Four Connecticut players help Israel take home a first-ever medal at European lacrosse championships
By Cindy Mindell
When Jacob “Jake” Milner walked off the lacrosse field in Budapest on August 6, it wasn’t only the awaiting silver medal that excited him. Milner and his fellow players on the Israel Men’s National Team had just lost to England in the European Lacrosse Federation (ELF) championship game, but had won a first-ever medal for the Jewish state.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to do a lot of great things in my life and I’ve lived a great childhood and my parents have provided me with everything I’ve ever wanted,” says the Woodbridge native, now a sophomore at the University of Miami. “But this has been far and away the most incredible experience of my life: to represent Israel and to wear the Star of David on my helmet and wear ‘Israel’ across my chest. To represent not only Israel but Jews around the world is something that I will never, ever forget and I will never take for granted because it was truly the best experience of my life.”
The 19-man team is one of several men’s and women’s club and national teams sponsored by the Israel Lacrosse Association (ILA), the national governing body of the sport in Israel. Founded in 2011 to teach and grow the game, ILA runs men’s and women’s teams and year-round youth programs. A registered non-profit organization in both Israel and the U.S., ILA is a full member of the European Lacrosse Federation and the Federation of International Lacrosse.
The men’s national team was selected over the summer, while Milner was in Netanya as an intern with ILA. He and 10 fellow American Jewish lacrosse players helped coach the U-15 summer team with the ILA coaches. Milner also played in the Israel Premiere Lacrosse League (IPLL).
Connecticut lacrosse players have been involved with ILA since its inception; Milner was among four Connecticut natives and/or residents to make the national men’s team. The other three — all Israeli citizens — were Waterbury native Seth Mahler, Norwalk native Andrew Landsman, and Waterford native Aaron Feinberg.
Mahler, 28, first visited Israel as a college senior in January 2010 with Birthright. Since then, he has returned several times, “all because of and for lacrosse,” he says. In summer 2012, he coached lacrosse clinics and volunteered around the country, then played in the European Lacrosse Championship. The following year, he moved to Israel, where he lives most of the time, working for ILA. Mahler is currently the program director for the Ashkelon Lacrosse Program and the head coach for the National Men’s U19 Team, which competed in the U19 World Games in Vancouver over the summer.
Landsman was a lacrosse goalie at Brien McMahon High School and, later, played lacrosse for Ithaca College in New York. The 25-year-old and his family are members of Temple Shalom in Norwalk, where his father, Alton Landsman, is a past president and currently serves on the board.
Landsman learned of the Israel Lacrosse Association while taking part in a Birthright trip during the summer of 2014. It was then he made the decision to return to the Jewish state to work, and to play for ILA. In April, when he represented Israel in the Euro All Stars Field Lacrosse match in Prague, Czech Republic, Landsman was named Bank Hapoalim USA Most Valuable Player.
“It was an amazing experience to be able to represent the country of Israel on an international stage and wear the Star of David on my helmet. I felt honored to be on the field as a representative of the Jewish nation,” says Landsman, who lived in Israel from January 2015 — where he coached and served as the director of equipment, inventory and apparel for the Israel Lacrosse Association –through the ELF championships this past August.
Milner has played lacrosse since age eight and was destined to brandish the stick in Israel. For nearly two decades, he and his family have been active members of Congregation B’nai Jacob in Woodbridge, where his mother, Stacy, has served on the board. He and his two siblings have been involved in the Woodbridge chapter of BBYO. As a member of the Amity Regional High School lacrosse team, Milner was coached by brothers Brandon and Tyler Pepe; Tyler is also the associate regional director of Connecticut Valley BBYO. The Pepes got involved with ILA and recruited Milner and two fellow players the Amity team to participate in ILA’s annual 10-day lacrosse service trip last December. It was Milner’s first time in Israel, where the group of young men and women toured the country, played lacrosse with Israeli peers and taught the game to younger players. Milner and the other male players spent the last three days trying out for the Israeli national U-19 men’s team.
“I knew Israel was a special place solely from everything I heard from other people,” he says. “But I didn’t truly understand how amazing it was until I visited for the first time, and that’s when I fell in love with it.”
Milner didn’t make the U-19 team, but was invited back over the summer to play in the Israel Premiere Men’s League and try out for the men’s national team.
According to European Lacrosse Federation rules, the Israeli men’s national team must comprise a majority of Israeli citizens. The 23-man roster included 19 citizens – most of whom made aliyah and served in the IDF – leaving four spots for non-citizens who play a minimum of six games in the Israel Premiere Lacrosse League.
