There is No Place Like Home – My First Trip to Israel (part one)
Editor’s Note: Max Seibald, a Jewish American lacrosse player, accompanied Israel Lacrosse on their U17 Winter Service Trip to Israel and Serbia over the school holiday. Read on in part one of his two-part post as Max recalls the day-to-day activities and reflects on the journey of a lifetime. Then come back tomorrow to complete the story!
Seibald is an eight-time MLL All-Star who currently plays for the Boston Cannons. He earned the 2009 Tewaraaton Trophy in his senior year at Cornell University and was a member of the USA National Team that won gold in 2010 and silver in 2014 at the FIL World Championships. He recently released his first book, The ABCs of Boys’ Lacrosse.
Buckle up because this is not short!
This winter break I was given the opportunity to join a lacrosse service trip with Israel lacrosse. My mentality going into this was that I had nothing better to do the last week of December and I figured why not? First, it was somewhat of a last minute decision, and second I made the decision without knowing much about what I was getting into. This was not a very calculated well thought out decision. I didn’t have many details about the trip, who would be going, what we were planning on doing and really what the purpose of the trip was. It was fairly out of character for me to make a decision like this, but after talking with Scott Neiss, the Executive Director of Israel lacrosse, I figured why not? I get to travel and teach lacrosse, things could be worse.
There was a group of 23 high school girls and 30 high school boys on the trip and I met them all at the airport. I knew one of the players because he has been to my camps in NYC before, but pretty much everyone else was a new face to me, including the other 15+ staff. I arrived a few days after the whole group had already spent two days together.
All of the kids arrived in NY from all over the country on Friday and started the trip off with Shabbat service and dinner in Long Island. Saturday morning the boys and girls started the day with practice at the LI Sports Hub and I drove out from NYC where, for the first time, I met some of the coaches and kids. As I walked in, Bill Beroza, the head coach of the Israel National Team, and a former 3X member of Team USA was starting with some opening remarks for practice and he introduced me and asked me to say a few words. Still at this point, I wasn’t really sure what the trip was all about or even my role within the trip, I was just excited about the opportunity. So, after being put on the spot, I shared just that. I told the kids that I was pumped to be getting the opportunity to travel to Israel to explore the country and grow the game alongside them and I told them to use me as they see fit, as coach, big brother, friend, whatever felt right – I was happy to play that role.
Practice started up and it was no joke. Both coaches, Mike Horowitz, currently an assistant coach at St. Joes and assistant coach of the Israel Men’s National Team, along with Seth Mahler, Ashkelon Program Director of Israel Lacrosse, a player on the Israel National Team, and Head Coach of the U19 Men’s National Team, got the boys going. I noticed pretty quickly that these two were running a tight ship. Coaches set the tone and the pace, and attitude of the players followed suit. I started to warm up the goalies because I didn’t want to step on any toes, so I took a few shots and started to try to meet some of the players. After a few minutes I couldn’t help myself, the coach in me forced its way out. I asked the coaches if I could change a few things up, or stop a drill to put in my thoughts, and occasionally pull someone out of a drill to add some value, and they were more than willing to let me. At this point that stuff is instinctual to me. But already I knew that I was going to be able to have my fingerprints all over the trip, and I was excited about that. After a few hours, practice finished up and I parted ways with the group to head home to relax for one more day and pack for the trip. I left practice even more excited about the experience but still unsure of what to fully expect. The group on the other hand stayed together, headed to NYC for a scavenger hunt, and ended the night with the lighting of the menorah for the first night of Hanukkah. I wasn’t far away, but I spent that evening with my family and watched my nephews, niece and my cousins little ones light the menorah.
