American Jews who move to Israel accept that some norms will change.
Weekends, for example, will shift to Friday and Shabbat from Saturday and Sunday. And their kids are more likely to play ball on a soccer pitch or a basketball court than on a baseball diamond.
Nevertheless, many immigrants with a strong affinity for the great American pastime have assured it a small but growing niche in the Jewish homeland. In 1986, they founded the Israel Association of Baseball. Now, about 800 registered players, ranging in age from age 7 to 55, and some 200 coaches, managers, umpires, and directors are involved in six leagues throughout Israel under the auspices of the IAB.
But with just five baseball diamonds in the whole country — only one of which is on par with a typical American high school ball field — many of IAB’s 80 teams have had to make do with less than ideal playing conditions.
Now, fans and players have something to cheer about, as a group of former Bergen County residents is spearheading the construction of a baseball complex in Beit Shemesh, a city of 104,000 residents 19 miles west of Jerusalem.
Beit Shemesh (also transliterated “Bet Shemesh”) is home to one of the largest English-speaking populations in Israel, and it boasts some 13 baseball teams ranging from Little League to adult. Some of the key people involved in IAB’s Beit Shemesh Baseball nonprofit organization are immigrants (“olim,” in Hebrew) from northern New Jersey.
“Beit Shemesh is a town of many olim from the USA, many of whom arrive with children looking for something familiar, something that gives them confidence. Baseball is that outlet for many of them,” Jordy Alter said.
Dr. Alter made aliyah from Fair Lawn in 2005 and is heading the ball field project with fellow Fair Lawn expat Dr. Aron Saffer, who made aliyah in 1997.
Dr. Alter said that Beit Shemesh Baseball has been renting five soccer fields in nearby towns to accommodate Friday afterschool games for more than 150 Beit Shemesh players, from 7 to 17 years old. The youngest participants play in an amphitheater with a 25-degree slope.
“This new complex will offer the opportunity for our children to be able to play on a proper field,” he said. “They will not be limited to playing just on Fridays, and we will be able to accommodate many more players and better serve underprivileged residents who cannot travel out of the city.”
Not only locals will benefit. Dr. Alter predicts that Beit Shemesh will become a destination for baseball in Israel and envisions the facility abuzz with baseball, softball, and special events throughout each week. And although English is the lingua franca of baseball in Israel, more native Israelis are getting interested as well.
Over the past three years, officials from IAB and the Jewish National Fund’s Project Baseball assisted Beit Shemesh Baseball in its successful bid to win a 25-year agreement from the city to build, maintain, and control its own baseball complex.
The plan for the project includes a regulation-sized field for adults and two smaller fields for teenagers, in addition to batting cages, dugouts, lights, and stands. Beit Shemesh Baseball is working to raise nearly $1 million to complete construction by the fall of 2017.
Ten Jewish Major League Baseball players and their families, who were in Israel before they were to compete as part of Team Israel at the 2017 World Baseball Classic in South Korea in March, were guests at an official groundbreaking ceremony on January 6. The athletes were mobbed by blue-shirted Beit Shemesh kids eager for autographs.
Geoff Rochwarger, an active member of Beit Shemesh Baseball who made aliyah from Teaneck in 2006, says the sport was part of growing up in America for him and many others, and it gives émigrés a needed feeling of familiarity.
“As we moved to Israel, acclimation to a foreign country with new cultures was quite challenging, especially for parents, who for the most part are not fluent in Hebrew and have the responsibility of integrating their families into a new world,” Mr. Rochwarger said. “Baseball — and sports in general — as a comfort activity has helped serve as a conduit facilitating a smooth aliyah process.”
But there’s more to it, he continued. “Baseball helps teach skills that are necessary for adults to manage in an adult world. In addition to discipline and structure, baseball builds teamwork skills necessary for communication between peers, an attribute that will prove quite useful in Israel for the army and later in the professional world.”
Dr. Alter agrees. “Many parents appreciate the fact that baseball is a game of discipline and structure, something that many of these kids require in life,” he said. “I have been coaching in Israel for 11 years and I have had several players who would be termed troubled youth, and I believe the structure of baseball has helped many of these kids. The fact that they can excel at something is often the tipping point that gives them the confidence they need in other aspects of their lives.”
Mr. Rochwarger anticipates that the baseball complex will give Beit Shemesh, and greater Israel, a public-relations boost. “It will serve as further proof to the outside world that Israel is populated by normal people and regular children,” he said. “They play and work together, as they do in every other country.”
Another former Teaneck resident active in Beit Shemesh Baseball is Marc Chass, who played on Israel’s Maccabiah softball teams in 2001 and 2009, and on the Beit Shemesh softball team from 1998 to 2014. His father, baseball writer Murray Chass, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004.
Why is it that American Jews have such an affinity for baseball?
“In addition to all of the physical and emotional skills it helps build in our children, we were taught early on, in the summer camps and leagues that formed our introduction to the sport, that to be successful was not only defined by the highest score at the end of the game,” Mr. Rochwarger said.
“Our interactions with our teammates on the field — regardless of good plays, dropped balls, and strikeouts — were fostered early on with the understanding that kindness to people was above all the most important lesson to be learned. This trait parallels one of the key foundation principles in the Jewish faith of ‘loving thy neighbor,’ which in turn facilitates a greater love and appreciation for God.”