On Monday nights, I drive my sons from our home in Jerusalem to the nearest ice hockey rink in Holon. The drive is long, the traffic is tiring, and when we finally arrive, my boys are swallowed into a crowd of hockey players in various states of undress.
No one notices me, and I am grateful. I turn to the vending machines and think to myself: I don’t belong here.
It is a fundamental problem in my family that I don’t belong in the world of sports and my sons don’t belong in the world of books. We divide our days. Mornings are dedicated to reading and writing – they at school, me at work – and afternoons are spent at hockey, soccer, and flag football. I’ve watched hours of hockey practice. I’ve even come to love the sound of metal blades on ice, but it wasn’t until my family came to Ramah Sports Academy that we found an environment that celebrates all of our passions.
With my sons enrolled at RSA as athletes and me working there on the tzevet chinuch [education staff], it no longer seemed crazy to connect the story of David and Goliath to underdog victories in sports. The life of the biblical Samson was suddenly relevant to the steroid scandal involving Ryan “The Hebrew Hammer” Braun. And a Talmudic tale of God’s defeat at the hands of the rabbis became a metaphor for the joy a coach feels at his or her athlete’s success.
My family was especially lucky to spend our summer at RSA because we had to fly all the way from Israel to get there. We flew along with five other Israeli campers, and when we arrived at camp we met a wonderful group of Israeli counselors and coaches.
The benefit to my sons was both immediate and obvious. Their English improved. They trained more intensely than they ever had before, and they trained with female athletes for the first time. They saw a baseball diamond. They asked professional Israeli basketball players Yariv and Dori Amiram how best to incorporate athletic training with military service, and they met two American counselors who are soon enlisting in the IDF as lone soldiers. I saw my sons hold their Israeli identity in high esteem, as they reveled in their ability to rattle off the Hebrew lyrics for the morning rikud [dance] numbers and explain to campers why the infirmary is called the marp.
For me, the experience was equally magical. During the first few days of camp, my eyes popped out of my head, taking in all the brick and greenery of Fairfield University. Though I was born in New Jersey, I’ve spent most of my adult life in Israel, and it had been nearly a decade since I’d spend any significant time in America.
In Faber Hall, I realized how Israeli I’d become. I thought everyone was so polite, so surprisingly nice. I found myself listening out for Hebrew and hunting for Turkish coffee, and as camp went on, I began to feel a deep sense of pride in my dual citizenship. It’s a pride that had gone dormant with all the intensities and indignities of Middle Eastern life. Amid Israel’s recent flurry of elections – the mayoral, parliamentary, and the parliamentary again – it’s easy to forget how and why the State of Israel was created: Jews banded together, to share their histories and their lives.
When I ask Rabbi Dave why he came all the way to Israel to recruit athletes, he tells me that Israelis are important to the atmosphere of RSA.
Important how, I want to know.
He says that Israel is real, that Hebrew is real. They’re authentic to the Jewish experience, and camp is all about experience.
Ayala Wasser reminds me that sports have always been a platform for cultures to meet, appreciate each other, and enrich each other.
My family has certainly been enriched, and I am very grateful. Todah Rabbah.