Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel” is a charming yet profound look at Jewish identity, Jewish sports stereotypes and Israeli society. The documentary aims to tell the Cinderella-like story of Team Israel’s sixth-place finish at the World Baseball Classic (WBC). While coming in sixth may not appear impressive, the documentarians tell a story that has audiences cheering this near-miracle of Jewish sportsmanship.

Team Israel’s tale begins in 2016 in Brooklyn when Israel’s national baseball team—almost an oxymoron, in that there were only two Israeli citizens on the team—unexpectedly beat Great Britain and qualified to play in the 2017 WBC. It was also an opportunity for American players—many of whom were nominally Jewish or Jewish in name only—to travel to the country for which they were playing.

The filmmakers originally intended for the film’s focus to be on the players—a number of whom played in the American major leagues—exploring Israel. Ty Kelly played for the Mets and feels, as the son of a Jewish mother, that his Jewish identity is a technicality. On the other hand, Josh Zeid has worn a Star of David necklace since his bar mitzvah. Team Israel’s pitcher, Zeid sermonized about Jackie Robinson and the importance of his inclusion when he was called to the Torah. Another player, Cody Decker, recalls dealing with blatant anti-Semitism when he played in the minor leagues.

For most of the players, it was their first trip to Israel and their first immersive experience with Judaism. Jeremy Newberger, a producer and director of the documentary, told Haaretz: “It was amazing to see them experience, for the first time, a country they would soon represent on the world stage. They formed a deep connection with Israel during our visit, which both upped their game and raised the stakes for the WBC tournament. They were now playing for their homeland and for the hundreds of young baseball-playing fans they met along the way in Israel.”

During their Israel trip, team members clearly enjoy practicing in front of fans, many of them American immigrants who recognize them. The players also interest a number of Israelis in the game. They sign balls and kippot for excited Israeli kids. The team is also on hand to break ground for Israel’s first formal baseball field in Beit Shemesh. A sports complex in Ra’anana with a new baseball field is named for Ezra Schwartz, a Maimonides graduate who grew up in Sharon and was murdered in a terrorist attack in Israel in 2015.


Israeli politics comes into play when Zeid visits a shop in the Arab section of the Old City. The friendly Palestinian owner, Sammy, is intent on finding Zeid the right T-shirt until Zeid asks him if he will root for Team Israel in the semifinals in Korea. It’s both an awkward and poignant moment between the two men. Sammy bluntly tells Zeid that he has difficulty as a Palestinian in Israel cheering for him and his teammates. The filmmakers don’t turn away from the reality that not every interaction between Israelis and Palestinians has a happy ending. That’s where the fairytale aspect of this film becomes complicated and upended.

The team’s visit to Yad Vashem is emotional for Ike Davis, who, by his own description, is the son of a “redneck” former major leaguer and a “hippie” Jewish mother from New York. Davis once pitched for the Mets, the Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates. At the Holocaust shrine, he remembers that he first learned about the Holocaust when he had to put together a family tree for a school project. He discovered that most of the family members on his mother’s side had been murdered in the Holocaust.

While their time in Israel is meaningful, Team Israel’s games in South Korea and Japan go by in a blur. In South Korea, the team not only beats the host Korean team but also defeats the Chinese team and the well-positioned Netherlands team. In South Korea, Team Israel went from 200-to-1 odds to make it to the second round of play in Tokyo. It’s moving to not only witness them play so well, but also to see them remove their baseball caps for the Israeli national anthem and wearing kippot underneath.

Throughout their travels, Team Israel’s adopted mascot “The Mensch on a Bench” accompanies them. Originally a goofy rejoinder to “The Elf on the Shelf,” the gigantic tallis-wearing doll fascinates the crowds in South Korea and Japan. However, Team Israel does not advance past the second round of play in Japan. Victorious against Cuba in the first game, they lose to Japan and then to the Netherlands.

However, their story does not end in Japan. These players have come to appreciate and embrace aspects of their Jewish identity. Aside from telling an underdog story, the filmmakers have movingly shown that these young men have grappled with what it means to represent the Jewish people to the world, to each other and ultimately to themselves.

Producer Jeremy Newberger and Team Israel player Jeremy Bleich will be on hand for the film’s premiere on Friday, Dec. 14, at West Newton Cinema. Find showtimes and tickets here.