A recent Lower Merion High graduate finds the football fields of Israel quite an education.
Ari Wilen, a class of ’14 graduate of Lower Merion High School, is scoring some points with those getting to know him during a Habonim-Dror Workshop gap year program in Israel.
The 18-year-old son of Barry and Robin Wilen of Bala Cynwyd has become a member of the Tel Aviv Pioneers, part of the Israel Football League. In a recent game, the former high school football team co-captain had more than 100 yards rushing, including two touchdown runs.
So just how did this Israel Football League "Player of the Week" come to play for the Pioneers?
“I had thought about playing football in Israel last year while I was still at home but I never thought that I would be playing for a team that won the championship the previous year,” Wilen said in an email from Israel.
After participating in an immersion/ulpan program in December at Kibbutz Ein Dor, he moved to Rishon LeZion, Israel's fourth largest city just south of Tel Aviv, to teach English as a second language to high schoool students, and decided to email the three closest football teams.
"I opened with explaining what my program was and closed with my high school highlight video.”
He closed the deal shortly after.
“I will always be an Ace at heart,” he said of his alma mater, “but the Pioneers are something very different. Being co-captain on Aces taught me about leadership and responsibility."
But winning was another story. The Lower Merion team only won three games during Wilen's four years on it.
"Winning with the Pioneers is certainly a good feeling," he said. "Something pretty amazing about this league is that I have yet to meet someone who is mean, someone who is just bitter. Israelis play football for the love of it, for the teamwork, not to seek blood like a lot of kids in America.”
He will be coming back to Philadelphia to attend Temple University this September, where he intends to study business, marketing and public relations. But football?
“Putting it bluntly, I am just not big enough” to make it on the Owl team, Wilen conceded. “To stay physically active I look forward to playing Ultimate Frisbee at Temple, something a little less intense.”
Wilen went on to credit his parents and his grandmother, Marion Wilen — the late great Philly social reformer and Jewish communal activist who died in 2011 — for helping shape his love for and commitment to Judaism.
His grandmother was "the person who pushed me to get involved at my synagogue,” Adath Israel, “and who taught me how to balance working in two different youth groups,” he said, refering to Habonim Dror and USY, which he served as past president.
“My family has always brought ruach to all of our Jewish endeavors,” at home and away, Wilen said. "I am a proud young Jewish man and I couldn’t ask for anything more.”