American football goes to Israel
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American football goes to Israel

On visit to Bergen County, head of Israeli league talks tachlis, tackles

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In the end, the orange- shirted Judean Rebels beat the Ramat Hasharon Hammers. Rick Blumsack

Are you still suffering from post-Super Bowl football withdrawal, even though it’s halfway into baseball’s spring training schedule?

Maybe you should move to Israel, where the Israeli Football League’s regular season doesn’t end until next Saturday night, with the playoffs and championship scheduled for April.

And yes, that’s American football, with touchdowns and tackles and wide receivers, not the “football” known in Israel as kadur regel and in America as “soccer.”

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Betzalel Friedman

Here’s another advantage of the Israeli Football League over its American counterpart: The league is strictly amateur, so if you make aliyah this summer, you could be on your way to playing for the Judean Rebels or Haifa Underdogs next fall.

The league does have one paid employee – Betzalel Friedman, the league’s 29-year-old director. Mr. Friedman was in New Jersey recently to promote and raise funds for the league. He wants to promote American football into Israel’s number three sport, behind soccer and basketball. To get there, he will have to climb past volleyball and handball.

Mr. Friedman grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, where young boys did not follow soccer, let alone volleyball or handball. He was a Colts fan. And when his family moved to Israel when he was 10, he kept following American sports. “I never really got into soccer,” he said. Instead of football, he followed American basketball, which got more coverage in Israeli media. A few years later, “the Internet came around, and it all became much easier to follow.”

Mr. Friedman rediscovered football after finishing his army service; he was an operations officer and platoon commander in the paratroopers. (In the reserves, he now commands a company.) For a year, he played with the Gush Etzion-based Judean Rebels as wide receiver.

“It was a lot of running and blocking. Not as much catching as people think,” he said.

Overall, football offered the military officer the joy of applying tactics and strategy. “It’s a physical game but there are very set rules,” he said.

And like the Israeli army, it’s a team sport.

“It doesn’t matter how good you are – you need your teammates,” he said.

After a year, he decided the game took too much. But he was asked to continue as a coach, which did for five years, before being hired to head the league. A lot of what he knows about coaching football he learned from a coach from Texas who coached the year he played; he picked up more on his own.

This season, the league has 420 players on 11 teams. It has one stadium of its own: Kraft Stadium in Jerusalem, built by Robert and Myra Kraft, the owners of the New England Patriots. Mostly, the teams play on soccer fields. “There’s not enough kicking” in the games to justify lugging portable goal posts to the fields – particularly since, remember, the players and coaches are amateurs and there is no budget for roadies or shleppers.

But the players take it seriously. “They come practice twice a week, plus the games. It’s a serious hobby.”

The league’s teams range from Haifa and the northern Galilee south down to Beersheva, with many teams in the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv regions.

“Some of our teams could compete with a good high school team. Maybe even a Division Three college team, but I’m not sure about that,” Mr. Friedman said.

About two thirds of the players are sabras, he said; about a third “are American olim who grew up throwing a football around. Some even had some high school football.”

He said that the concerns over player concussions that are rising over America’s professional National Football League aren’t having much of an impact on his league.

“It’s very different because people’s jobs aren’t on the line and they aren’t pressured to take another hit,” he said. “People take their hobbies a little less seriously than their livelihoods. Also, the physics are different” – the force of an impact being much less because the Israeli players have neither the mass nor the speed of the Americans.

The league gets some support from the government – but “very little.” The New York consulate hosted an event for Mr. Friedman during his recent visit.

And in Israel, the league has a small but growing public profile, with local cable television reporting on the finals.

“Among other things it’s an issue of funding, but we’ll get there,” Mr. Friedman said.

Hoping to expand and grow the sport, the league has opened a youth league for high school-aged kids and is starting a league for elementary school players.

“That’s the future of the game: the kids.”

Mr. Friedman’s son is 4 years old.

“He knows how to say ‘hike,’ he has a little football, and he’ll see a lot of football, that’s for sure.”

Will he play?

“He’ll get into whatever he wants.”

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