This is the fifth in a series of profiles of Minnesota athletes who are competing for Team USA in the Maccabiah Games – also known as “the Jewish Olympics” – in Israel from July 12-26.
For Ellie Fromstein, playing for Team USA in the Maccabiah Games isn’t just about the rugby. It’s also about continuing a family tradition.
But to follow in her father’s footsteps as a rugby player at Maccabiah was slightly unexpected – because she didn’t know that it was even an option until she was asked to try out.
“I was trying to find Jewish rugby players anywhere I could,” she said. “Any camps I went to, or just in passing. I was planning on starting a Facebook group and then I got a message to register for the Maccabi Games, and they’re going to have tryouts for the women’s team in November. I was like, ‘What? No way! I don’t have to do this myself.’”
Fromstein had been a soccer player, and at one point had wanted to play soccer in the Maccabiah Games. But started playing rugby in seventh grade and her love for the sport took off from there.
“Rugby became my passion,” she said. “It’s my favorite thing in the world. It is so fun for me.”
There are various types of rugby, but the version of rugby played by the women at Maccabiah (and by both men and women at the Olympics), is Rugby 7s – which is seven players a side playing two 7-minute halves. There’s also Rugby 15s, which is – as the name implies – 15 a side and played with two 40-minute halves.
“It’s a free-flowing game; it’s like football without the downs,” said Rich Fromstein. He explained that to advance the ball up the field for a try (rugby’s version of a touchdown), you can’t throw the ball forward or block the same way as football does.
“You do it with passing, maneuvers, and a lot of pushing and grunting,” he said. “Physically it’s incredibly tiring.”
Ellie Fromstein has played both versions of rugby – and has been very successful along the way.
“All of high school I played on Hopkins Rugby Football Club, so that was six years, and on the state select team in 10th, 11th and 12th grade,” she said. I played sevens and fifteens, I was the captain my junior and senior year, (won) tournament MVPs. I did it all.” She also was a high school all-American and won the Mercury Award in 2015 as one of the top Jewish scholar-athletes in Minnesota.
Raleigh Fromstein, Ellie’s mother, said that her daughter is aggressive in whatever sport she has played.
“I have at times worried about people that come in contact with her on the field,” she said. “Her basketball coach in 8th grade had to tell her that this was not a rugby field. She taught her sister how to do things when the ref isn’t looking.”
The trip to Israel for Maccabiah is far from Fromstein’s first this year. She recently finished working as the Israel Engagement Coordinator at Penn State Hillel, which is her alma mater. She will have led two Birthright trips by the time she gets to Israel for the games. When she returns, she’ll start a position at Boston University Hillel.
“I love Judaism and I’ve always been very drawn to Judaism, even as a kid it was something that I just was obsessed with,” she said. “I was heartbroken when I stopped going to Hebrew school. And then I got to college and I had no idea what I wanted to do. So I started majoring in psychology and I was taking some Hebrew.”
She ended up majoring in Jewish studies as well, having a Hebrew minor, and a Holocaust and genocide study certificate.
“I started looking at Hillel and I felt a lot more like this was my place. This is what I needed to be doing,” she said. “Not only for me but for other people.”
Rich Fromstein played in the Maccabiah in 1989 and the Pan-Am Maccabiah in 1991, and said the experience was life-changing for him.
“I don’t know if it’ll be the same for Ellie, but she has the same fire,” he said. “I think she looks at it as I did – it’s a the pinnacle thing for her. She’s had a lot of success, but to play for your country in Israel in one of Israel’s marquee events, it’s a labor of love.”