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Veteran catcher Ryan Lavarnway pens children’s book about how playing for Israel brought him closer to Judaism

(JTA) — When Ryan Lavarnway joined Team Israel for the World Baseball Classic in 2017, the journeyman catcher chose jersey no. 36 not because of the number stitched onto the back, but because the shirt fit him best.

But in the years since that tournament, any time Lavarnway has represented Israel, he’s stuck with 36, which holds meaning as a multiple of 18, a number that signifies life in Jewish tradition.

That choice is emblematic of Lavarnway’s experience with Team Israel, one that he says has changed his life. It’s also the inspiration for a new children’s book, which hits shelves today, written by the recently retired member of the 2013 World Series champion Boston Red Sox.

In “Baseball and Belonging,” illustrated by Chris Brown, Lavarnway chronicles his life, athletic career and how a call from Israel’s burgeoning baseball program helped him find his Judaism.

“When I played for the WBC team in 2017, that was a really life changing experience for me,” Lavarnway, 36, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I didn’t feel a huge connection to my Judaism, to any religion, to the community at all. Through playing for Team Israel, I felt that for the first time.”

In the book, Lavarnway wrote that growing up in an interfaith family — his mother is Jewish and his father is Catholic — left him feeling lost.

“His parents let him choose his path,” Lavarnway writes early in the book, which is narrated in rhyme in the third person. “They said, ‘You can be either.’ But thinking he was half and half made him feel like he was neither.”

When Israel recruited him to join the 2017 team — the WBC allows players to represent countries where they are eligible for citizenship — Lavarnway writes that it was “the answer to his dreams.”

He tells the story of Israel’s Cinderella run in that tournament, during which the team won its first four games, all against higher-ranked countries. Lavarnway was named MVP of Israel’s group in the first round. The team exited the tournament in the second round after a loss to Japan.

In the book, Lavarnway also shares his experience traveling to Israel for the first time with the team, including illustrations of his visits to famous sites like the Western Wall, the Dead Sea and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.

He writes about meeting Israeli kids — who he says treated the players like superstars — and playing in front of Jewish fans. “By representing Israel, Ryan played for something more,” he writes.

At the end of the book, Lavarnway includes three pages of information about Israel, its baseball program and sites the book mentions.

“Playing with Team Israel, was just the very start,” reads the last page of the book. “Ryan found where he belonged, on the field and in his heart.”

Much like Lavarnway’s journey to Team Israel, his experience writing his first book was not a straightforward one. The idea first began when Lavarnway participated in Q&A sessions surrounding the 2018 documentary “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel,” about the team’s unexpected success in the previous year’s WBC.

Audience members encouraged Lavarnay to share his story of learning about Israel, meeting its citizens and discovering his connection to Judaism, and he began speaking on college campuses.

“I think that’s a great audience to hear it because college students are deciding who they want to be and deciding who they want to develop as their community,” Lavarnway said. “It’s a really transformational time of their lives. And this was a really transformational experience.”

From there, he received a suggestion from his rabbi, the popular Jewish musician and rabbi Joe Black, who leads a Reform congregation in Denver, where Lavarnway lives: why not turn his story into a children’s book?

Lavarnway had never written a book before, much less a kids’ one. So just like facing a new pitcher for the first time, it took a few tries to get it right.

Catcher Ryan Lavarnway, right, enjoys a moment during a pregame warmup with Israel’s bullpen coach Alon Leichman, in Brooklyn, New York, Sept. 22, 2016. (Hillel Kuttler)

Lavarnway began work on the book in early 2021. His first few drafts were turned away by publishers, and he put the project aside.

Then he and his wife, who is also Jewish, had a daughter.

“I was reading stories to her at night, and I found a few that I gravitated towards, that I read the same books over and over because I really loved them,” Lavarnway said. “And I started to pay attention to the structure of the book, and then I had a lightbulb moment of, ‘Oh, mine is nothing like this.’ Which means that my book was probably not very good — the first two iterations of it.”

