PARAMUS Growing up in this borough with three brothers (and a sister), it was perhaps natural that Ayelet Wartelsky would have learned how to play tackle football in the backyard. But the Dallas Cowboys fan didn’t have many other opportunities to play.
Fast forward to June, when Wartelsky joined her teammates in an emotional rendition of "Hatikvah" after the Israel Women’s National Football Team won Europe’s largest flag football tournament in Germany.
This graduate of Yeshiva Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in Washington Heights lucked into a brand-new phenomenon American-style football leagues for women upon moving to Israel in ‘005.
"When I got here, a friend had heard about some football event that was taking place in Jerusalem," said Wartelsky, ‘6, during a recent phone interview. "It was the dedication of a new field, the Kraft Family Stadium, by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his wife Myra. They are Jewish and happen to be big Zionists."
On the artificial-turf field, at the north end of Jerusalem’s Sachar Park, men were playing on one half, women on the other. Wartelsky stood open-mouthed at the sight of young women, most of them Orthodox and English-speaking like herself, playing an exhibition game. "I immediately asked how I could get into that," she recalled.
She was pointed in the direction of former Californian Yonah Mishaan, a star player for American Football in Israel, who had been coaching the women’s team since its ‘004 inception. He told her to show up for the next Wednesday night practice, because they were missing a regular player.
Never having played flag football before, Wartelsky wasn’t quite sure what to do. "I almost tackled a girl because I thought you had to tackle first and then pull the flag," she said, laughing.
There was no question that she’d immediately join a team, of which there are now 13. Football is her passion.
"I enjoy watching the aggression and physical strength of the game, the blocking and tackling," Wartelsky said. "In a way, it’s an art. Yonah is always telling us it’s like a chess game and you have to plan offensively. On defense you have to see the whole field and anticipate where the ball and players are going to go."
As soon as she became a citizen, this kindergarten teacher tried out for the national team. Another of its members, Sarit Bailey, is from Teaneck. Although English is spoken at all practices, the players and their coach make a point of conversing in Hebrew when they represent the Jewish state in other countries.
Shortly after joining the national team, Wartelsky played in Finland and in France. Last May, the Krafts flew them in, along with the men’s national team, for the Boston Celebrates Israel festival. In June, they went to Germany, where they took first place in the Sparkhassen Big Bowl in Walldorf.
Wartelsky was hesitant to take that last trip.
"The fact that it was in Germany was a very big deal to me," she said. "My father’s parents lived in Germany but escaped before the Holocaust. My mother’s parents were from Hungary and Czechoslovakia but were in Auschwitz, and I always had a bias against anything German. I didn’t want to tour and spend any money like I did in other places. I just wanted to win for Israel."
Once there, she noted, the German hosts were gracious and accommodating, and yet the very sound of the language "made my skin crawl because of the association of the language and the land. It was a pretty heavy trip."
It would get even heavier when the team came from behind to pull out a 13 to 6 overtime victory. The win earned the team a first-place finish at the 33-team, seven-nation tournament.
All of the Israeli women’s games were scheduled on Sunday so as not to desecrate the Sabbath. They play in basketball shorts and roomy T-shirts for modesty’s sake.
"We are Jews, religious Jews on top of that, and there are no words to describe what it was like to get up there and take the trophy," said Wartelsky. "We weren’t sure if it was okay to sing Hatikvah, and we asked the man in charge and he said to go right ahead. Many of us were crying. I felt so Israeli at that point. That really sealed the deal for me."
A member of the men’s team took a video of that moment, which can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjEpA-_c8BA. Wartelsky is wearing jersey #”. The Jerusalem Post reported that Mishaan called this tournament "the most amazing and satisfying win we’ve ever had. To see the fans in Germany overwhelmingly support the Israeli team was just a beautiful thing to watch."
Now working at a sports camp for children, Wartelsky is looking forward to the start of the new season in September.
To find out more about Israeli football, see israelfootball.net.