Monday morning, two days later, I show up to the airport about 3 hours before my flight, but somehow was still the last one to arrive. I checked in, quickly figured out my man Jim G was the guy to go to who could get things done. I got to meet a few of the others on staff on my way through security as we headed to our gate. Everyone but one or two people of the group of 60+ were all new faces. So I tried to take some time at the gate to have a few conversations with some of the coaches and some of the kids to get to know them, but before much progress we were asked to board the plane. For the next half a day, we flew to Belgrade and then connected to Tel Aviv. The entire trip, Phil Knight’s memoir Shoe Dog kept me company.
We arrived in Tel Aviv, gathered our stuff, loaded the bus with all the gear and headed to Jaffa. I separated from the group and jumped in a car with Jake Silberlicht, a Hobart grad who I actually played against in college but never met. He is a member of the Israel national team, and also recently completed his service in the IDF as a paratrooper, which I thought was pretty badass, oh and he speaks Hebrew fluently, which was pretty cool too. We met the rest of the group in Jaffa, which is the southern and oldest part of Tel Aviv-Yafo. We headed for some traditional Israeli cuisine before getting some free time to stroll through the Shuk Hapishpeshim market. I tried imparting some of my recently acquired negotiating skills from a business school class on the kids, but that was a lost cause as they were loaded with shekels and standing prey to the savvy locals’ sales tactics.
A few hours later we headed to a field in Ashkelon to help coach in a tournament for the U-11 and U-15 teams of Ashkelon, Ashdod, Be’er Sheva, Kiryat Gat and Netanya. It was cold and rainy, but that didn’t stop the boys and girls on the service trip from mingling with the players and coaches and starting to share some knowledge and warm them up. I walked on to the field with Bill Beroza, and one of the younger players ran up to him and leaped into his arms and wrapped his legs around him and gave him a big hug. That was the moment, not even a minute on the field, that I knew this program was doing something special for the youth in Israel. This kid, Ronen, hung on Bill like a Koala bear hugging a tree, you can see the genuine excitement he had, and it was just one of many refreshing moments on this trip.
The tournament got going not long after. I was the assistant coach for the Ashdod U-15 squad. It was quite the experience to try and help out when most of the kids didn’t speak any English. One of the kids along with the coach Andrew Copeland, also the Israel Box goaltender, knew Hebrew, so the two of them would translate what I said. Some of the players were raw, some were just starting the game, and others were actually pretty solid players. What all of them shared though was a true passion for the game. They all usually travel to the fields on their own, sometimes traveling quite a while to play. I also didn’t see one parent on the sideline. Maybe I missed a few, but when I asked some of the guys who lived locally, they said it’s a cultural thing, and parents aren’t as involved in athletics, if at all. The in-country coaches go to the schools to directly share the game and recruit, and then once they garner some interest from the kids, they email or text the kids directly with all the details from then on. At the end of the evening, we all lit the Hanukkah candles and then crushed some pizza. That was my first encounter with Lidor. This kid is a special one, and a very good player. You can learn more about him and his journey in the video below – I highly recommend it!
If you have 20 minutes this is worth a watch, and pretty much summarizes what Israel Lacrosse is accomplishing. I had not watched this video until I got back, but getting to know Lidor for myself gave me the same feeling that I did from watching the video. He is a stud, but if you are reading this Lidor, KEEP GOING TO CLASS!
This day was all about lax. In the morning the American boys and girls on the trip led a Sticks for Kids clinic in Kiryat Gat. One of our Israeli partners/liaisons/the top FIFA soccer ref in Israel/ jack of all trades, Eli Hacmon, explained to me that this program engages and empowers at-risk youth through the sport of lacrosse. He explained that the kids come from these community centers where they are dropped off in their morning, they will spend their entire days playing sports, doing activities, eating their meals, and are picked up late at night after their parents finish work, only to do it all over again the next day. I thought the boys and girls on our trip did a great job engaging once again with these kids and connecting not through spoken language but through the game of lacrosse.
The entire afternoon and evening was the U-19 Hanukah tournament back at the same field in Ashkelon. The same four teams were represented, but this time our players from the US were split up and mixed in with the teams. This was an awesome opportunity to see them engage and interact, teach and compete with and against the Israelis. I once again coached up Ashdod. We were competitive but unfortunately due to some iffy coaching, lost every game, whoops!