After becoming more familiar with the structure and rhyme schemes of the children’s books he enjoyed, he took another crack at his own. He said the key was simplifying the story.

“I think the concept of religion is over most children’s heads, especially the younger audience,” Lavarnway said. “But what they can relate to, and what is universal, is doing what you love and feeling loved. If I really had to boil down the message, that’s what it is: doing what you love, and finding somewhere where you can feel loved.”

Lavarnway said when he first joined Team Israel in 2017, he did so because “it was an amazing baseball opportunity.” The catcher played for eight Major League teams from 2011-2021 in a career that saw him move between the majors and the minors, and he played 25 regular season games for Boston in their 2013 championship season.

After his experience in the 2017 WBC, Lavarnway would go on to play for Team Israel in the 2020 Olympics — for which he obtained Israeli citizenship — and the 2023 WBC, in which Israel won one game before eventually being eliminated. He will suit up again for Israel at the European Championships next month.

Peter Kurz, the general manager of Team Israel who first recruited Lavarnway in 2017, said he has been “a tremendous inspiration to Israeli players for the last seven years.” Kurz receives his own cameo in the book and gets high praise in the acknowledgements, where Lavarnway writes that the GM gave him “an experience that changed my life.”

Kurz called Lavarnway “a true team leader” and “true friend,” and said he named the catcher as Team Israel’s first official captain two months ago. Upon Lavarnway’s retirement in March, Kurz said that when his playing days are over, the veteran would be welcome as a coach for Team Israel.

“All that I can say is that Ryan was the ultimate professional, going about his work in a joyful and experienced manner,” Kurz told JTA earlier this year. “He was and is dedicated to Team Israel and was our ultimate warrior. But he was also warm and funny and emotional, and those are wonderful traits.”

Lavarnway said playing for Team Israel has taken on meaning beyond his love of the game itself.

“It’s no longer a baseball opportunity for me at all,” he said. “I don’t have a future in playing the game, but I’m so excited to be a member of this team, and what we’ve done with the program and with the whole sport in the country.”

As his debut book is released, Lavarnway isn’t sure if he has a future as a writer. He recently joined the Colorado Rockies’ broadcast team, where he offers analysis during pre- and post-game coverage. He also speaks at schools and synagogues.

“I don’t know that I’ll make a habit out of making children’s books,” he said. “But this felt like something I needed to do.”

The post Veteran catcher Ryan Lavarnway pens children’s book about how playing for Israel brought him closer to Judaism appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Biden Administration Urges Israel to Tone Down Response to Hezbollah Aggression in Bid to Avert Wider Conflict

Mourners carry a coffin during the funeral of Wissam Tawil, a commander of Hezbollah’s elite Radwan forces who according to Lebanese security sources was killed during an Israeli strike on south Lebanon, in Khirbet Selm, Lebanon, Jan. 9, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Aziz Taher

The Biden administration has been pushing the Israeli government to de-escalate hostilities with Hezbollah to prevent a full-scale war from breaking out along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where the powerful Iran-backed terrorist group wields significant political and military influence.

In Israel’s north, Hezbollah terrorists have been firing rockets at Israel daily from southern Lebanon since Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre, leading Israeli forces to strike back. Tensions have been escalating between both sides, fueling concerns that the conflict in Gaza — the Palestinian enclave ruled by Hamas, another Iran-backed Islamist terrorist group, to Israel’s south — could escalate into a regional conflict.

More than 80,000 Israelis evacuated Israel’s north in October and have since been unable to return to their homes. The majority of those spent the past eight months residing in hotels in safer areas of the country. The mass displacement has ramped up pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to find a swift resolution to the situation.

The ongoing conflict between both sides escalated on Tuesday when senior Hezbollah commander Taleb Sami Abdullah was killed in an Israeli strike in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah responded by launching over 200 missiles into northern Israel. 

During Abdullah’s funeral, senior Hezbollah official Hachem Saffieddine vowed that the terrorist group would intensify its strikes on Israel. 

