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The Sporting Scene

The Sporting Scene
30.06.2007

Rebecca Ross, one of Israel's finest high-school athletes, graduated from Evelina de Rothschild School in Jerusalem on June 24. For the past 8 years, Rebecca played basketball for Jerusalem's top program for girls, run out of the Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus. Since Rebecca happens also to be my daughter, I have learned a lot about Israel's youth sports system. The picture, I'm afraid, is far from rosy.

In general, there are no serious sports programs in Israel's schools. To be sure, there are gym classes, but it's rare to find that a school has a paid coach—in even one sport—who conducts regular practices throughout the year. There are school leagues, primarily in basketball and soccer, but the teams are slapped together for the purposes of playing a game with another school and there are hardly any practices. When you contrast this state of affairs with your average public high school in America, with the wealth of varsity and junior varsity sports available, you understand that Israeli kids are missing out on something.

Parents who want their children to play sports must look for options outside the school setting. Often, this begins with the local recreational center (Israel's equivalent to the JCC, known by the Hebrew acronym "MATNAS," which stands for: "Center for Culture, Youth and Sport"). Rebecca began her basketball career in Israel playing on an all-boys Givat Ze'ev MATNAS team during her first two years in the country, when she was in 3rd and 4th grades. We knew that in the 5th grade the team would come under the jurisdiction of the Israel Basketball Association and that we would have a hard time convincing them to allow Rebecca to play on a boys team, and so we began to look for other opportunities for Rebecca.

In the absence of sports in the schools, what Israel has are sports clubs. Popular club names are Maccabi and Hapoel, though there is no real connection between a Maccabi club in one city and a Maccabi club in another city. The biggest sports club in Israel is Maccabi Haifa, which was founded in 1913 and fields professional and amateur teams in a variety of sports, including soccer, basketball, swimming, tennis, and volleyball. No matter how exotic, if you're committed to a sport and don't live too far from a major metropolitan area, chances are that you will find a few dedicated fellow athletes at a sports club—whether the sport is ice hockey, gymnastics, team handball, water polo, or boxing.

It turns out that in the entire metropolitan Jerusalem area there is just one basketball program for girls that is in Israel's top league, the one in Givat Ram, within the ASA (Academic Sports Association) Jerusalem sports club (which includes other sports such as tennis, swimming, and fencing). ASA Jerusalem takes girls basketball seriously. The year begins in mid-August, and the girls play three times a week (during the season, a game and two practices; otherwise, three practices). During school vacations there are extra practices.

Rebecca's program is a fairly well-kept secret. There is little attempt made to recruit new girls or to advertise. Because other teams, though drawing from a much smaller population area (e.g., the upper Galilee) do a better job of recruitment, Rebecca's team often ended the game on the short end of the score (heck remember that it's a team sport—Rebecca can't do everything).

Basketball is Israel's most popular women's team sport, and Israel has a professional women's basketball league, whose stars are African American WNBA players, looking to make some money in their off season (ASA Jerusalem has one of these teams, and this past year Rebecca has the thrill of practicing—and playing a little—with these gifted athletes). Israel also has two semi-professional women's basketball leagues. There are sports in the universities here, but it's on the level of American colleges intramural play, rather than the big college sports world. Some of Rebecca's basketball peers elect to put off army service (sometimes, it turns out forever) and go play ball for a college in the States. Rebecca will be entering the Israel Defense Forces in a few months, though she does not plan on retiring from basketball (in fact, she's looking for something in the army that will let her continue to play).

Anyone involved in girls basketball in Israel knows Rebecca, but she did not get that popular acclaim that my wife feels was her due. Sarah, who comes from Omaha (which sits on the border of Nebraska and Iowa—where high-school girls basketball is a state craze), often bemoaned the fact that were Rebecca in America she would have played her basketball before stands packed with her fellow cheering students, instead of playing before empty stands with a scattering of parents.

Truth be told, Rebecca has gotten plenty from basketball in Israel. Let's not forget that Sabbath observance and being a top high-school athlete in America do not easily go together. Rebecca did not play in a league for religious Jewish girls, she played in a league of serious athletes. In her 8 years playing the highest caliber of basketball in Israel, there was not one game scheduled on Shabbat.

I invite you to stop by and see Rebecca play sometime. Her energy on the court is ferocious (a quality that complicates matters in trying to live with her); whatever the score, she plays full out. And Rebecca's speed is phenomenal. Though she is often the shortest one on the court, if she spies an opening she will accelerate toward the basket for a layup--even through a crowd of "jirafot" (i.e., tall girls, using the Hebrew word for a well-known tall animal).

In conclusion, I would like to shamelessly praise my daughter. Rebecca is a super athlete, Sabbath observant, has just graduated an all-girls religious high school, and is very very cool. I don't know if America is able to produce a girl like Rebecca. I doubt it.

Copyright 2007, Teddy Weinberger