In just a few weeks, the beachfront city of Netanya will become the center of the lacrosse universe. For two weeks in July, 48 nations (note we didn’t say countries; the Iroquis Nation is one of the top teams in the world) will take part in the once-every-four-year World Lacrosse Championships.
Israeli team sports have been, technically, “on the map” since Maccabi Tel Aviv defeated the Red Army in the 1977 European basketball championships. With the best lacrosse players in the world coming to Israel, expectations are likely to be as high as the mid-July temperatures in Netanya.
In our latest podcast, israel360 and JewishBoston caught up with Jake Silberlicht, captain of Israel Lacrosse, and Bill Beroza, the team’s head coach, just before they returned to Israel for final tune-ups before the competition begins on July 12.
israel360/JewishBoston: We are very excited about Israel hosting the World Lacrosse Championships. Tell us a little more about the tournament. Is it basically the World Cup of lacrosse?
Bill Beroza (BB): Yes, it is. It’s 48 countries coming to Israel. We had to bid to sponsor the games, and that was a huge undertaking. But Scott Neiss, our executive director, needed something to do with his time, so we bid on it. It was a tremendous effort in pulling it together. And when we won, we said, “Oh my God, we won.” And now we had to figure out how to host 48 countries. It’s never been done before. The largest was in Denver in 2014; the USA hosted. And I think it was about 36 countries that played. So, this is the last time we’ll have that many countries coming at one time. There’ll be play-ins, regional play-ins in the future, because it’s just grown out of proportion.
israel360/JewishBoston: We’re interested to know a little bit about the history of the sport in Israel. How did it get started?
Jake Silberlicht (JS): Scott Neiss, this little bald Jewish guy from Long Island, went on Birthright and fell in love with the country, and he had this idea while he was there and he was telling all of his friends on Birthright. He said, “I’m gonna start lacrosse in Israel,” and everyone was laughing at him and didn’t really think it was possible. And here we are five years later. But he just settled in, and what he wanted to do was connect Jews from North America to Israel using the sport. And a lot of people wouldn’t really…whether it’s Birthright or something else, maybe you wouldn’t have the opportunity to get to Israel and lacrosse was kind of this hook, kind of this kicker. So, when I got involved, I just wanted to continue to play lacrosse competitively and I didn’t care where it was, and that’s the way he got me in and finally got me there to Israel, and I guess the rest is kind of history.
BB: We started actually in 2011, but the first phone call was that Scott Neiss called me and asked if I’d be the head coach for the Israeli national men’s team in 2011. And I said, “Who are you?” And so he had to give some credentials and how he found me, etcetera. So, I took a train from Boston down to New York. We sat for four hours outside Penn Station in a diner drinking coffee, and working off a piece of paper, napkins. And at the end of the conversation, I said, “You don’t need lacrosse coaching, you need a psychologist or a psychiatrist, because this is crazy.” But I made a couple of phone calls. So I was the first person in addition to a gentleman, David Lazdi, who was over there, really at grassroots with Scott. And I called Howie Borkan, who used to be the general manager of the USA team. He came on board after he checked with his wife, and then Mark Greenberg, who was an all-American player at Johns Hopkins, and also very big into Israeli bonds. I knew he’d be a good fit for us. I called him and he checked with his wife and she said yes. And so the four of us started it. And then people like Jake, without them we wouldn’t exist, came on board. And there are so many others as well we could mention.
israel360/JewishBoston: Jake, you just touched upon this a little bit, but we’re interested to know about how the sport connects diaspora Jewry with Israelis. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
JS: Yes. We have a lot of programming within Israel Lacrosse, whether it’s solely Israel Lacrosse Birthright, which brings NCAA players on Birthright, 20 girls and 20 boys who are playing collegially at the time. They come over and they do the normal Birthright things, see all the sights. But in addition, they also get to work with our youth run practices, mentor the kids and then also get to scrimmage against the men’s national team and the women’s national team. Outside of that, we do programs for high-schoolers, high school athletes. High school athletes will come in the winter and do a little bit more of this youth development thing and less of the sights, which is a very equal opportunity, and also get a chance to scrimmage the men and see the country. This summer is a big one, whether you’re a serious lacrosse player or not. We’ve reached out and invited anybody who has any interest in Israel or lacrosse to come and join us in this big lacrosse party in the Middle East.
israel360/JewishBoston: We can’t help but notice your hat; it’s a logo that reads “Ashkelon” with an olive and a lacrosse stick sticking out of it. Do you guys play lacrosse in the summer, during the day in Ashkelon, and oh my God, how?
