July 23, 2024
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July 23, 2024
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Cultivating Jewish Identity Through Baseball

On a warm Sunday morning at Matador Field in Northridge, California, parents are snacking, chatting and watching their kids play baseball. To people walking by, it looks like an average Sunday morning baseball game. They are wrong.

This baseball game is the inaugural meeting of the Israel Baseball Academy, where elite Jewish youth baseball players from southern California participated in two days of clinics and scrimmages.

Twenty-two players, between the ages of 14 and 18, arrived with foam rollers, resistance bands and weighted balls, wearing Israel Baseball Academy t-shirts and their game faces. While getting loose, they reconnected with past little league teammates, compared Maccabia experiences, discussed the previous night’s baseball games and shared the colleges and universities they will be playing for.

The Israel Baseball Academy is the brainchild of Brad Eisen, who after being asked the evergreen question, “How can we better engage Jewish youth with their Jewish identity?” realized that “high-level Jewish athletes are proud to be Jewish, but don’t have the time to participate in Jewish youth programming like their peers. So we need to find a way for these athletes to connect to their Judaism while allowing them to reach their athletic ambitions.”

Eisen recruited a top-level squad—coaches Nate Fish and Zack Penprase; Liav Paz, an Israeli athletic trainer at El Camino high school; Shane Kroger, a member of the SoCal Giants scouting and coaching staff; and Jake Baer of TORQ Sports—to help the players create reels and track their stats.

Fish, the “king of Jewish baseball,” served as the national director of the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) from 2013 to 2016, played on and coached multiple national Israeli teams, coached first base during the 2017 World Baseball Classic (WBC), coached third base during the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and is currently the manager of Israel’s senior national team. Outside of Israel baseball, Fish has played NCAA baseball, played on and coached multiple Maccabiah USA baseball teams and coached in the Cape Cod Baseball League and in the LA Dodgers minor league system. His extensive baseball knowledge, coaching experience and love of everything Jewish baseball made him the obvious choice to lead Israel Baseball Academy’s first session.

“I think this is pretty huge for Jewish high school players in the States to see us [Israel Baseball] playing in the Olympics or the WBC, and coming to an event like this is a huge shift in their perception of Jewish baseball,” Fish said.

Penprase played 10 years of professional baseball and played for Israel in both the 2019 European Baseball Championship and the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Combining his baseball and mental health coach expertise, he addressed the mental health aspect of being a high-performing athlete. Penprase talked about “focusing on their breathing and understanding the butterflies in their stomach, the fears and excitement and how to talk to yourself in the moment about how to perform by shifting focus from mechanics to focusing on what you want to do.” Although he is aware not all athletes will implement his suggestions, he believes that these mental tricks will help them not only in sport but with future life challenges as well.

Although some of the players felt no different playing baseball with only Jewish teammates, the magic was not lost on all players. Matthew Leiterman, a catcher who hit a 340-foot home run during the scrimmage, said, “Having something in common aside from baseball really helped get to know everybody and made us a team. It was also a lot more fun.”

The players’ parents found themselves emotional about what their children were a part of. Parents nodded in agreement when Martin, Leiterman’s father, said “These kids are playing for a higher calling, even though they might not realize it.”

Second baseman Russel Slamowitz, who has been playing baseball since he was 3 but plays with no fellow tribe members in Reno, Nevada, flew out with his mother for the Israel Baseball Academy. Slamowitz, who is in eighth grade, has already made the JV baseball team of the high school he will be attending next year. He said, “Everyone was so nice, even though I’m the youngest, and I don’t know if we weren’t all Jewish if it would have been the same experience.” His mother added, “It’s exciting for me that he gets to connect with other Jewish players, as at home he’s the only one.”

The second goal of the Israel Baseball Academy is to “create a database of Jewish baseball players for the IAB to start identifying and track up-and-coming Jewish baseball players,” Eisen said. Fish added, “If you look at the [Israel national baseball] team, it’s a lot of the same guys since 2012. We’re all old, and need younger players to fill out our team.”

Israel’s WBC and Olympic team rosters are filled mostly with Jewish American baseball players and some Israeli-grown baseball players, as Israel does not yet have the ability to field a full team of sabras. A place on the roster for upcoming competitions is not guaranteed for these players, but they were able to expand their network of Jewish baseball players and are now aware of the possibility to play high-level baseball in Israel.

The IAB announced on Tuesday, May 17 that Israel will be hosting the 2025 European Baseball Championship. So who knows? Maybe these guys will make up Israel’s 2025 European Baseball Championship team.

Danielle grew up in Teaneck, and made aliyah to Jerusalem following her graduation from Rutgers University. Danielle teaches English at colleges in Jerusalem and has been involved in both formal and informal education for a variety of organizations.

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