June 4, 2024
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Israeli Team Triumphs at European Flag Football Championships

2023 Israel Flag Football team.

Last week, the Israeli under-17-year-old boys National Flag Football team won the gold medal at the 2023 International Federation of American Football (IFAF) European Junior Flag Football Championships which took place in Italy. Nearly 500 players competed in the tournament which took place Friday to Sunday. The Israel national teams voted not to play on Shabbat, and the league organizers would not reschedule their games, so each of the three teams that Israel sent took a forfeit. The Israeli girls U17 team did make it to the semi-finals, but didn’t achieve a medal, and neither did the U15 boys team.

Girls flag football action.

Many of the players on the Israel team are not observant, but felt that since they were representing Israel they needed to be consistent with Jewish values, and accepted the team’s decision not to play on Shabbat. The U17ers came running out of the gate on Friday with victories over Austria, Germany, and Ukraine and then continued on Sunday beating Italy in the semi-finals, and Serbia in the finals.

Joshua “Shia” Smilovitz hails from Teaneck, son of Jason and Tzippy Smilovitz who made aliyah 14 years ago. Shia and his younger brother, Natan, have been playing in the American Football in Israel leagues for several years. “It was an amazing feeling to be able to represent our country in an international tournament,” Shia related, “knowing that we were Jewish, not afraid of showing our Judaism.”

Great catch in boys flag football.

“This was our first gold after decades of trying. These are tough, young Israeli players up against the best young players in Europe,” said Steve Leibowitz, president, American Football in Israel (AFI), beaming with pride. “The moment the whistle blew on that final play of the championship game I knew we had finally arrived. Next thought, first we conquer Europe, and the World Championships are next!”

The Israeli U17 team outplayed all 12 teams in the competition showing a well-coached and highly disciplined team, deserving the championship despite having to have forfeited the game scheduled for Shabbat. The team was nervous but accepted it, and spent Shabbat eating, praying, singing and building team camaraderie. Even some of the non-observant players joined in with the prayers and singing, showing and receiving great respect all around.

The Smilovitz family lives in Modi’in, where a considerable number of Americans live as well, so American sports are certainly part of their routine. “We were very excited that the team made it as far as it did – the coaches deserve a lot of credit,” said Tzippy and Jason. “The entire AFI staff was superb.”

Shia added, “At the beginning we were nervous but after the first game beating Austria, we were in the groove. We knew, we felt we were going to go all the way. It is amazing to win and shows that hard work pays off.”

The girls team and the U15 boys played well but will need to recruit a few additional players if they are to be competitive in the World Championships in 2024. After the World Championships there are the World Games in China in 2025. And then, if the rumors materialize, flag football will be a recognized Olympic sport, and Team Israel will be ready for Los Angeles 2028!

Shia Smilovitz (r), in the white kippah, on the field.

The roots of American football in Israel can be traced back to the early 1980s when a small group of American expatriates, led by this author, introduced the sport to the country. Over the years, it has evolved from a niche interest to a legitimate sport with a national federation and a growing number of teams, and players from all walks of life in Israel. This unique blend of American culture and Israeli passion for sports has created a thriving community of football enthusiasts. AFI is fortunate to have the sponsorship of the Kraft family and Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, as well as many other sponsors and supporters.

Winning the gold in the European Championships, particularly after the Shabbat forfeit, is like a David vs. Goliath script from the movies. Israel (and others) could learn an important lesson from the unity and dedication of the observant and non-observant players, coaches and parents.

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