By Cindy Mindell
Israel has been home to the “great American pastime” since 1986, when a group of ex-pats founded the non-profit Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) to promote and develop the sport in Israel. Home of the Israeli National Baseball Team, the IAB is a member of the Israel Olympic Committee, the Confederation of European Baseball (CEB) and the International Baseball Federation (IBAF), the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), Major League Baseball International (MLBI), and Little League.
Now, in January, the first-ever cohort of American Jewish baseball players will land in Israel to kick off the Israel Baseball Experience (IBE), a new sports internship program created by Masa Israel. Yale graduate Josh Scharff, 25, is helping to coordinate the program.
Three decades after the sport was first introduced to a soccer-crazed country, the Israeli National Baseball Team is ranked 22nd in the world and sixth in Europe, and is preparing to compete in the World Baseball Classic (WBC) in 2016. The team draws American Jewish greats to its roster: Israel’s 2015 WBC team included former MLB All-Star Shawn Green and current MLB Rookie of the Year candidate, Joc Pederson, of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The 2016 WBC team will include former Red Sox superstar Kevin Youkilis.
The sport is popular enough now that Masa Israel is launching its first-ever sports internship program, the Israel Baseball Experience. Founded in 2004, Masa Israel is a joint initiative of The Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli Government, which creates and facilitates internship, service, and study programs in Israel. To date, Masa Israel counts 100,000 alumni around the world.
The 18- to 29-year-old Israel Baseball Experience participants will spend five months in Israel, playing in the Premier League, the country’s top baseball league, and helping to promote and develop the game by working with Israeli coaches and kids in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Bet Shemesh, Ra’anana, and Modiin. The program is sanctioned by the Israel Association of Baseball.
“There are many Jewish players in Major League Baseball today and over 200 in various development leagues, so there’s no shortage of talented American Jewish baseball players who can compete for Israel on the world stage,” says Andy Bloch, who designed the IBE program. “With some of the negative news coming out of Israel, we have an opportunity to make a very positive statement to the world about our athletes in Israel.”
“As soon as I could stand up, my dad put a bat in my hand and I couldn’t get enough of it,” says Scharff, a native of St. Louis, Mo. who grew up in a mixed-faith family. “Baseball and Judaism went hand-in-hand: from an early age, I was involved both in religious school and baseball.” A first-baseman, Scharff played through high school and was then recruited to play for Yale, where he studied Hebrew and majored in history. After graduating in 2013, he took his first trip to Israel on a teaching fellowship in an elementary school.
“That is when my passion for Israel really flourished,” he says. Last year, while living in Boston and working for The David Project, Scharff decided to find a way to make a second trip. He offered his services to Nate Fish, national head coach of the Israel Association of Baseball. His timing was perfect: IAB needed help spreading the word about the fledgling Israel Baseball Experience program. Scharff arrived in August and has been steeped in the Israeli baseball scene ever since.
In addition to helping to organize the Masa Israel Baseball Experience, Scharff coaches Little League teams for 10- to 12-year-old Israeli children. He works with the Israel Baseball Academy, which is sanctioned by Major League Baseball, to develop Israel’s best baseball prospects into college and professional players. He also plays for and manages the Jerusalem Lions, one of the teams in the Israel Premier League, the adult league. And he brings baseball into elementary schools as a way of recruiting new players.
Scharff says that he sees a range of Israeli Jews on the field, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, religious and secular. He hasn’t yet heard baseball terminology expressed in Hebrew; instead, players tap into English words like “slide” and “block.”
Amos Kamil, brand marketing director at the Jewish Agency for Israel, helped envision the IBE program in its early stages, and sees it as an effective way to bridge the culture gap with American Jewry.
“Baseball is the great American pastime,” he notes, “so promoting the sport in Israel encourages increased interest in Israel from Jews in the U.S. — both those who are already concerned about the affairs of the Jewish State and those who may be more disconnected.”
IBE is still recruiting participants for January 2016. For information visit www.masaisrael.org.