Travelers schlep all kinds of stuff to give out in Israel: cans of albacore tuna for friends, toys for pediatric patients, socks for soldiers. On his first foray to the Jewish state, 17-year-old Matthew Stern of Wyckoff schlepped 50 pounds of lacrosse equipment in a duffel bag.
“I’ve been playing lacrosse since kindergarten, and I really love it because it introduces you to useful skills for life, like teamwork and friendship,” Matt said. “Especially for people living in Israel, I want to spread that. I feel kids in Israel will love lacrosse just as much as I do; it’s a sport they can embrace and do well in.”
|Matt Stern is flanked by two young students after a lacrosse clinic that his group ran for the children at the Eshel HaNasi communal youth settlement in Beersheba. Courtesy Matt Stern|
Matt took off from JFK International Airport on December 24 as one of about 75 young lacrosse players from across the United States – plus one from England – under the auspices of the New York-based Israel Lacrosse Association (www.lacrosse.co.il/), which is forming teams in several Israeli cities.
A few weeks after a ceasefire in the summer conflict between Israel and Hamas, Matt had come across the Israel Lacrosse Facebook page and discovered that it was recruiting a national development team for Jewish high-school lacrosse players wishing to spend their winter vacation introducing the sport to Israeli children and providing them with equipment to get started.
The trip would include leading lacrosse clinics for young Israeli athletes, as well as hiking Masada at sunrise, floating in the Dead Sea, and touring Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Four teams (under-17 and under-19 for boys and girls) were to dorm and train at the Wingate Institute for Sport, Israel’s official Olympic training facility in Netanya. Then they would fly to Belgium to represent Israel in international competition against several U-19 European clubs.
“It really intrigued me because I wanted to spread the game and I’d never been to Israel, so I thought this would be an amazing opportunity for me,” Matt said. “I contacted them and talked it over with my family.”
At first, Cindy and Dave Stern were hesitant. They were concerned about their son’s safety. They were particularly uneasy because clinics were to take place in Ashkelon, the southern coastal city that was a frequent target of Hamas missiles from Gaza all summer. However, after speaking with Noah Miller, the Israel Lacrosse Association’s director of social responsibility and coordinator of the Ashkelon team, they felt reassured and gave Matt their permission.
And indeed, the Ramapo High School junior found the Ashkelon experience to be the highlight of his time in Israel.
“We did drills with the kids in their gym classes, and it was amazing to see the looks on their faces when they got their new donated sticks,” he said. “It was challenging because of the language barrier, especially with the younger kids. But we had received a list of lacrosse vocabulary in Hebrew before our trip, so that helped.”
The group also ran lacrosse clinics at schools in Beersheva and Netanya.
Matt is a midfielder, a position he describes as “basically running all up and down the field, playing both offense and defense.” In 2013, he established a nonprofit organization, Spread the Lax (“lax” is slang for lacrosse), to collect new and used lacrosse gear for schools and communities that cannot afford to buy it.
Matt, who transferred this year from the Bergen Academies, will try out for the Ramapo High School lacrosse team in early March – the season runs from March to May. The mini exhibition tournament in Belgium last week against Belgian and Dutch national youth teams was a valuable practice for him, but it was also much more.
“Being in Belgium brought home how meaningful the trip was and how cool it was to represent Israel,” he said. “We also won all three of our games, and our whole Israel Lacrosse program was 8 and 0, so that was in itself a cool experience.”
The program scored a spiritual high for Matt as well. “When we went to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, we all felt a connection. My great-grandparents were killed in the Holocaust, and it made you understand what you’re representing when you have ‘Israel Lacrosse’ on your jersey.”
Matt and his family attend Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff. “This trip really brought out and revived my Judaism, and now I want to participate in more Jewish activities,” he said. “Israel Lacrosse offers summer internships, and I hope to do that this summer or next.”
He also hopes to participate in the Israel Lacrosse Association’s unique Taglit-Birthright trip when he is old enough to qualify. Registration opens February 3 for the second annual “Amazing Israel Lacrosse” Birthright program in June, and is limited to 20 men and 20 women, from 18 to 26, who are active players or recent graduates of an NCAA-sanctioned lacrosse program.