WINNING championships is nothing new for Yochanan Katz, midfielder for the Israeli national lacrosse team that competed last week in the Federation of International Lacrosse World Championships held in Commerce City, Colo.
During his first year playing high school lacrosse in Minnesota in the late 90s — on one of that state’s first six varsity teams — Katz’s talents contributed to his team taking the state championship.
A few years later, when he played as a starter for Colorado State University, Katz’s Rams earned three national championships.
Sadly, last week’s tournament at Dick Sporting Goods Park didn’t earn Israel the lacrosse equivalent of the World Cup — a narrow defeat at the hands of Australia on July 16 ended that dream — but the Israelis wowed the crowds nonetheless.
In its first-ever appearances in the FIL world championships, the Israelis went undefeated in their first five matches, overcoming Sweden, Slovakia, South Korea, Ireland and Germany, all teams that most observers predicted would handily defeat Israel.
After a final match victory against fourth-ranked Japan, Israel had amassed a record of six wins and two losses, impressive enough to guarantee it a number seven world ranking for the next world tournament in 2018.
Katz spoke to the INTERMOUNTAIN JEWS NEWS last week, minutes after Israel defeated Germany by an eyeopening score of 15 to 1. It was the day before his team’s fateful encounter with the high-ranked Aussies and he was plainly concerned about the match against one of the best teams in the sport.
“It’s going to be really tough,” he said of the upcoming match, “but it’s been amazing so far.”
ALTHOUGH the 33-year-old Katz looks rather like a fierce biblical warrior with his long dark beard and Star of Davidemblazoned helmet — and few who have played against him would dispute his fierceness on the field — he is soft-spoken and comes across as a thoughtful and deeply spiritual man.
He is also patient, carefully explaining to his interviewer how the sport of lacrosse came into being and how, in very basic terms, it is played.
A goal-oriented game, like football or basketball, lacrosse is played with a small rubber ball that players catch, carry and pass with a long-handled stick called a “crosse,” tipped with a loose mesh pouch. It’s a fast and often very physical game involving lots of running, checking and body contact.
The game was developed untold centuries ago by Native Americans, probably members of the Iroquois nation which continues to play in international competitions. In fact, during last week’s FIL tournament, the Iroquois team — the only team composed of indigenous people as opposed to a nation — was among the highest-ranked competitors.
“It’s very much a part of their culture, their spirituality,” Katz says of the Iroquois.
“They believe that the game of lacrosse was given to them by the creator — they call it the creator’s game. They also call it a medicine game, a game of healing. They originally used the game to settle disputes between tribes over hunting rights, over land rights, things like that, rather than going to war.”
This year, with Israel making its world debut in the sport’s top tournament, has a new element of Jewish spirituality been introduced to lacrosse?
“Exactly,” replies the Katz, an Orthodox Jew.
He plays midfield, one of the team’s most challenging positions.
“As midfielder, you’re running the full length of the field,” he says. “You’re playing both offense and defense.
“Generally speaking, the defensive players stay on that half of the field, the forwards stay on the offensive side of the field and the midfielders have double duty, playing both on the defensive and offensive sides. All positions need to be especially fit but when you’re running the transition, back and forth, up and down the field, it’s especially important.”
Always athletic, Katz grew up in Minnesota and, not surprisingly considering the northern location, originally aspired to be a hockey player.
“I was at the rink one day and saw a posting that they were starting a new lacrosse program, so I signed up.”
Hooked on the sport almost instantly, he hasn’t looked back since.
After high school, Katz attended a lacrosse camp in Denver.
“It was the first time I ever saw real high-level lacrosse, with kids who had been playing their whole lives. I saw that that was real lacrosse looked like. I progressed to the point where I played at Colorado State, which is where I really learned how to play lacrosse and honed my skills.”
Katz says he is thrilled to be participating in a sport he loves just when its popularity is beginning to soar across the globe.
“From what I’ve heard it’s the fastest growing team sport in the US,” he says.
“The fact that there are now 38 countries represented at the world championships shows that it’s catching on around the world as well. It’s not just an American or Canadian sport anymore.
“I think once people get exposed to it and they see the speed, the physicality and the beauty of the game, they get excited about it. It’s something different. It’s different from soccer, football, all these other sports, but it also contains a lot of the elements of those sports.”
KATZ spent some time after his CSU graduation in Vail, where he worked as a lift operator and ski-boarded daily.
In early 2006, he was talked into attending a Taglit-Birthright trip.
Just as he had done with lacrosse, Katz fell in love with Israel almost immediately.
“It was the first time I ever went to Israel, the first time I ever met a religious Jew,” he says. “I’ve been there, more or less, since then.”
