Playing and seeing

Playing and seeing

Athletes for Israel showcases the country

(Photo by Onflickprod/Courtesy of Athletes for Israel)
(Photo by Onflickprod/Courtesy of Athletes for Israel)

Daniel Posner is not a public relations professional.

He’s been in the hedge fund and private equity business for more than 30 years. But his increasing frustration with how negatively Israel is portrayed in the media led him to seek a new way to promote the Jewish homeland and fight antisemitism.

About four years ago, Mr. Posner founded Athletes for Israel, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that brings professional and collegiate athletes to Israel for educational touring and encounters with its athletes and citizens.

“When people with high profiles come to Israel and share their experiences with their followers, all the falsehoods and myths that are widely spread about Israel are debunked,” Mr. Posner said. “They describe the incredible, flourishing, open, democratic, peaceful, and civilized Jewish state, and this transforms hearts and minds to recognize the truth about Israel.”

Mr. Posner, who lives in Manhattan and owns a house in Teaneck, has sent all of his six children to Jewish schools in Bergen County — Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, the Torah Academy of Bergen County, and Yeshivat Noam.

He had long heard that Israel’s image problems were due to the country’s allegedly poor PR efforts, and he decided to investigate if that was the case. When he met with Israelis responsible for liaising with the media, such as the IDF’s chief spokesperson, he found them “articulate, knowledgeable, and excellent at describing the Israeli position.”

Why then, he wondered, weren’t these positive messages translating into positive media coverage? Why was the attitude of millennials toward Israel increasingly negative?

Former Yeshiva University star player Ryan Turell, now a Motor City Cruise G-leaguer and Athletes for Israel ambassador, plays for the Israel Select Team in an exhibition game against the University of Arizona in Tel Aviv. (Photo by Onflickprod courtesy of Athletes for Israel)

“I came to the conclusion that Jews and Israelis are, by definition, not objective in our description of Israel,” he said. “So I looked for people who would be.

“We needed to partner with athletes, to show them how easy it is to fall in love with Israel, and to share those experiences with their thousands and millions of followers.”

He reached out to funders and agents and others in the sports industry and started inviting notables, such as NBA Hall of Famers Rick Barry and Ray Allen, to come to Israel. Soon, agents began contacting Athletes for Israel to say their clients were interested in a trip too.

It’s not hard to understand why. Many pro and college athletes are eager to take advantage of an opportunity to tour the historic religious sites of the Holy Land. Many others are intrigued by the energy and vibrancy of the “startup nation” and the world-class nightlife in Tel Aviv, Mr. Posner said.

Every year since its founding, Athletes for Israel has brought five to 10 delegations of pro football, basketball, baseball, and hockey players to Israel between Passover and Sukkot.

Last year, one of the sports agencies with which Athletes for Israel has a working relationship told Mr. Posner that Auburn University basketball head coach Bruce Pearl was interested in bringing his entire team to Israel.

“We brought them last summer for touring in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Galilee, and the Dead Sea,” Mr. Posner said. “They played three exhibition games against Israeli teams, including the national team, and they had a fantastic time.

Daniel Posner being interviewed in Israel. (Athletes for Israel)

“So this year we brought two college teams — Kansas State University and the University of Arizona — to Israel and the UAE in support of peace and the Abraham Accords.” Both teams, coincidentally, are called the Wildcats.

Kansas State head coach Jerome Tang explained in a press conference before the August 9-20 trip that every four years, the NCAA allows Division I schools to take a foreign tour. He had been planning to take his squad to Greece this summer. Then he got a call from the Complete Sports Management travel agency with a proposal from Athletes for Israel.

“It was really a no-brainer to come,” Mr. Tang said. “AFI really does fabulous work by uniting communities through sports. That resonates with who I am.”

Mr. Tang spoke with Mr. Pearl several times, and the two college teams spoke with one another over Zoom. The KSU players came away enthused about going to Israel.

“I’m a devout Christian and a reader and student of the Bible and history, and I’m excited to walk the places where Jesus walked and see the places I’ve only been able to read about,” Mr. Tang said. “I’m looking forward to being baptized in the Jordan River, float in the Dead Sea, and see the city of Jerusalem and learn about how the three different religions interact on such a small area.

“As it says in the New Testament, ‘A small rudder guides a big ship,’ and Israel may be a small country but makes a big impact in the world.”

Tommy Lloyd, head coach of the University of Arizona Wildcats, already had been to Israel several times, both alone and with family. He said he was totally on board with bringing the members of his team.

Kansas State Wildcat player Arthur Kaluma floats in the Dead Sea — and checks his phone — earlier this month. (Athletes for Israel)

“Getting out there and showing them different parts of the world, especially a place as rich in history as Israel, is fascinating and gives our guys an opportunity to change their perspective,” he said.

“What we hear about Israel isn’t good news, and I’m looking forward to getting our boots on the ground and showing the group this is a really cool place, maybe one of the trendsetting cultures in all of the world today,” he said before the trip.

Mr. Lloyd said he was impressed with Mr. Posner’s “energy and passion. He developed Athletes for Israel to combat antisemitism, and that’s something that I’m a believer in. When I got the opportunity to associate our program with Daniel’s mission, I thought it was a perfect fit. This real-life experience is greater than any classroom education you could receive.

“I applaud Daniel for standing up for an amazing cause, and I’m glad we could help.”

In addition to playing friendly basketball games against the Israel Select team in Israel and the national teams from Lebanon and Mexico in the UAE, the Wildcats toured the Old City of Jerusalem, the City of David, Yad Vashem, Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, and Tel Aviv-Jaffa. They spent a Shabbat in Jerusalem and learned about Israel’s startup ecosystem.

Mr. Posner took the president of the University of Arizona, Robert Robbins, who is a cardiac surgeon and formerly CEO of Texas Medical Center, to visit Save a Child’s Heart in Holon. SACH gives free lifesaving cardiac care to gravely ill children from dozens of disadvantaged countries as well as Gaza.

“Bobby met physicians there and observed a live surgery,” Mr. Posner said. “He exchanged information and connected with the doctors there. They plan to have additional dialogues and joint activities.

Auburn University basketball player Dylan Cardwell is at a practice with local children at the Jerusalem International YMCA last summer. (Athletes for Israel)

“It’s important for people to build a connection with Israel, not just visit and have a great time. If you fall in love with a place and continue a relationship with it, that’s powerful.”

In the United Arab Emirates, the teams visited the Grand Mosque and the Abrahamic Family House, which includes a church, a synagogue, and a mosque. “The Emiratis were the first to sign the Abraham Accords and share similar values, such as of freedom of religion, with Israel,” Mr. Posner said.

He termed the two-team visit “a smashing success on every level. It is always exciting to see people come to Israel for the first time and see their eyes open wide as they witness the diversity, energy, and excitement.

“They always say ‘It’s nothing like I expected.’ And they all say they want to come again.”

The delegation of more than 100 people resulted in many social media posts showing the athletes having fun with their teammates on the beaches of Tel Aviv and the Dead Sea, shopping in Carmel Market, and touring religious sites.

“We have many college basketball teams now vying to come next year and the following year,” Mr. Posner said. “We will have some differentiators for next year that we hope to share with the community in the coming months.”

Earlier this summer, Athletes for Israel brought over former NBA players Sedric Toney, Theo Ratliff, Dale Ellis, Eddie Johnson, and Mark West.

The cost of the trips is underwritten by Athletes for Israel, the participating organizations, philanthropies, “and high-net-worth individuals who believe sports diplomacy is a great way to change the narrative around Israel,” Mr. Posner said.

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