© Photography: Debbie Zimelman
In a land where soccer reigns and basketball plays a close second, you wouldn’t think that American football players could find a field, but helmet heads are a persevering sort. In fact, 19 years after establishing AFI, American Football in Israel — which began as a Jerusalem-based touch and then flag football club — the Israel Football League now boasts seven teams in six cities and a game schedule that doesn’t quite rival the NFL but holds its own.
Called the Kraft Family Israel Football League for league sponsors Myra and Robert Kraft — yes, those same Krafts who own the New England Patriots — IFL President Steve Leibowitz first established the league back in 1988 that now includes more than 90 teams and 1,000 players, including the Women’s AFI League and a high school league. In fact, says Leibowitz, it was Myra Kraft — an active Boston Federation layperson — who pushed for women’s football, which became the first Israeli football team to successfully play internationally.
Backed by the Krafts, who already sank $250,000 into Jerusalem’s Kraft Family Stadium near the entrance of the capital city, one third of the budget comes from the team sponsors and the final third from spectators and other sources of income. But it’s the hulking players of the tackle football league, begun in 2007 and now in its third season, who are winning the bulk of the fan base. There are the two Jerusalem teams; the Jerusalem Lions and Jerusalem Kings, the Modi’in Pioneers and Tel Aviv Sabres from the country’s center, the Haifa Underdogs from up north, the Beersheva Black Swarm down south and the Judean Rebels from Efrat.
“What’s most gratifying is that the game is spreading around the country on its own,” says Leibowitz, who expects ten teams by next year, including one in Herzliya.
Besides counting touchdowns, the teams are also doing a little something for coexistence. The Jerusalem and Modi’in teams have had their share of local Arab players while the Judean Rebels, although a team from Efrat, which is considered a Jewish settlement, has two Arab brothers from a nearby village playing on the team. And in Jaffa, Said Abulafia — a lawyer and scion of the Abulafia Bakery famed for its breads and stuffed treats — is a player and president of the Tel Aviv Sabres. While nearly half of the team’s players and coaches are American, there are now a handful of Moslem and Christian Arabs from Jaffa, as well as an Israeli of Thai and Filipino heritage and two non-Jewish Americans.
But what really matters, says Leibowitz, is the fact that the players are mostly local kids, including Russian Israelis, Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis who have never lived in America, but love American football.
“The easy thing to say is that it feels great to have successfully brought football to Israel,” adds Leibowitz. “But there have been tough aspects, including gaining team sponsors and gaining national publicity. There’s potential for growth and my goal is just to survive and grow.”
Next time you’re in Israel, check out the holy land’s latest contact sport.