For centuries, members of Native American tribes played lacrosse with one another as a means of forging common bonds. So it makes sense that a group of young American Jewish volunteers in Israel used the sport this past year to reach out to 24 Arab-Israeli teenagers, who last week played their first full game.
The lacrosse match, held in the port city of Jaffa, was the culmination of the Lacrosse Arab-Jewish Cooperation Project. The Project was created by Ian Cohen, a recent graduate of Monmouth University who is volunteering in Israel with Tikkun Olam, a Jewish service learning program jointly supported by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government’s Masa Israel Journey partnership.
Masa enables more than 10,000 young Jews each year to spend up to 10 months volunteering, interning and taking academic courses in Israel as they learn about Jewish history, build friendships with Jews from around the world and experience Israeli culture on a daily basis. The idea for the lacrosse project came to Cohen after he joined Tel Aviv’s lacrosse team last September and sought to combine his passion for the sport with his volunteer focus on Jewish-Arab coexistence.
“The program is intended to dispel bigotry through real contact between Arabs and Jews,” Cohen said.
Through the Peres Center for Peace, Cohen connected with the Ajyal School in Jaffa, which expressed interest in working with him. He then recruited fellow Masa volunteers and members of Israel’s national lacrosse association (Israel Lacrosse) to help teach the sport to the Arab high schoolers during weekly clinics.
“The Jewish volunteers developed a fantastic relationship with the kids,” Cohen shared. “Primarily, we are teachers and role models. The sport is secondary.”
The Arab teens are not the only ones who have benefited from Cohen’s passion for lacrosse. Last fall, as the rocket attacks from Gaza intensified, Cohen helped organized a lacrosse clinic in Netanya to provide kids from southern border towns a few days of fun and respite from the daily barrage of rocket fire.
“We set up in an open field near where some local kids were playing on a playground,” Cohen recalled. “Within minutes, some students came over and snatched up the sticks, trying to figure out how to use this foreign device. I showed some of them some basics but they were really just interested in throwing the ball and shooting on the net.
“While this was happening, students in the classroom got wind of what was going on outside, and began pressing their faces up to the windows and even hanging out the windows trying to get the kids with the sticks to throw the balls into the classroom.” Lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in North America. As long as young volunteers like Cohen bring their enthusiasm for the sport with them to Israel, it might soon be the “next big thing” in Israel—for Jews and Arabs.
The Israeli national lacrosse team will be one of a record total of as many as 40 nations competing at the 2014 World Lacrosse Championships in Denver.