Soccer standout Sarah Friedman has visited Israel just once, speaks no Hebrew and admittedly doesn't closely follow the news of the Middle East.
But last week, the 22-year-old University of Pennsylvania graduate officially made aliyah. She was motivated less by Zionism than a chance to play professional soccer.
The attacking midfielder is set to suit up for ASA Tel Aviv, a team based at Tel Aviv University that won its league cup last season. Friedman could have competed for the squad as a foreigner, but she hopes to make the Israeli national team and play in a World Cup. And for that, she needs an Israeli passport.
Reached at her parents' Villanova home about 48 hours before her recent flight, Friedman said she was a little overwhelmed by the details and unsure what to expect. But she said two things were certain: She loves soccer and was awestruck during her visit to Israel in 2009, when she competed for the United States in the Maccabiah Games. "I didn't want to leave when I was there," she recalled.
Friedman's move comes after two U.S. basketball players generated headlines by also moving to Israel. Earlier this month, Duke University All-American basketball player Jon Scheyer, who is set to play for Maccabi Tel Aviv, took the plunge on a flight organized by Nefesh B'Nefesh, a North American organization that promotes aliyah and offers new olim financial assistance.
And last month, with the National Basketball Association season on lockout, New Jersey Nets guard Jordan Farmer also headed over to play for Maccabi Tel Aviv, though he's likely to return if and when the NBA resumes play.
Barry Speilman, director of communications for the Jewish Agency for Israel who formerly ran the North American Aliyah Department, said that "in the last few months, there have been more sports figures making aliyah than I can remember."
For her part, Friedman wouldn't specify whether she saw the move as permanent or temporary. But she did insist that "this is an opportunity I will never have again."
While at Penn, Friedman helped the team win two Ivy League titles. The school's all-time leader in assists, Friedman was one of the best players in the Ivy League, according to Penn head coach Darren Ambrose.
"She was always the most composed player on the field," he said. Although she may not have been the fastest athlete, he said, she had a chess player's ability to anticipate the opposition's moves and she had an attacker's mentality. "She wanted the ball at her feet all the time."
Ambrose recalled that he had encouraged Friedman to explore playing professionally overseas. Despite her skills, she didn't quite reach the class of athletes competing in the professional league in the United States.
During the spring, she turned down an offer to play in Sweden, in part, she said, because she wasn't excited about playing in a country where she had no ties.
The psychology major wasn't sure she really wanted to play professionally after all, that she should instead be looking for lab work or an internship and then apply to graduate school. So how did she end up going to Israel?
Two years ago, Friedman played for the United States at the Maccabiah Games in Israel. Initially, she had little enthusiasm about visiting the Jewish state. "I'm not super religious at all," Friedman, who became a Bat Mitzvah at Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, said, adding that she only attends services on the High Holidays and does little in the way of ritual.
But that didn't stop her from feeling a connection to the culture, the cuisine, the history and the pulse of Israel once she got there. "I don't know how to put it into words," she said.
While competing in the games, Friedman recalled, she was approached by several scouts for Israeli teams. At the time just a sophomore, she knew she wanted to finish school, and that she would consider playing once she had her degree. Another player on that silver-medal winning team, Merav Shamir, did stay and now plays for Asa Tel Aviv and the Israeli national team.
Graduation came and went, but Friedman didn't decide to take up an offer to play in Israel until after returning from competing at the European Maccabi games in Austria in July.
Taking part in an all-Jewish competition brought her mind back to the games in Israel and helped convince her that the Jewish state was the place to play.
Once she made up her mind, she began frantically preparing to leave and to step up her workout regimen. With her mother's help, she picked out an apartment online. At this time, she also coached during the JCC Maccabi games in Philadelphia.
Practice started last week, but Friedman said she hasn't yet signed a contract. She said the money wouldn't be enough to live on, so her parents are helping out. She also hopes to land a part-time position as a research assistant at the university.
"Soccer is not going to end up being my entire life," she said, pointing out that she is eager to learn Hebrew and has enrolled in an ulpan.
Leaving in the early part of September proved bittersweet for Friedman. As long as she could remember, the Friends Central graduate said this period has meant the beginning of soccer season, making it an especially difficult time to say goodbye to her family, friends and former teammates.
Having never lived outside the Philly area, she acknowledged being "definitely nervous."
But her anxiety is balanced by sincere enthusiasm. "Getting to do this is going to be incredible," said the midfielder.