By David Leichman and Rabbi Miri Gold

A dream became a reality when the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) received an invitation to participate in Qualifier 1 for the 2013 World Baseball Classic in Jupiter, FL.  The World Baseball Classic is sponsored by Major League Baseball (MLB) and takes place every four years. The next Classic is set for March 2013 in Phoenix.  MLB made the decision to add four teams to the twelve, including Team USA, which was already qualified from four years ago.

The MLB “Heritage Rule” states that players have to be either a citizen of the country or eligible to become a citizen of that country. Former NY Mets catcher Mike Piazza, for example, played for Italy in the last WBC.  But, who would play for Israel? There are no Israeli baseball players in the Majors! However, numerous Major and Minor Leaguers fit the criteria of Israel’s Law of Return for citizenship:  One must be Jewish or have at least one Jewish grandparent.  All of a sudden, things were looking up.

Israel Goes to the World Baseball Classic (Part 1) The IAB recruited former Major Leaguers Brad Ausmus as the manager, and Gabe Kapler and Shawn Green as player-coaches.  Ausmus scoured the minor league rosters – mostly AA and AAA clubs — and came up with a viable team.  Some of the players needed to dig up a grandparent’s burial certificate, parents’ ketuba, or a rabbi’s letter testifying to their Jewish heritage while others had synagogue backgrounds and were strongly identifying Jews.  Because Qualifier 1 took place while the 2012 season was still being played, no major leaguers could bolster Team Israel’s chances because all were still under contract.  There was speculation about big leaguers who might play for Team Israel, should they win the Qualifiers.  Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler and Kevin Youkilis are just a few of the players who expressed interest.

Nevertheless, manager Brad Ausmus put together an impressive roster. The goals were to win, to represent Israel and to create connections between the American and Israeli ballplayers. Team Israel was comprised of 25 American Jewish professional ballplayers and three Israelis, Dan Rothem , Shlomo Lipetz, and our son, Alon Leichman, all products of Israeli baseball and members of the Israel National Team.

The games were held at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, spring training home of the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals. David, a board member of the IAB and part of the planning committee for the Qualifiers, accompanied the team to Florida. Miri, back home in Israel, watched the games, broadcasted live in Hebrew by Israeli commentators, together with the rest of the family.

Much thought and preparation went into another element of this experience, connecting American Jews with Israel through baseball.  The first-ever baseball Birthright trip came to Israel in December, 2011. The IAB raised funds, enabling  Israel’s National Team to fly to Florida in order to create a real “mifgash” (encounter) between the Israeli and American Jewish baseball players. Israel baseball hats and t-shirts saying “Where Traditions Meet,” were made for the event.

Knowing that the games would be played in Jupiter, we also reached out to local Jewish federations, and to colleagues in synagogues within a 1 ½  hour distance from the stadium, asking them to encourage their members to come to the games and support Team Israel. Among others, Rabbis Bradd Boxman, Jeff Goldwasser, Cookie Olshein, Dan Levin, and Rabbi Alon Levkovitz of Temple Beth Am, Jupiter, succeeded in bringing congregants to the games. Rabbi Levkovitz, together with a Conservative and Orthodox rabbi, was given the honor of throwing out the first ball.

Beyond the excitement of cheering for Team Israel, seeing Israeli flags flying everywhere, hearing “Hava Nagila” and “Hatikva” in the Stadium (where kosher hot dogs were sold), there was a quiet but growing awareness that something of historic and spiritual significance was occurring – a strong feeling of family and a common connection to the State of Israel.  Together, the Israelis and the Americans of Team Israel — in the club house and on the field — were forging powerful bonds of Jewish identity, friendship and pride in their shared heritage.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of the story…

Rabbi Miri Gold is the rabbi of Kehilat Birkat Shalom on Kibbutz Gezer in the Gezer region of Israel. Her husband, David Leichman, is ARZA’s Mifgash Coordinator, working with congregations from the US and Israel to facilitate opportunities for Reform Jews to meet each other. The above photo is from Team Israel’s Facebook page.