To start off the day, we had the Championship and consolation games for the Hanukkah tournament. Nothing more to report, my team took 4th. Whoops again!
Next stop was Yad La-Shiryon, which is Israel’s Armored Corps Memorial Site and Museum. We got a tour by one of the soldiers; watched a video about the history of the tanks, and had some free time to stroll around and check out the tanks, and other armored vehicles. It is very eye opening to hear some of the stories and experiences about some of the soldiers and fallen ones, and even more so when you see some 18 year old soldiers walking around with machine guns!
To end the day we headed back to Kiryat Gat for a scrimmage under the lights. The boys and girls on the trip scrimmaged some of the locals who play on the National Teams and in the IPLL (Israel Premier Lacrosse League). I may or may not have jumped on the field for a few plays to jog around and helped secure a victory for the old guys.
We had an early start as we headed to Jerusalem. With some free time, many of us took the time to explore Machane Yehuda open-air market. Not sure how to describe it other than it’s a place you go if you are an actor in a movie and are being chased by a bad guy and you need to get lost amongst the crowd ASAP. There are little shops that somehow flow seamlessly from one to another, each with a person soliciting new business before completing the last sale. The stalls had fresh fruits and vegetables, loafs of bread, ruggelah, donuts, jewelry, souvenirs and way more. This experience was pretty surreal. Trying to keep track of 8 kids while also dealing with people shamelessly not only cutting me off, but shoving women and children around to get where the needed to be. There were no fights, or hostility, it was just how things were done, and everyone was doing it. FYI, if you haven’t tried chocolaty ruggelah hot and fresh from that market, you are missing out.
Next stop was a bit of a change of pace. We headed to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum. All I will say is it is kind of a cold feeling being there and definitely a downer. I don’t mean to say that in a bad way, because I don’t regret going, it just made what I already knew about the Holocaust more real. I entered solo and didn’t talk to anyone as I walked through. It was definitely enlightening, powerful, and eye opening being exposed to it all. I am not sure that is a place I need to visit more than once, but definitely glad I did this time.
From there we bussed to the Old City. This was incredible. To stand and walk through a city that was built thousands of years ago, yet still an integral and active part of the culture was amazing. The Old City is a walled in area within the modern city of Jerusalem that is divided into four quarters: the Muslim Quarter, Christian Quarter, Armenian Quarter and the Jewish Quarter. We had the freedom to pretty much roam as we pleased, although we were told to stay away from some areas that weren’t as welcoming. The problem was, not everything was so explicitly labeled and the Old City is like a big maze. Anyway, we walked around, did some shopping and took it all in. One of my first stops was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, because it was close to where we entered. Based on what I was told, this is said to be where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. I am not super religious, nor am I an avid history junky, but to be in the presence of something like that, and witnessing people on their knees kissing, touching and smelling the tomb was almost a bit of an eerie feeling for sure. We continued our adventures through the maze that is the Old City. I practiced some of my negotiating skills and made a few purchases. My first was an IDF hoodie and my second was a mezuzah made from authentic Jerusalem stone (at least that’s what the man in the shop told me) for my apartment back home. My last stop that day was the Western Wall. I always knew that it was a Holy and historical place for Jewish people but I learned some of the history and more about its significance and got to experience it myself. I walked up to the Wall and it was another powerful experience. Celebrating Hanukkah and Shabbat amongst thousands of others with our crew from Israel Lacrosse at the holiest place for Jews to pray was unlike any other Hanukkah or Shabbat I had ever experienced. Religious or not, you can’t fight the overwhelming wholeness of the moment.
Come back tomorrow to read about the final few days of the trip — notably Max’s favorite — that cemented this experience as an unforgettable adventure.
For more information about the Israel Lacrosse Winter Service Trip, email firstname.lastname@example.org.