JS: I’m originally from upstate New York, so I’m used to playing in three feet of snow that’s been pushed off the field, so it was a big change. But it’s also important to note that I’m hoping that this summer come July, really the dog days of summer, us Israelis are going to have a bit of a competitive advantage over the other teams when we’re playing in that heat on the turf. When we’re getting up to the 100s or whatever it may be, when the guys coming in from Finland who might not have seen, Sweden or wherever, might not have seen that kind of weather or played in that kind of weather.
israel360/JewishBoston: Well, it’s a half-degree colder, because it’s next to the ocean.
JS: Yeah, you might get a little ocean breeze, but I wouldn’t bank on that; I wouldn’t bank on that too much.
israel360/JewishBoston: Let’s get to the tournament. How did Israel land the sport’s biggest tournament?
BB: Well, England was supposed to host the World Championships and they backed out about a year from the actual games and opened up the bidding, so we bid against other countries and we won. That’s the high level, simple answer. But there was a lot of work behind that, because we had to be concerned about, did we have enough field space for 48 teams to play? The heat that you keep talking about, we had to make sure that we had enough breaks in the schedule in between, the TV contract that will be announced soon, this weekend, I think, publicly, the TV contract, as well as we have to be able to handle many, many situations. And Scott Neiss put together an incredible proposal, worked with many of us, but what we did in the very beginning is, we weren’t sure if we were going to host in Netanya, or Haifa, or Ashkelon, or Jerusalem, or Tel Aviv, we didn’t know. We looked at renting a boat, similar to what the NFL did several years ago in Jacksonville to have enough hotel space for all the people coming into town, and we looked at Haifa and said, “Boy, we can have a boat there and people stay on the boat.” We looked at Jerusalem. No, too many issues with the Friday night and Saturday and all that stuff. So, we ended up in the Netanya. The mayor there has been tremendous. The sports ministry has been fabulous. Matter of fact, the Kraft family led by Dan, who runs the paper business, have been very, very helpful to help us not only win the bid, but to fulfill our dream. And they’ve been tremendous in terms of opening doors for us with the Israeli government, because of their very, very strong position with Israel.
israel360/JewishBoston: Israel at home in a huge tournament with a talented team and Bill, I assume, a great coach. What are the expectations for this year?
BB: Everybody said to me, “We have to win a medal.” And every time I say, “Well, we’re going to try,” they said, “That’s the best you can commit?” So, I’m not on the field playing. Jake is on the field, and 22 other players will be out there. So, it’s…at the end of the day, I’ll take responsibility, but it’s going to be them putting the ball in the goal, stopping the other teams and doing everything I tell them to do. And if they do it perfectly, we’ll come home with a gold medal. Oh, excuse me, with a medal.
israel360/JewishBoston: A medal—you’re not promising the type of medal. We get it, that’s fine. Jake, besides you, who are some of the players to watch?
JS: Oh, wow. So again, I have a bias, but a couple of my buddies that I’ve been living with in Israel for a while now. My long-time friend Seth Muller, he’s been living in Israel a little bit longer than me, maybe about five, six years now. He’s kind of one of those two-way midis that we talked about playing offense and defense. Another player, his name is Ryan Hunter, he’s playing attack for us, living in Israel, living in Netanya at the moment, actually. He played college lacrosse at Ohio State, so a very high-level player. And honestly, yeah, I think you can go down the entire roster and put your finger on any name and expect to see a lot of talent, a lot of hard work and we’re excited. Everybody’s been working hard.
israel360/JewishBoston: Alright, we’re sold. To those who are thinking of going to Israel in July or will already be there, what would be the best reason to go see this tournament in Netanya from July 12-21?
JS: I mean, I can rattle off a million reasons. I’m sure you guys know a million reasons to get to Israel. But it’s more than that. As coach said, “There will never be a lacrosse tournament or a World Championship this big ever again in history.” Just because of the way it’s been growing and now there’s going to be play-ins, so it’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing, I think. And I honestly don’t think that I need to pitch the lacrosse thing very hard. You could be sports fan, non-sports fan, Israel fan, fan of the beach, fan of nice weather, anything, and you can come and you can have a good time, whether you fill the time with lacrosse or you fill the entire time with other things, going to the Dead Sea, or seeing Jerusalem or seeing other things with a little lacrosse sprinkled in. I really want people from Boston, from the United States, from all over the world, to experience the reasons why I fell in love with Israel, and I think this is an excellent opportunity to do that.
BB: It’s going to be about more than just lacrosse. We’re going to host 47 teams at Yad Vashem this year as well. We want them to see Israel. As part of our fundraising efforts, we’re paying for every team, including coaches and staff, to go there. And we want them to see the rest of Israel as well.
israel360/JewishBoston: We want to thank you both so much for coming to Boston to be with us today. We wish you the best of luck at the tournament and look forward to checking out your shiny medals later this summer!
To learn more about the World Lacrosse Championships, click here. Tons more info on Israel Lacrosse is on this site, including information on lacrosse-themed Birthright trips to Israel for young adults.
Games will be streamed live on ESPN and ESPN Plus.