With alerts blaring in Tel Aviv and Ashkelon, Israel’s national men’s lacrosse team encountered a very different type of siren last week in Denver.
There, Team Israel debuted in the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) Men’s World Lacrosse Championships, playing its first game against Sweden. In its inaugural match, Israeli forward Ari Sussman scored five goals and had three assists to lead Israel past 10th-ranked Sweden, 19-4 last Friday at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
Sussman scored Israel’s first-ever goal in the world championship just 42 seconds in, and the blue-and-white never faltered, charging to a massive 13-0 lead before the Swedes’ Mattias Eklund finally put his team on the board with just four minutes remaining in the first half.
Tournament finals are scheduled to take place Saturday night.
Israel’s all-star team is composed of Jewish college students and IDF soldiers, representing communities from Toronto to Boca Raton and Bethesda to Petah Tikvah.
Despite the team’s geographic diversity, defender Mark Jutkowitz, a Bethesda native and recent University of Maryland graduate, attributed the team’s synergy to the fact that they are all Jewish. Jutkowitz has played lacrosse since the third grade and earned a lacrosse scholarship at University of Maryland. Yet, until now, he has never played on a team with all Jewish players. “It’s an absolutely moving experience,” Jutkowitz said. “We all have heritage as a common background.”
The team speaks only Hebrew on the field, and though he described a “slight language barrier” at the beginning, Jutkowitz said the team meshed “seamlessly.”
They built up that unity after spending the past year training and coaching together. When they are not competing, the team runs outreach programs designed to introduce children in Israel to lacrosse – a sport long popular on preppy American campuses and just now gaining a foothold in the Jewish state.
Scott Neiss, executive director of the Israel Lacrosse Association, organized the team’s year-round lacrosse chugim, or groups, in Ashkelon and Tel-Aviv, which drew more than 250 Israeli youth.
The Ashkelon youth chapter recently relocated to Tel Aviv due to the sirens and proximity to rocket attacks from Gaza. For the Ashkelon youth, none of this was out of the ordinary. “I think it’s all about trying to live life as normal as possible under difficult circumstances,” said Neiss. “It’s weird when the coaches are scared and the kids are calm because they don’t know anything else.”
Following a Birthright trip, Jutkowitz traveled to Ashkelon last summer to help coach in their region. With assists from the Israelis, the American players learned the Hebrew equivalents of such lacrosse terminology as “ballstop” and “shaft,” and ran basic sports exercises. “In Israel they play a lot of basketball and soccer, but lacrosse is a whole new thing for them,” said Jutkowitz. “They were very engaged.”
Likewise, the 46 players support each other during their final games in the 2014 World Lacrosse Tournament. Despite four players absent due to IDF deployment, the team is eager for the chance to sing “Hatikvah” – Israel’s national anthem – on the field.
Said Jutkowitz: “To really hear that song with the Star of David on my helmet makes it that much more important.”