Last week I stood in the scorching sun of the desert. I stood on the improbable grass under my feet which had a sophisticated water system, men and women working the grounds, and a splash of modern miracle. And while it might sound like this was Israel, it was rather Israel in Scottsdale, Arizona. Sports have always played a role in the American Jewish and Israeli experience. It is not just the heroes like Sandy Koufax or Hank Greenberg who instilled in the young Jewish American minds that we can be anything we want to be, but also the instinctive connection that Jews have with baseball. Through traditions, sounds, smells, and tastes baseball has always been as wholesome as a Shabbat dinner table. Recently, I was fortunate enough to be invited to Team Israel Baseball’s first pre-Olympic semi-secret minicamp. And though I went to write and film stories about their upcoming Olympic run, I found much more there than I ever could have imagined.
First, I want to share a little backstory. Several years ago, Minnesota local Jason Rose invited me to a small parlor meeting about Team Israel Baseball. A quick Google search could tell you that this was up my alley. There I met a man by the name of Peter Kurz. Peter is a real life, Ray Kinsella. He quite literally built fields, a squad, and has risen careers back from the dead. Peter is a friend, and we speak quite frequently. He is as strong-willed as he is compassionate, in many ways like all the incredible Israelis I know, but he has a relentless attitude second to none. And his dream has come true. He is now beside Jordy Alter, the president of the Israeli Association of Baseball, who if Peter is Ray then Jordy is Terence Mann because his warmth exudes from his being the second you meet him. Many do not know that I play a small role with the team both on a formal and informal basis. I am a rabbinic resource, a fundraiser, and a reporter. I believe in Peter’s dream and am happy to help in any way I can.
Fast forward to 2021, in which Tokyo will host the Olympics (postponed due to COVID-19). As Head Coach Eric Holtz reminded me, he hadn’t seen these players play ball in 20 months. A loaded team with 4-time All-Star Ian Kinsler, 10-year MLB veteran Danny Valenica, World Baseball Classic star pitcher Josh Zeid, and former Reds pitchers Jon Moscot and Zack Weiss all who proudly made Aliyah to wear Team Israel across their chest. In attendance were also former players Jeff Urlaub, Ike Davis, and Cody Decker who brought a full squad with him to scrimmage. There was also the future as Elie Kligman took his first steps to one day represent us in the Olympics. In this tight bubble was a supportive chevra of individuals from Israel to Scottsdale moving forward with Jewish life and Zionism.
Most of the team was not religious. Of the few invited guests, I saw one Kippah. All of the players connect in different ways. Some of the players went to Hebrew school, some have lived in Israel, and others expressed a lack of full Jewish expression. To me that is the essence and beauty of Israel and Jews. We have differences and stories that may be told through different lenses, but we come together to share and support; this crew did just that.
I recognize that Israel faces much larger issues ahead then medaling in the Olympics. Baseball is, after all, a game. But we need games right now. We need happiness and pride. We need healthy competition with other countries to share stories and commonalities. We need the love of the game to help us realize how to love one another.
I am a relentless Zionist. I am not shy about my love for Israel and my willingness to engage in all ways with my brothers and sisters in the Holy Land. Like many of you, I spent all last week reading and watching as the skies of Tel Aviv lit up like Oak Ridge on the 4th of July. But unlike the joy of fireworks, tragedy struck every time the skies were hit. I am the kind of Zionist who cannot sleep when Israel is under attack, when lies are spread, and when my brethren are forced to be in positions that will cost them their lives. But as I boarded my MSP flight, I felt a deep pride and hope. The Israeli spirit of wrestling with religion, Statehood, and humanity was on the field. And like Abraham Joshua Heschel famously spoke about praying with one’s feet, here were these men praying with their cleats. Every pitch thrown, every at bat, and every smile and hug were prayers of hope for peace and serenity.
In the end, being with Team Israel during a week of pain and destruction was prayer. The players may not have realized it and maybe neither did the State of Israel, but I felt it. It trickled down my spine watching Kinsler take his first at bat with Israel across his chest, when Valencia hit a first-inning home run, when Moscot spoke about his family in Israel, and when Zeid made the field smile during a tense time. This team was instilling a great deal of hope in the country. This team has become a minyan of individuals coming together for the sake of something much larger than we could have ever imagined. And they have turned play into pray. A Prayer for the State of Israel had an extra layer of Kavannah (intention) in Scottsdale and I am not sure I have ever prayed harder in my life.