By Steve Rosenberg
This past week I had the incredible opportunity to be in Bonn, Germany, to watch the Israeli National Baseball team compete in the European Championship A Pool for the very first time. Watching the Israelis in Germany competing against some of Europe’s top teams from Italy, Spain, France, Great Britain and many others was something I’m not sure I ever thought I’d see.
The ironies were many and so were the victories. The opening game against the Czech Republic came just 47 years and one day after the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes in this very country at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972. The Munich 11, as they have been remembered, paid the ultimate price for representing their country in sport. Now here were a group of athletes representing the state of Israel, again in Germany, in an important athletic competition. The stakes at this tournament were incredibly high, as the top five teams would secure a bid to the Olympic Qualifier in Parma, Italy, with the winner of that tournament gaining a bid to the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020.
Before each game, as they do before most sporting events, the national anthem of the two participating countries was played. At this tournament, they added the extra special touch of flying the national flags of the two participating teams at the field during the game. Listening to “Hatikvah” while looking at the Israeli flag flying in Germany was another special moment for me. Just a few decades ago, this would have been unimaginable.
My son, Jake, who made aliyah more than a year ago to both coach and play baseball in Israel, is a member of this incredibly talented team of athletes. Many of these players have played professionally in either Major League Baseball, the minor leagues or independent ball. The entire team are citizens of Israel with several having been born there.
In one of the most dramatic sporting events I’ve ever seen with my own eyes, Israel defeated the host Germans in extra innings before a large and fervent home crowd that began cheering right after the German national anthem and never stopped until the end of the 10th inning. Had ESPN been covering this game, it would have become an instant classic.
Witnessing Israel beat a powerful German team on their own turf was a moment none of these players will ever forget, and neither will the handful of Israeli fans in attendance. Less than 12 hours later, the Israelis would take the field against Great Britain and take care of business there, too. This was also a moment marked by history: Coming just 100 years after the Balfour Declaration, here was tiny Israel defeating both the Germans and Great Britain in a high-stakes athletic competition.
Israel ended the pool play an amazing 4–1, good for second in its division. They played France in the first round of the playoffs with the winner automatically earning a berth in Italy next week. Israel prevailed in a decisive 8–2 victory and ended up finishing fourth in this tournament overall, earning a spot at the Olympic Qualifiers next week.
Sadly, I won’t be able to make it to Italy to watch the next tournament in person. It’s bittersweet for me: If Israel doesn’t advance to Tokyo, it’s quite possible that this will be the end of my son’s baseball career. This sport has given so much to my son, and it’s difficult to imagine that this incredible chapter of his life might come to a final end.
All in all, this team’s major success and wonderful story is garnering more and more international media coverage and, if they are able to claim a spot in the Olympic Games, it will do wonders for Israel. Baseball is the national pastime of the United States and here’s to hoping it can become a balm for all Jews across the land — giving us all something to root for together.
Steve Rosenberg is chief marketing officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.