“Our response after the martyrdom of Abu Taleb will be to intensify our operations in severity, strength, quantity and quality,” Saffieddine said. “Let the enemy wait for us in the battlefield.”

In Israel, meanwhile, officials have said they prefer a diplomatic solution to the current crisis but are prepared to escalate military action to push Hezbollah back from the border in order to allow internally displaced Israelis to return home. Polling has shown that the majority of the Israeli public wants the military to engage in expanded actions against the Lebanese terrorist group, which is committed to Israel’s destruction.

The Biden administration has been advising Netanyahu against pursuing the idea of a “limited war” against Hezbollah, arguing that it could spark a regional war throughout the Middle East. According to multiple reports, US officials have warned Israel that Iran could dispatch militants from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen into Lebanon to bolster Hezbollah’s effort.

The White House has also expressed concern  that Israeli officials do not have a clear strategy on how to keep the war contained to solely Lebanon. Fear of a broader regional war has intensified the Biden administration’s urgency to finalize a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas, which launched the ongoing war in Gaza by slaughtering over 1,200 people throughout southern Israel and kidnapping more than 250 others on Oct. 7.

“We are concerned about an increase in activity in the north. We don’t want this to escalate to a broad regional conflict and we urge de-escalation,” a Pentagon spokesperson told reporters this week.

The Pentagon also released a statement saying that Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and his US counterpart Lloyd Austin discussed efforts to “de-escalate tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border in the wake of Lebanese Hezbollah’s increased aggression.”

According to multiple reports, Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser to US President Joe Biden for energy and investment, will head to Israel on Monday in an effort to temper tensions between the Jewish state and Hezbollah. Hochstein will meet with Netanyahu and Gallant with the goal of swaying them against green-lighting a “limited ground invasion” in Lebanon. Hochstein will reportedly also journey to Beirut to conduct discussions with Lebanese officials.

“There was a lot of work, diplomatic work done behind the scenes by several folks in the US administration, working with regional powers and our allies to try and tamp this down,” Hochstein has said regarding the prospect of a regional war erupting in the Middle East.

Hochstein argued that preventing a large-scale war between Israel and Lebanon requires “active engagement” with both parties and for the public of both countries to “understand the risks” of further escalation. He added that “despite the bravado talk” coming from government officials, Lebanese people do not to go to war with Israel.

“The bottom line is a lot of civilians will die,” Hochstein said.

Despite chest-thumping by Hezbollah leaders, experts believe that the elimination of Abdullah might cause Hezbollah to exercise caution in engaging further with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). 

The powerful elimination worries Hezbollah members. They now understand that the IDF knows much more about them than we do,” Professor Amatzia Baram told The Jerusalem Post. “Additionally, the operation indicates that Hezbollah’s field security is not airtight and that the organization’s intelligence system has been penetrated to such an extent that we were able to eliminate such an important sector commander. The IDF managed to infiltrate their networks and systems and identify the right people for elimination.”

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Iranian Court Sentences Woman to 18 Years in Prison for Supporting Israel

Iranian protesters carry a portrait of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a Yemeni flag as they burn an Israeli flag during an anti-US and anti-British protest in front of the British embassy in downtown Tehran, Iran, Jan. 12, 2024. Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Reuters Connect

Fatemeh Sepehri, a prominent Iranian dissident and political prisoner, has been sentenced to an additional 18 and a half years in prison after she publicly expressed support for Israel.

The harsh prison sentence appeared to be at least partly in response to a video clip released on Oct. 16 from Ghaem Hospital in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad in which Sepehri, who suffers from a heart ailment, condemned Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel. Hamas is backed by the Iranian regime, which provides the Palestinian terror group in Gaza with funding, weapons, and training.

“I emphatically declare that the Iranian nation stands in solidarity with the people of Israel,” she said. “I hope [Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks] closes the Islamic Republic’s chapter in history.”


For 45 years, Iranian women have tirelessly battled for their rights, freedom, and advancement. Among them, Fatemeh Sepehri has boldly challenged the ideals of the Islamic Republic. NUFDI proudly awards her the 2024 Humanitarian Award.

