Touchdown: The Surprising Story of American Football in Israel

American Football is growing throughout the world.

Story by Nefesh B’Nefesh

Last year, Aliza Shore, 17, was on vacation in northern Israel when one of her cousins pulled out a football and started tossing it around.

“I had never played—or even touched a football before that,” said Aliza, who grew up in the Old City with Olim parents. “But we realized that I had a great arm, and that I could catch too.”

Aliza was hooked, and wanted to know how she could continue playing.

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Aliza Shore

Aliza’s mother got in touch with Yonah Mishaan, head coach of the Israeli national tackle football team, and soon Aliza began playing in weekly games of flag football. Aliza went on to try out—and get into—Israel’s national women’s flag football team, which meant practicing three times a week, and flying to Germany to play in the world championship. Her team placed third.

American football, the most popular sport in the US, is quickly growing its fan base in Israel.

What began as a small amateur flag football league 25 years ago has grown to include the American Football in Israel (AFI), with 45 teams, the High School American Football in Israel (HSAFI) with 10 teams, the Women’s American Football in Israel (WAFI), with 14 teams, the Tuesday Night Football League (TNFL), the youth league, and the Israel Football League (IFL), a tackle football league, with 10 teams.

Aliza Shore and Israeli flag football team

Israeli National Women’s Flag Football Team

A few years after Alan Tover, 27, an Oleh (Jewish immigrant) from Los Angeles, made Aliyah (immigration to Israel) he started playing football with a few friends. When he realized that he could get involved in Israel’s leagues, he started playing with both the AFI and IFL—which have their practices on different nights — before also becoming a coach.

Israel football - Alan Tover

Alan Tover

While Alan has served in the army and graduated from university in Israel, he likes that the Israeli football leagues have enabled him to stay connected to one of his favorite parts of American culture. “Being able to keep playing has definitely made my experience in Israel easier.”

Though American Jewish immigrants in Israel make up the majority of the flag football teams, most of the players on the tackle teams are Israeli-born.

“Football is a way for Israelis to channel their natural energy into something positive,” said Avi Eastman, who is a coach for the Judean Rebels, a tackle football team. “They enjoy the sport, but even more than that, they enjoy being part of a team.”

Avi, who immigrated to Israel at the of age 59 after retiring from a career in the US Army, never imagined that he would have the opportunity to coach in Israel. But with an impressive background in team sports, including football, rugby, and semi-professional soccer, Avi—and his three sons—were recruited to take part.

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Judean Rebels celebrating a championship

For Avi, his players’ skills and success are secondary to how they act on the field.

“I tell the guys, you can be aggressive, but you’re still Jewish football players; You need to reach down and help a guy up, even if you’re the one who knocked him down.”

Avi also believes it’s important for the teams to give back to the community. When Nefesh B’Nefesh flights land in Israel, the Judean Rebels meet the Jewish immigrants at the airport and help carry their luggage.

For Alan, world championships are when he feels proudest being an Israeli and Jewish football player. Not only does he like that it gives people from all over the world the chance “to see what Israelis are really like,” but he says, “We’re able to show that we’re able to be religious Jews and football players.”

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Football games in Israel are well attended

Last year, the world championship fell during Sukkot (Jewish holiday) , and the team brought a Sukkah (hut for worship) with them to Italy. On Shabbat (Jewish Day of Rest), the team sat in their dress clothes and kippot and watched the games from the stands.

Jason Hess, an Oleh from California who plays on the Judean Rebels, believes that the Israeli football teams will only continue to grow.

“Lots of people dream about being able to play professionally,” he said. “In Israel, I am able to fulfill that dream.”

Roger Kelly is an editor and a writer for AFI. A former PR Director the B.C. Lions of the Canadian Football League for 7 years, he now lives in Sweden writing about and scouting American Football throughout the world.