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Footy in Israel - From St Kilda to the Dead Sea

  • Wednesday, January 19 2005 @ 06:52 pm ACDT
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Middle East

As Australia's Jewish community grew over the past fifty years, many new arrivals and their children grew to love the indigenous code. Melbourne's predominantly Jewish AJAX football club have a proud history in the VAFA and a side representing Israel won the inaugral Multicultural Cup in 2004. Australian Jews migrating to Israel also took the game with them, and moves are afoot to start something more permanent.

Until 1995, when Dion Epstein took over organising social matches, Australian Rules football had only been played sporadically in Israel. They had only a small ground in Tel Aviv, but with the starting contacts of around 20 players, the pint-sized field was perfect for ten a side. As Epstein recalls, "the key was commitment from a core group of players, then there was a lot of calling around to make up enough numbers to get a game. The problem was that we played in Tel Aviv (Hayarkon Park rugby ground) and most of the people came from Jerusalem. It was the only place we could find a suitable ground. If we could have found a venue in Jerusalem then I think it would have been a lot easier. Alternatively, there needs to be a core group from the coast if it is to be successfully played in Tel Aviv."

Faced with the inconsistent levels of commitment and a lack of a field space in Jerusalem meaning long travel times for the majority of the playing base, Epstein had a tough time. "I didn't really overcome these problems, but I was persistent in annoying people and confirming their commitment for that week. It took a lot of my time and a formal structure with commitment by teams would be much better."

Eventually Epstein returned to Melbourne, and in 2004 was instrumental in organising the Israel side for the Multicultural Cup. This side featured players from AJAX, but also a number of Orthodox players who usually didn't get the chance to pull on the boots as AJAX generally play on a Saturday. This side went on to win the tournament, Gabriel Dukes Best on Ground in the final.

Israel will be back for the 2005 Multicultural Cup, to be held at Optus Oval in March - but in the meantime, the scene in Israel is kicking on.

The newest coordinator for footy in Israel is Doron Zauer, who has a pool of around 70 players interested, including a large number of irregulars such as soldiers, travellers and people on exchange programs. "Most of our regulars are immigrants who grew up in Melbourne, though we have a few Israeli born of Aussie parents whop grew up watching videos of Aussie Rules." Playing on Fridays and Saturdays in Tel Aviv, the season gets going after the AFL season has shut down for the year and the oppressive heat of the Israeli summer has eased off a little.

They're working on bringing more locals into the mix, with a few working on forging connections with Jewish youth organisations - a possibility for creating a league which Epstein sees to have great potential. "Potentially, it would be great if they could get 4 teams and a playing schedule set up - say Jerusalem area team, Tel Aviv area team, Bnei/Betar/Hineni 1-year program, Habo/Hashi/Skif/Netzer program. The youth movement games would need to be organsied around and in conjunction with their programs, but grouping different youth movements together might allow for the latter two 'teams' to jointly cover all the playing weeks in a season."

Whatever the future holds, Zauer believes there is much more latent support for footy in Israel than is currently playing the game. Anyone interested should contact aflisrael@yahoo.com