— سه خط طلا (@misanthropgirl) March 19, 2024

Although Fatimeh’s court records are unavailable to the public, her brother Asghar Sepehri tweeted details about the sentence. According to her sibling, Fatimeh was sentenced earlier this month by a judge of the Islamic Revolutionary Court of Mashhad to seven years for supporting Israel, another seven years for conspiring against internal security, three years for insulting Iran’s so-called “supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and one year and six months for propaganda against the Islamist regime.

Iran’s rulers regularly call for the destruction of Israel, often referring to the Jewish state as a “cancerous tumor” or “the Zionist entity.”

Sepehri was originally arrested in Sept. 2022 following the killing of Mahsa Amini, a young woman whose death at the hands of Iran’s morality police sparked nationwide protests against the ruling Islamist regime on an unprecedented scale.

Sepehri’s pro-Israel video was posted after she was temporary released from prison to undergo open-heart surgery. According to her family, Sepehri has been subjected to intense “psychological torture” while in prison. Her brothers, Mohammad-Hossein and Hossein, have also received severe sentences for similar charges: eight years and two years and 11 months, respectively.

In the past, Sepehri has been an outspoken critic of Khamenei and the Islamic Republic more broadly. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reported in 2021 that Sepehri said on video that she hoped to see the day when Khamenei would be dragged through the streets and killed like Libya’s late ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

Days after Sepehri received her sentence, Iran released political prisoner Louis Arnaud, a French citizen, on Thursday. Arnaud was arrested in Sept. 2022 as anti-government protests were erupting across Iran. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted shortly after Arnaud’s release, “Louis Arnaud is free. Tomorrow he will be in France after a long incarceration in Iran.”

Louis Arnaut is greeted by Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné at Paris’ Le Bourget Airport following his release from Iran. Photo: Screenshot

Three French nationals remain imprisoned in Iran as political prisoners. French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné posted on social media that securing their release remains a top priority.

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Former ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ Star Patricia Heaton: Every Human Being Should Be Against Antisemitism

One of the billboards erected in partnership between JewBelong and O7C. Photo: Instagram

Emmy Award-winning actress Patricia Heaton said this week that following the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel, it should be a “natural” reaction among all humans to want to combat antisemitism, as well as support the Jewish people and Israel’s right to exist.

The “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “The Middle” star, who is a devout Catholic, made the comments during her guest appearance on the NewsNation show “CUOMO,” where she also advocated for Christians to voice solidarity with Jews and Israel after Hamas terrorists murdered 1,200 people and took 250 hostages during their Oct. 7 onslaught. Heaton began by telling host Chris Cuomo that after the Oct. 7 atrocities, she was “confused by the lack of outcry from the churches.”

“I even posted on Instagram, ‘Did you ever have that thought that if you were in Germany during World War II, you hoped that you would be that good German that helped to hide your Jewish neighbors? Well, today you have that opportunity,’” she added.

Following the Oct. 7 attacks, Heaton founded a nonprofit called the Oct. 7 Coalition (O7C) to urge Christians to be visibly outspoken against antisemitism, and in support of Jews and Israel’s right to exist. Heaton’s O7C has since teamed up with the nonprofit JewBelong to launch a nationwide billboard campaign to raise awareness about antisemitism in the US.

Talking about why she wanted to get involved in rallying support for Israel and Jewish communities facing a rise in antisemitism in the US since the Oct. 7 attacks, Heaton said, “I think if you’re a human being, that should be your natural response to what we saw.” When asked about how people in the entertainment industry have reacted to her avid pro-Israel stance, she said Jewish friends in the business have called her “brave and courageous.”

“[But] I just think this is just a normal human reaction,” she said. “I have heard ‘We have projects we have to promote. We don’t want to bring politics into it.’ I guess if someone spent 50 or 100 million on a movie, they don’t want to introduce this subject matter and I guess you can understand that. But generally speaking I think Hollywood could do more to support our Jewish community.”

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