• Team EBSM

Choices: Part III

Lavarnway coaching a clinic in Israel

Israeli Community

What was it like to get an on-the-ground understanding of the baseball community in Israel?

Josh: The baseball community has grown, exponentially, in the last 9 years. When I became a part of the organization, they had never tried to develop youth athletes. They were merely trying to make our older teams better so that we could gain some footing in the international community. That was the crux of the conversation.

In 2016, we were able to get MLB guys on the roster and it became more about, how can we build the youth game? When we traveled to Israel, it was really grassroots, one field. We went to Beit Shemesh, which is a town in the center of Israel, where they were thinking of building a field.

There was a massive community of American ex-pats and Orthodox Jews all in the same community. The kids all had gloves and jerseys but, for me it was kind of shocking that there wasn’t much going on.

They really relied on our success to get it going. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a group of players that aren’t from there so, I think, going to Israel was a really important journey for a lot of us.

What have you learned from your Israeli teammates?

Ryan: I learned how tough they are. They live, in the face of fear, fearless. They’re in constant danger. There could be rockets flying through the sky and they go about their lives.

That being said, they have the same hopes and dreams I’ve had my whole life growing up across the world. They love baseball. They want to play baseball. They want to go to college. They want to live a good life for their family. They’re not that much different than other people that I grew up with in California.

These guys live in a situation where they talk about themselves like they’re a good neighbor in a bad neighborhood, being in Israel.

That was a good answer. We all grow up so differently, but we’re so much alike.

Ryan and I are connected to Israel because we’re Jewish right? Something that I didn’t appreciate as much was how most of the Israeli players that are born in Israel are connected to Israel because they are Israeli.

As much as we’re blessed to have been able to be part of an Israeli national team or an Israeli Olympic team, because we’re Jewish, they’re fighting for their team and their country because of their national pride, not their religious pride.

I think that was something that we had to learn a little bit, or a lot a bit. We are continuing to learn what makes Israel special, and what makes Israeli people feel like they belong, like we belong, as a country, not just as a religion.

That was something that I didn’t quite appreciate until we had lots of really good conversations about it before going to the Olympics. It is something that I am continuing to learn. I continually make sure that I don’t just highlight that I’m Jewish and Israeli but that I’m an Israeli citizen.

That was important for me to learn because, as you said before, about the countries accepting players from different places, we’re Israeli because we’re allowed to be Israeli, not just because we’re Jewish. That was really, really important for me.

I don’t know if I said that right, and I apologize if that sounds…

No, you did. Being Israeli is more important to those players than being Jewish, is what I got from those four guys.

What have you learned about being an Israeli who happens to be Jewish compared to being an Israeli?

Josh: I don’t know if I could fairly answer that. Some of the guys might have been born Jewish but I don’t know if they identified as Jewish. They could be whatever religion they like and be on the team.

It was more, let’s not always highlight the Jewish aspect of the team but more the nationality of the team, and the countrywide aspects of the team – trying to bring together a country instead of trying to divide it by a religion.

The goal, one day, would be to allow everybody on the team, religion notwithstanding, and not have to be highlighted by American Jews, but by people who are Israeli.

We want to grow the game of baseball in Israel. That’s the purpose of the World Baseball Classic tournament. They allow the looser citizenship rules in order to grow the game internationally.

Our stated goal is to, in one or two generations however long for them to do it, have a team of all Israeli-born players.

Rhanana won the 2021 Israel Baseball Championship

They just completed the second field in Israel. It’s called the Ezra Schwartz Field in Rhanana, so that’s a step in the right direction. There’s still a long way to go but…

That was with prize money from the WBC. There’s still more money so they’re also working on another field.

Every player from every team that’s ever had major league players on it, we’re giving back to the community. During covid I gave a 2-hour pitching course to the coaches in Israel. Ryan did a course. We may not be able to travel back and forth but we’re helping. We’re providing a foundation for the future for baseball in Israel, for sports, for international competition, for lots of things.

The Israeli International Association of Baseball hosted the course, to teach the coaches, how to teach the game. Every member of our Olympic team did at least one, one-hour coaching session, to coach the coaches.

Anything you want to share with the European community about your experiences with Israel?

Ryan: When we first got to Israel, Israel gave us some pushback too. There was an issue.

Did they?

Josh: Oh yeah. Big time.

They were like who are you to represent us, the same way as everyone else in the world was like, who are you to represent Israel? We had to overcome that and prove to them that it was important to us to represent them and that we wanted to be one of them, to kind of overcome that hurdle to then be embraced by them.

But the same things you were asking, about other countries like, you’re not really Israeli, Israel initially felt that way also.

Do you feel like you’ve overcome the hurdle?

Ryan: I’d like to think so but you might have to ask people on the ground there.

For players on other European national teams that are not country-born citizens, what inroads do you think you took that might have made a difference?

Ryan: I think the biggest thing was the commitment we made to representing Israel.

I was recruited by team USA, and other players may have had other opportunities as well.

We’ve been to Israel twice now and both times we coached kids clinics and helped grow the game, on the ground, as well as through video lessons. We made the financial contribution to build fields.

We continuously make the choice to include ourselves and insert ourselves, as Israelis, to help grow the game on the ground. It wasn’t just a one-and-done situation.

I think just being a respectful member - honoring the jersey, being good in the international community, when you play, play well, play hard, respect all of the traditions of the country, being prideful of playing for Team Israel. We’re not hiding that we’re playing for the country.

We said this before we went to the Olympics – playing for Israel is a choice but it’s also a choice that comes with a lot of blowback. There’s a lot of risk-factor involved with playing for Israel, especially during the Olympics.

It was the largest contingency that was ever sent to the Olympics. We had many security briefings about how potentially dangerous it could be to be an Olympic player.

It's a choice that we all made. We hope that everyone sees that, sees the honor and the pride that we participated with, and the respect that we showed the country.