Feinberg, 25, got to know Israel in 2015 on a lacrosse-themed Birthright trip offered by Amazing Israel, his first time outside the U.S. An alumnus of the Solomon Schechter Academy and a member of Congregation Beth El, both in New London, Feinberg had played lacrosse at Waterford High School and at Mitchell College. After graduating with a degree in business administration, he worked for two years in his family’s lighting-manufacturing company in Norwich.
“I realized one day that I wasn’t getting any younger and I still wanted to go to Israel and see what kinds of opportunities I had out there,” says Feinberg, who arrived in Israel during the inaugural season of the Israel Premier Lacrosse League.
The 10-day Birthright trip turned into a month-long internship with Israel Lacrosse Association, when Feinberg worked with youth teams and played on the budding national men’s team. After a successful season – Feinberg’s team, Barak Netanya, won the IPLL championship – Coach Jeff Schwartz offered him a five-month internship and a place on the national men’s team. Feinberg stayed on for another year, taking Israeli citizenship and winning a place on the Israeli roster for the European Lacrosse Championship.
Feinberg spent a weekend in Prague, playing on the German team, Deutschland Adler, to get experience in the box-lacrosse form of the game that would be played in Budapest.
“I was the only Jew on a team full of Germans and they were some of the best people I’ve ever met,” he says.
During final practices for the European championship, coaches covered logistics of the 10-day championship at St. Steven’s University in Budapest, and then turned to another subject.
“They emphasized the fact that when we’re in Israel, we’re Israeli and we’re Jewish and we’re the majority, but once you leave the Jewish state, it’s different,” Milner says. “There’s been antisemitism at other tournaments. They told us that we need to stay true to who we are as Jews and as Israelis and not let hate and antisemitism dictate the way that we’re going to conduct ourselves. Anyone who tries to throw hate toward us and demoralize us in any way, we know that it’s not worth our time to respond or react.”
While the 23 other teams stayed in the on-site dorms, the Israeli team stayed off campus, “just to be safe,” Milner says. But they rose quickly through the championship, beating Switzerland, Germany, and Wales before meeting the European lacrosse powerhouse, England, in the finals.
“Everyone was rooting against us – it was essentially Israel vs. Europe, because everyone was rooting for England,” says Milner, who later learned from Israel’s fans at the game (including his parents and brother) that spectators were chanting “Jew S.A.” whenever the Israeli team took the field. “I didn’t feel that people were being hateful toward us, but people definitely did not want us to succeed or do well. We had one player get hurt and there were some people cheering about it. I think that people were angry that we were doing so well in the tournament.”
Israel lost by one goal, 7 to 6, and brought home the first medal ever earned in international play.
It was also the first international lacrosse experience for Milner.
“It’s a very cool thing to play against another country, and I saw that there’s a lot of mutual respect between teams, whether it’s Israel or not, Jews or not,” he says. “Overall, it was very civil and like anything else, the majority of the encounters we had were positive ones and not in any way did I feel that we were hated or not liked. After the games, we exchanged sticks and took pictures so in that sense, people were pretty tolerant of Israelis and Jewish people.”
Still, Milner found it “very sobering” to see antisemitism and hate aimed at the Israeli players, just because of who they are. “But it also makes me appreciate who we are even more,” he says. “It was very special to be a part of the experience and to represent Israel in that way and to feel that pride.”
Feinberg also took the high road.
“There are certain stereotypes and misconceptions that people have about Israel, and the championship was the first time that I had seen certain forms of antisemitism,” he says. “I try to take it a little more lightly because some of it’s a joke and sometimes people don’t understand what their actions actually mean There’s only so much you can do, which is not to say that you shouldn’t do anything. But I knew what I was doing on the field and I knew what I was representing. For the most part, I think that most people didn’t mind having Jewish-American people representing Israel. I met a lot of people from other countries that I’m still friends with today.”
Returning to his pre-med studies at University of Miami in August, Milner joined a Jewish fraternity and plans to become more involved in the campus Jewish community. He will continue working with the Israel Lacrosse Association, with an eye toward the 2018 World Games and 2020 European Lacrosse Championship. “I may even look into making aliyah,” he says.
Feinberg returned to Waterford earlier this month to welcome a new nephew to the world and figure out his next steps in the lacrosse world. “Just to be out of the country was an unbelievable experience,” he says. “To be in Israel, taking in a whole new culture and society was incredible.” Last weekend, he played with the Israeli men’s national team in exhibition games against Towson University, University of Tokyo, and Lafayette College at Towson University in Maryland. Over the last weekend of September, he will play for GoldStar Tel Aviv in the LaxAllStars.com North American Invitational at Syracuse University.
CAP: Israel Men’s National Lacosse team at the European Lacrosse Championships