With a little help from their friends: Promoting American football in Israel

Outside the United States, the term “football” is what Americans refer to as “soccer.”

While soccer is big in Israel, American-style football is steadily growing, but Israel’s version continues to need help from its nation of origin.

“Football is a good fit for Israelis,” said Betzalel Friedman, commissioner of the Kraft Family Israel Football League, explaining that American football is physical, tactical and strategic.

Friedman toured the United States earlier this year, visiting several communities to make connections for the league.

Americans in Israel started a flag football league in 1989, followed by a women’s league, which won the silver medal in this past year’s Europe championships.

In 2005, a group of Israelis started to play tackle football, playing without pads or a league. The tackle league was officially founded in 2007, with four teams. Last year there were seven adult teams and 11 high school teams.

In 2015, Israel fielded a national tackle football team for the first time. The first game was held in Spain, and Israel won.

Friedman said a new high school team, the Rishon LeZion Rockets, will start this year, and in 2019-20 they will add the Petach Tikvah Knights, and a yet-to-be-named team in Karmiel.

Friedman explained that the league is pay-to-play, not paying players to play. When it started, someone who made the team would then be told to acquire pads and a helmet and then come back to join the team. Those items aren’t plentiful in Israel. “You can’t exactly go into Dick’s Sporting Goods and buy helmets and shoulder pads.”IFLcoverWeb

Through donations of new and used equipment from the United States, Friedman hopes the league gets to where the players don’t have to buy their own equipment.

Friedman said there are many families and institutions in the U.S. that have been “instrumental” in keeping the league going.

Recent donations include game jerseys from a high school in Missouri, helmets and shoulder pads from Maryville College in Tennessee, pants from Abilene Christian in Texas, and thigh pads from Dordt, a Christian college in Iowa.

The Grace Christian Academy Rams in Knoxville sent home and away jerseys to the Haifa Rams.

If one of the Israeli teams seems to resemble the guys from Rocky Top, there is a reason for that. When the University of Tennessee changed its equipment contract from Adidas to Nike, all of a sudden the school had a lot of equipment they could not use. “They had to get rid of everything with the Adidas logo,” including home and away uniforms, about 150 new pairs of cleats and 500 pairs of new gloves.

Ramat Hasharon was forming a team that was to be called the Lightning, with grey and green as the colors, but when all of the Tennessee equipment became available, they changed their colors to grey and orange, and became the Thunder, because of the big orange T on the helmets.

That also makes it easier for the team to get additional materials. Rather than special ordering with a custom logo as the other teams do, they just order stuff from Tennessee’s website.

Most of the donated equipment is funneled to Israel through Harvest of Israel in Morristown, Tenn.

While it’s great to get the equipment, not all of it can be used immediately. Friedman still has about 50 pairs of cleats, because they are size 16 and up — and “we don’t have players that size.”

One thing they can’t accept is used footwear, because Customs won’t allow it into Israel.
High schools in the U.S. have to recertify their helmets every couple of years, a requirement that isn’t present in Israel, so “schools tend to go through equipment faster now.”

The biggest supporter of Israeli football is New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. “As a Colts fan who grew up in Indianapolis,” Friedman said, “that is very hard on me.”

In 1998, Kraft was visiting Israel, and a hotel concierge, who played in the young league, recognized him. He asked Kraft if he knew that football was being played in Israel, albeit on crowded, rocky fields.

Kraft soon met with Steve Leibowitz, who was commissioner at the time, then in 1999 Kraft donated $200,000 toward the Kraft Stadium in Jerusalem, which was the first football field in the nation. The stadium was improved in 2005.

While many games are played there, other games around the country are played on soccer fields when available.

Friedman noted that Kraft started his involvement with Israeli football in 1999, and the Patriots, which had been mediocre for some time, won the Super Bowl in 2001 for the first time, and then twice more in the next three years. “They’ve done okay since then,” he added.

Friedman said the women’s league was “Myra Kraft’s baby.” She died in 2011.

Many big names have played football in Israel, though not necessarily big football names. Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, quarterbacked the national flag football team in the World Cup three times.

Friedman’s family moved to Israel when he was 10. When Friedman finished his army service, he saw a flyer for the expansion Judean Rebels in what was the league’s third season. The next season, because of his organizational skills, they asked him to coach the team, and “we actually won the championship,” defeating the Tel Aviv/Jaffa Sabres, 32-30, in Israel Bowl IV.

He said it was all because of the players. “I made one good call that year.”

After three years running the team, he was asked to run the league, so he left the high-tech world.

Coach Eric Cohu, who was then in Huntsville and has advised the league for a decade, mentored Friedman as commissioner, and Israeli coaches came to Huntsville to be on his staff at Madison Academy, deepening their knowledge of the game.

That is one of the three “E”s that Friedman said are needed by the league — education. Football knowledge in Israel is nowhere close to the level in the U.S., so the league is trying to set up coaching relationships with Americans.

In June, 25 Israeli high school players traveled to Knoxville for an intensive two weeks of training camp at Christian Academy of Knoxville. They stayed in the dorms at Maryville College and used buses donated by Grace Baptist Church.

Among those in attendance was Brandy Gibson of Birmingham, who does public relations for several NFL players, as well as for Friedman and Dan Phillips, U.S. coordinator for the Friends of the IFL.

Phillips. defensive coordinator at The Kings Academy, travels to Israel when his season ends and serves as coaching coordinator for the Israeli leagues.

Gibson works with the sports marketing program at Samford University, and facilitated a marketing consulting project for the IFL by students in the program.

The other required “E”s are equipment and economics. To participate in European competitions, Israel has more of a challenge. Friedman said if a tournament is in Italy, Switzerland can take a bus and spend one night in a hotel. Travel is more lengthy, involved and expensive from Israel.

To help promote football in Israel, Kraft has organized several trips of current and former NFL players.

A February 2017 delegation included New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who was baptized in the Jordan River during the trip. The trip originally was supposed to include 11 players, but after Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett dropped out over whether he would be seen as endorsing Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, five others cancelled.

When Jordan was criticized on Twitter for doing PR for Israel by going on the trip, he responded “I’m going on a trip for the spiritual and historical layout of a country I’ve always wanted to go to. I’m learning more.”

In April 2017, Saints quarterback Drew Brees visited Jerusalem on a low-key, private trip.

In June 2017, 18 NFL Hall of Famers joined Kraft for the dedication of the new Kraft Family Sports Campus in Jerusalem. The gold-jacketed delegation included Joe Montana, Roger Staubach, Jim Brown, Mean Joe Greene and Eric Dickerson.

Friedman called Staubach a “mensch,” saying he has been supportive of Holocaust education.

While “all sports are pretty good” at bringing people together, Friedman said, “none can better than football.” The Judean Rebels have three Palestinian brothers on the team.

Ramat Hasharon, a “ritzy area” has 10 players from a youth village, including three Muslim players, all of whom start on the offensive line. The offensive rookie of the year was an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, the offensive player of the year was Ethiopian and the MVP was an American who immigrated from Chicago and is a veteran of one of the IDF’s elite units.

Another player is a former Division III college football player who left Dartmouth when he became observant and would no longer play on Saturdays. He became a Breslov chassid, and joined the Israeli league at age 36.

Another player, Friedman said, is a Christian from Texas who is pursuing a Master’s degree in Jerusalem.

Peace, Friedman said, “is going to come from the neighbors and the people who play football together and shop together.”