Maryland’s State Sport Takes To The Holy Land
Five teens — four boys and one girl — from Baltimore joined a select group of Jewish American lacrosse players for an international competition that took place late last month in Israel and Poland.
Sponsored by the Israel Lacrosse Association, the U-19 [under 19] National program saw Lilly Pollak, Jordan Abel, Jake Gavilow and Max Wendell of Owings Mills and Drew Saltzman of Pikesville, in addition to teammates from other parts of the U.S. and Israel, compete in exhibition games, visit Israeli schools and conduct youth lacrosse clinics. At the end of the trip, the best American players and their Israeli teammates competed in a regional tournament in Warsaw.
The program, which ran from Dec. 21 to Dec. 30, drew on a coaching staff that included native Baltimoreans Davia Procida of Columbia and Sarah Meisenberg of Severna Park. Michael Pfeffer of Baltimore, who made aliyah after college to join the Israel Defense Force and now plays for Tel Aviv Lacrosse, served as the group’s security guard throughout the trip.
Scott Neiss, executive director of the Israel Lacrosse Association, attributed the program’s genesis to his country’s senior men’s team, which received an invitation to participate in a Polish tournament that included teams from Poland, Latvia and Israel.
“The senior team was preparing for the world championship next July, so we thought it would be a good idea to send players from the U-19 league,” said Neiss. “We are the Jewish team, and every Jew is eligible for Israeli citizenship, so we decided to mix some Jewish American players with the Israeli kids.”
Since Baltimore is a hotbed of lacrosse — it’s been Maryland’s official state team sport since 2004 — and because of the Baltimore/ Ashkelon partnership directed by Sigal Arieli, the program received significant support from both communities.
Neiss noted that in addition to promoting lacrosse in Israel, the program encourages relationships between young Jewish Americans and their Israeli counterparts, exposes Jewish American teens to Israel and teaches social responsibility and civic engagement. Prior to their departure from the United States, organizers encouraged each American athlete to collect lightly used lacrosse equipment for the benefit of their Israeli counterparts who might otherwise have been unable to afford the items.
The program also encouraged Hebrew language acquisition, requiring all players to use Hebrew instead of English on the field.
“For many of these [American] kids, this was their first trip to Israel. So we tried to do some touring around Israel while they were there,” said Neiss. The itinerary included stops to landmarks in Netanya, Ashkelon and Jerusalem, as well as Jewish sites in Warsaw.
For many players, “lacrosse is their passion and their religion,” said Neiss. “With all the recruiting camps in the summer, where does Israel fit in?”
Simone Ellin is JT senior features reporter