
As Dean Kremer became the first Israeli to start an MLB playoff game just days after Oct. 7, he opened up about how the war was affecting him and his family. Houston Astros star Alex Bregman drew a Star of David on his hat during a playoff win. Ian Kinsler wore his Team Israel jersey when he threw out the first pitch at a Texas Rangers playoff game. The Philadelphia Phillies held a moment of silence for Israel before a game.
Players showed their support off the field and on social media, too. A group of 19 current and former players released a video urging fans to support Israel and combat antisemitism. And Team Israel captain Ryan Lavarnway spoke to JTA about his Israel advocacy, which has made the retired World Series champion a sought-after speaker at Jewish events.
10. Greg Joseph kicks game-winning field goal after wearing Israel cleats
As NFL players wore cleats this month in support of various causes, Minnesota Vikings kicker Greg Joseph chose a particularly personal one.
Joseph, one of only a handful of Jewish players in the league, wore cleats covered in Stars of David with the phrases “I Stand with Israel” and “Am Yisrael Chai,” or “the Jewish people lives.” He picked Leket Israel, the country’s national food bank, as the organization he wanted to promote and support.
The Vikings would go on to win just 3-0 — an extremely rare score in the NFL — on a 36-yard field goal from Joseph, a number that also happens to have meaning in Judaism. (Joseph did not wear his special cleats during the game itself.)
“We were honored to be able to participate in the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats program to call for the end to antisemitism and hate in all forms along with the urgent plea to bring home the remaining hostages,” Vikings owner Mark Wilf said in a statement to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
There were plenty of other notable Jewish sports stories from 2023 that are worth revisiting.
- Throughout the year, a number of Jewish athletes were drafted into professional leagues: five players in the MLB, Amari Bailey in the NBA, Abby Meyers in the WNBA and Andrew Cristall in the NHL. Speaking of promising Jewish athletes, we published our first-ever list of 36 Jewish Student Athletes to Watch, an impressive and inspiring group of high school and college athletes with bright futures ahead.
- Orthodox athlete Michael Neuman competed on NBC’s obstacle course competition show “American Ninja Warrior” in March and brought with him three young people from his Jewish Inspiration Foundation, which uses sports to support Jewish youth with physical challenges. Neuman had initially qualified for the semifinals — after sharing an emotional on-set moment with Ari Cohen, who has a rare chromosomal disorder. But when Neuman ultimately chose to forfeit his spot because filming for the semifinals fell on Shabbat, NBC decided to cut his entire story from the show and declined to share any of Neuman’s footage — including the clips of his cohort — with their families. Then came the unexpected: two weeks after JTA’s article on Neuman and his foundation, NBC reversed course and shared a clip with Neuman.
- Earlier this month, Jewish brothers Jack, Luke and Quinn Hughes made history when they became the first trio of Jewish brothers to play in the same NHL game.
Lastly, the Jewish sports community honored a handful of icons who died this year: Alan Sherman, a champion of Jewish sports and US-Israeli relations; Holocaust survivor and Olympian Ben Helfgott; tennis champion Dick Savitt; and Washington Nationals owner Ted Lerner.