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The Sporting Life (in Israel)

West Hartford native honored by Israel Lacrosse Association

By Stacey Dresner

WEST HARTFORD – If Julia Szafman has anything to do with it kids will soon be cradling lacrosse sticks all over Israel.

In 2013, Szafman went to Israel to play on Israel’s Women’s World Cup lacrosse team. Now working with the Israel Lacrosse Association, she spends most of her time teaching the sport to kids in Israeli youth clinics.

Szafman has now been named the Mort and Judi Beroza Award Woman of the Year by the Israel Lacrosse Association, for her outstanding contribution to the development of the sport in Israel in 2014. She was also recognized by Nefesh b’Nefesh as an outstanding olah (new immigrant) dedicated to leadership, Negev development, and community building.

Lacrosse – the fast-paced sport originally developed by North American Native Americans and for years thought of as a sport played mainly at East Coast prep schools – has become the fastest-growing sport in America. But interest in Lacrosse in Israel is relatively new.

“It is cool to see girls who have never played sports before be good at it,” Szafman told the Jewish Ledger during a trip home to Connecticut during Passover. “I am really excited by how well they are doing.”

A native of West Hartford, Szafman began playing lacrosse in the town-run West Hartford Girls Lacrosse League when she was a fifth-grader at Bugbee Elementary School – “Back when there were only two teams,” she laughed.

As a young athlete, she also played soccer in the spring and fall.

She played goalie on the Hall High School lacrosse team all four years and was captain of the team as a senior, and was ultimately recruited to play lacrosse at Dartmouth.

“I got to know Julia as a soccer goalie, but she had those competitive attributes that would allow her to be successful in whatever she pursued – academics, music or athletics (she was extremely talented in all three),” said Steven Boyle, a former coach and guidance counselor at Hall High School. “But, what I really admired about Julia is something I harp on with my female players constantly and that is, “You can be tough and kind at the same time…” Julia personified this!”

“We had a great couple of seasons. We went to the NCAA’s a couple of years in a row – my sophomore, junior and senior year,” she said.

The daughter of Stephen Szafman and Michelle Kunzman, Julia grew up attending Beth El Temple in West Hartford. She had never been to Israel before, but she made aliyah to Israel in the summer of 2013 when the Israel Lacrosse Organization contacted her to play on the Israel Women’s Lacrosse team in the 2013 FIL (Federation of International Lacrosse) Women’s World Cup. “I made the leap,” she said.

“The sport gave me the opportunity to do something solid when I got there, but I always wanted to go to Israel and spend time there,” she explained. “It worked out perfectly. I wasn’t going to be searching for jobs, but would be playing and eventually working for the Israel Lacrosse Association.”

This was the first time the Israeli women’s team competed in the FIL World Cup. They came in eighth in 2013, after forfeiting their last game because it was on Shabbat, a policy the whole team supported.

After the World Cup, Julia’s plan was to volunteer coach while she spent most of her time in ulpan studying Hebrew. The lacrosse association had already hired three male players to work on youth development, and Julia wanted to do the same for girls.

“As I was nearing the end of the course, a lot of things were developing and I saw a need,” she said. “There are not that many athletic opportunities for girls, especially in team sports, so I wanted to make that happen for girls.”

She moved to the city of Ashkelon, south of Tel Aviv, and began teaching lacrosse.

“We would go into gym classes and teach a lacrosse lesson…It is always easier with the younger ones, but even some of the older girls loved it and they would eventually come to our practices and leagues. Some are still playing and it is nice to see how good they have gotten in the last year and a half.”

Last year, she organized clinics for more than 1,000 children in Ashkelon and has helped Israel Lacrosse forge relationships with dozens of schools and afterschool programs for at-risk youth.

At Dartmouth, she majored in Spanish and music and is thinking of going into law. Next fall she will start a Masters program in conflict resolution and mediation in Israel. She will still work in some capacity to help promote lacrosse, but the hands-on coaching will be done by interns Szafman helped to train. The interns are young Jewish Americans who travelled to Israel through the “Amazing Israel Lacrosse” Taglit-Birthright trip, the Israel National Developmental Program Service Trip, and the associations’ Internship Program.

Last summer, Szafman managed the interns in the middle of Operation Protective Edge, and they continued to hold lacrosse camps for hundreds of Israeli children in Ashkelon, Netanya, Ramla and Tel Aviv.

“That was pretty crazy. Our men’s team had a competition, so all of the men who were working with us had left. It was me and one other guy in charge of the 18 interns, and we were about eight miles from the Gaza strip. I remember the day we decided we needed to move up north, because there was too much running to shelters,” she recalled. “We had had a lacrosse camp the week before in Ashkelon and don’t think there were any sirens during the camp. It didn’t get bad until the Monday or Tuesday of the following week.

“We went to Tel Aviv to celebrate an intern’s birthday and we were sitting on the beach looking toward Yaffo and saw a flare go up,” she continued. “Then we saw 10 more flares going up and started hearing the booms. It was the Iron Dome intercepting rockets, but it was 10 or 20 at the same time. That is when we realized this was serious – we can’t be in Ashkelon anymore.”

By then, the authorities in Ashkelon had cancelled all outdoor summer camps and activities. “There was an incredible network of volunteers that kind of fell into place to take over child care for parents in low-income families who still have to go to work,” Szafman said. “These volunteers would set up in bomb shelters and bring art supplies and whatever they could. The kids pretty much lost their whole summer. We still went down a couple of times a week but didn’t even really play lacrosse, except at one shelter that had a little grassy area outside where the adults could easily grab the kids and run into the shelter if they needed to. We were able to teach them lacrosse. But sometimes we would just go and help them draw pictures or play ping pong or sit with the kids and talk.”

Szafman said that she intends to stay in Israel at least for the next few years.

“I am loving it – definitely enjoying it. It is a very different living experience than living in Connecticut,” she said.

And she believes that through lacrosse she is teaching young Israelis some invaluable lessons.

“Definitely team work. I know I grew up playing soccer from age five so I take it for granted that it is important to work together, to accomplish a common goal, to share, adapt,” she said. “Also, in girls lacrosse, you have to pass around [the ball] so much during plays and there is so much strategy, that it helps your reflexes physically and mentally.”

This summer Szafman and the rest of the Israel Women’s Lacrosse team will play again in the FIL European championship in Prague.

“It’s going to be a great summer,” Szafman said.

CAP: Julia Szafman coaches a young player in Israel.

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