The head coach of the Israel Men’s National Lacrosse Team is from New City.
Jeffrey Schwartz will lead the 23-man team to the European Lacrosse Federation’s Championships in Budapest, Hungary, from July 27 to August 7.
Lacrosse is not a well-known team sport in Israel, where soccer and basketball reign supreme. But interest is picking up because of the efforts of the New York-based Israel Lacrosse Association, the Amazing Israel Lacrosse Birthright program, and Masa Israel Journey’s new Israel Lacrosse Internship.
Mr. Schwartz, 28, recently on a five-month Masa internship, along with five other participants. He began playing lacrosse in high school and went on to captain Lynchburg College’s men’s lacrosse team during his junior and senior years.
“I graduated in 2012 and stayed at Lynchburg for a year as a graduate assistant, then moved to the DC area to work in IT staffing, and then had the epiphany that I wanted to get back into the sport of lacrosse,” he said.
“A good friend from high school had played on the Israel National Team in 2014 and he put me in touch with a bunch of guys, and through them I learned of the Masa Israel internship. I had been on Birthright in February 2014, and though I hadn’t thought about living in Israel I did want to come back.”
The Israel Lacrosse interns, of whom Mr. Schwartz is the oldest, live together in Ashkelon, one of several cities where the Israel Lacrosse Association has been developing under-19 and under-15 teams. In addition to helping with local and national recruiting and coaching, they participate in cultural experiences, Hebrew classes and touring offered by Masa during the five months.
The language classes are critical. “It’s been a huge challenge, and I knew it would be,” Mr. Schwartz said. “The language barrier has gotten easier as the months have gone by; I learned to coach in Hebrew before I learned to converse in Hebrew. Masa provides 64 hours of Hebrew lessons, but most of the learning comes from when you are forced to try to communicate with the kids.”
Working alongside Israel Lacrosse employees, the interns start by visiting schools and guest-hosting a couple of phys-ed periods to introduce the sport and let the kids try playing it. There are separate school-based and national teams for men and women.
“Hopefully they take a liking to it and turn into kids who love lacrosse and want to register and play in our league,” Mr. Schwartz said. “In each city there may be four school teams that can play against each other. We’ve had some pretty good success and I think we’ll continue to get better at the recruiting process.”
His work with youth development and his success as associate head coach of the Haifa Lacrosse Club — which he helped lead to the Israel Premiere Lacrosse League championship game in the team’s first season — made Mr. Schwartz the Israel Lacrosse Association’s top pick for coaching the men’s national team.
Explaining his love of the sport, Mr. Schwartz describes lacrosse as a “pure game” in which players are challenged not only physically. “It’s a momentum-based sport,” he said. “You start your day with a full tank and then, whether playing or coaching, your tank is emptied. I’ve never experienced anything else that empties my tank that way.”
In addition, he adds, “lacrosse is big enough so that it’s popular in the U.S. but it’s still a tight-knit community, and I like that. The opportunities you’re afforded in lacrosse you might not have in baseball or basketball, including the opportunity to go abroad to teach it.”
Because no Israeli sports store carries lacrosse equipment, American donors send over gear that is used but in excellent condition. Participants in the high school clinics use those donated sticks, helmets, gloves, shoulder pads, and lacrosse balls for free. Those who register for league and youth programs can buy their own set. “We sell the equipment to the kids at a very low price so it becomes a very affordable sport,” Mr. Schwartz said. “If they want upgrades, they can trade in and spend a bit more.”
After the summer championship in Budapest, Mr. Schwartz plans to continue growing and developing the Israel national team.
The experience has been fun, he said, though it has not been easy to acclimate to a different country and culture. “It’s an adjustment, but we’re attracted to the opportunity to challenge ourselves from a lacrosse perspective and a life perspective,” he said. “That’s been the hard part and the cool part all at the same time.”
Mr. Schwartz’s mother, Lois, now lives in Nyack while his father, Steven, recently moved to Dallas from Montvale, N.J. Aside from congregational Hebrew school, Mr. Schwartz’s only previous communal Jewish experience was a few summers at Camp Kinder Ring, a program of the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, an activist-based national organization promoting secular Jewish heritage, Yiddishkeit, and social and economic justice.
Jewish athletes from 18 to 30 who are interested in participating in Israel Lacrosse’s Masa Israel Journey program for next September should email Amanda Tuck at email@example.com.