(JTA) — The year was 1999, and Jonathan Hauser was working as a concierge at the famous King David Hotel in Jerusalem.
At the time, Hauser was playing for the Jerusalem Lions flag football team, a part of the American Football in Israel organization. The league was 10 years old at the time but lacked adequate playing fields. One day, he spotted a face he knew from TV in the hotel lobby: New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
Hauser told Kraft about American Football in Israel (AFI) — which Kraft, despite being a regular Israel visitor, did not know existed — and connected him with Steve Leibowitz, a veteran journalist who moved to Israel in 1974 and had been leading the development of the sport in Israel.
Just a year later, Kraft inaugurated the small Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem, with a field only 80 yards long (instead of the regulation 100-yard length in the NFL). The AFI — which started with touch football and later expanded to flag football and adult tackle football — had found a field.
On Saturday night, the AFI kicks off its season in Bet Shemesh with a matchup between the Bet Shemesh Rebels and the Jerusalem Lions, in front of a sold-out crowd of 400. Around 2,000 players, coaches and referees are now involved in the league throughout the country. The adult tackle league features eight teams from different cities who compete in an eight-game regular season, followed by playoffs that culminate in the Israel Bowl championship game in the spring. Other programs for men, women and children of all ages are offered in cities across Israel.
“The dream of building football in the country is due to the partnership and friendship and help of Robert Kraft, without any question, and his family,” said Leibowitz, a New York City native and longtime Giants fan.
Leibowitz had the dream since the 1980s, when he and a group of journalists put together a sports club to watch American football by pirating the signal from the Armed Forces Network. That inspired them to start the league.
In 2017, Kraft donated $6 million to open the Kraft Family Sports Campus in Jerusalem, which Leibowitz said is home to the only regulation-size American football field in the Middle East, plus facilities for soccer, basketball and more.
“My late, darling wife Myra always used to tell me that until I start building football in Israel, I would not win anything with [the] Patriots,” Kraft said at the 2017 dedication. “That happened in late 1999, and we won our first Super Bowl in 2001. Now we have five championships, and I can’t ignore the connection between our continuing to support development in Israel and our great accomplishments.”
Players from AFI have gone on to play college ball in the United States, most notably Yonatan Marmour, who in 2021 became the first Israeli to play Division I football. Bet Shemesh coach Charlie Cohen, a yeshiva teacher and salesman who moved to Israel from Massachusetts in 2000, added that some athletes play in Israel during a gap year before trying to make the jump to Division II.
In the early years of football in Israel, Leibowitz said the players were mostly American immigrants or children of immigrants. But now, he says there is mostly “Hebrew in the huddle”: Nearly every team outside Jerusalem is entirely Hebrew-speaking. Some cities have Arab players, plus immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia.
Leibowitz is proud of one notable AFI alum: American-born Ron Dermer, Israel’s new minister of strategic affairs and a former Israeli ambassador to the United States. Leibowitz called Dermer, who played flag football, a “celebrity” in Israel’s football community.
Leibowitz, who serves as president of AFI, acknowledged that the sport will never surpass the popularity of soccer or basketball in Israel. But the strides the league has made are undeniable, and the AFI hopes to build three more football stadiums, with plans in motion for regulation-size fields in Haifa, outside Tel Aviv and in Beersheva.
In another sign of development on the world stage, Israel also hosted the 2019 European Flag Football Championship and the 2021 Flag Football World Championship. In July, Leibowitz said, the AFI has been invited to bring a national team of top players to play in Fez, Morocco. He said it’s the first time an Israeli team will play a Moroccan team in Morocco, likely in any sport.
And with the 2028 Olympics in the not-too-distant future, Leibowitz said the AFI is working on a squad that could qualify for the soon-to-be-announced flag football competition.
Leibowitz added that the league honors the late Myra Kraft, who was also very involved in the sport’s development, by stitching her initials onto the Israeli players’ jerseys when they play abroad.
For coach Charlie Cohen, football is at the center of his Jewish practice — and helped inspire him to become a rabbi.
“Without sports, there is no Jewish identity for me,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Cohen, 53, said he was kicked out of Hebrew school as a child and had all but walked away from his Judaism when he was coaching Pop Warner football in Sharon, Massachusetts. His winless team squared off against a powerhouse squad from nearby North Attleboro and won, 13-12.
“That was a really watershed moment for me,” Cohen said. “I took that to heart, as a person, and as a Jew.”
He explained: “Here it is, you’re a football coach, and you’re demanding that your team has character. Your team shows up for each other. If you have a loss, come fight for your guys, don’t quit… I said to myself, if I were to demand my little peewee football team turns it around, well, I’m going to turn it around, too.”
He reengaged with Judaism and ultimately immigrated to Israel, where he became a rabbi.
Cohen began as Bet Shemesh’s offensive line coach, then became head coach last season, leading the Rebels to the semifinals, where they lost by four points.
And no, Cohen is not over the loss: “We had the ball with two minutes to go. Should’ve called a timeout and calmed them down. You live and you learn.”
One of Cohen’s players is 22-year-old yeshiva student Aviad Ohayon, who said he tried football for the first time in high school in Kfar Saba, at the behest of a friend. He didn’t know what football was at the time.
“The information that I had about football was like a bunch of guys with helmets fighting with a strange ball, in the shape of an egg,” Ohayon told JTA, not inaccurately. “He really wanted me to come, so I was like, okay, why not? I came to one practice and you can say I fell in love with the sport.”
Ohayon — who plays running back, linebacker and kicker — said he has played basketball, soccer and karate in the past, but football was special.
“I really loved sports, but something with football, the training and all the practices, was very different to me,” he said. “The spirit, the brotherhood, everything was way more unique than I saw in the other sports.”
Leibowitz, now 71, calls himself the “grandfather” of the sport in Israel.
“The craziness was sticking with it all these years, for over 30 years, and making it into a life ambition to establish the sport in Israel, because I think it’s a good sport. I think it has a place in this country,” he said. “I think we’ve proven that. And together with that we’ve created a community. So at this point, I can’t even leave if I wanted to.”
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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