Becoming an Israeli did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm for lacrosse.
About a year ago, he signed up for tryouts for this summer’s tournament in Colorado. He was one of about 80 players vying for a spot on the final roster that was winnowed down to about 45, driving weekly from Jerusalem, where he lives, to Tel Aviv where practices were held, and to Ashkelon for scrimmages.
Obviously, he made the team.
“I got a lot of good feedback from the coaches during that experience,” says Katz. “I had my sights set on giving it my all, trying to make the team, especially knowing that I would have the opportunity to come back to Colorado, where I have a lot of friends.”
Since making aliyah, Katz has not only become one of Israel’s leading lacrosse players, but one of the sport’s most ardent advocates and teachers, despite the fact that until a few years ago lacrosse was virtually unknown there.
He balances his family obligations to his wife and three children and his day job as a photographer with his duties as a player and his volunteer work for Israel Lacrosse, the sport’s central address in the Jewish state.
Israel Lacrosse not only sponsors and trains the national team but works to generate interest in the sport among Israeli youth.
Katz participates in a pilot program in Ashkelon that now sees 70 kids attending after school lacrosse programs three nights a week.
“The goal is to recruit kids for after school lacrosse programs,” he says. “We’re focused in Ashkelon right now and we’re going to try to take the model that’s successful there and move it to other cities.
“What we’re trying to do is develop the youth programs and get these kids, born and bred in Israel, exposed to the sport, interested in the sport. “The real sustainability is going to be from the people themselves in Israel, rather than importing Americans and Canadians.” An Israeli youth team made up of kids under 16 recently traveled to Serbia to compete against international youth teams.
Slowly but surely, Katz says, the sport is catching on. Thousands of Israelis watched the national team play in last week’s tournament via live streaming on ESPN and other websites.
“It’s been growing there,” he says, mentioning that two youthful players from Israel Lacrosse’s Ashkelon program accompanied the national team to Colorado. They will go on to compete in the next Maccabiah Games.
“We hope every year to continue to be able to bring young players to America,” Katz says. “We believe in growing the game and giving back to the game. When they come back to Israel, they teach their friends the techniques and raise the level of lacrosse.”
Someday, he predicts, Israel will even have a professional lacrosse league, putting them on the same level as world lacrosse leaders like England and the US.
“It’s the long-term plan to be able to go to that level and it would be amazing if we were able to get to that point.
“We’re hoping next spring or summer to have our first full club program with four teams represented in Israel — Jerusalem, Ashkelon, Netanya and Haifa — so that’s a start.”
JUST as Katz seems to have seamlessly integrated his new nationality with his love of lacrosse, so too has he integrated his new form of Judaism with the sport.
He was raised in an environment of liberal Judaism.
“I went to a Reform temple, had a Bar Mitzvah and my connection with Judaism until my Birthright trip was minimal,” he says.
“Once I got to Israel it has been a gradual process of reconnecting to my tradition and roots and becoming religious, wanting to raise a family with those values and traditions. I spent a few years at yeshiva when I was there.”
Katz doesn’t consider himself a member of any particular Orthodox community.
“I just belong to the Jewish family,” he says. “There are a lot of different groups within the umbrella of Orthodoxy and there’s not really one specific one that we feel connected to. I do feel a connection to chasidus and I daven at Sephardi shuls, Ashkenazi shuls and Breslov, so I learn a lot from many of the groups.”
His level of observance was no problem during last week’s tournament in Commerce City, says Katz, whose immediate family accompanied him here to cheer him on.
“One of the amazing things about the program is that Scott Neiss, the founder of our organization, the one who has created all of this for the players, decided when he started the program that the team was going to be shomer Shabbat, even though most of the players are not shomer Shabbat themselves.
“We had a game against Slovakia on Saturday and we organized it with the FIL, who were very gracious and enabled us to be able to play the game on Saturday night, unlike all the other teams that played during the day.”
More challenging has been competing in an international tournament at the same time that Israel is entering into what may well be a sustained and bloody conflict against Hamas in Gaza.
“It’s very hard for us to be here and to see what’s going on there,” Katz says.
“Many of us have friends, family, who are there right now, who are being affected by that. My brotherin-law, who lives in Beit Shemesh, has had the sirens going off many times already.
“We have several teammates who weren’t able to come because of their obligations to the IDF.”
He admits that even during matches on the field he felt the tug to be back in Israel, “wanting to be able to support them.”
“Having this experience here, which is so amazing and so joyful, while everything there is so hard, is a real conflict of emotion.”
But Katz says he and his lacrosse teammates managed to find a silver lining to the troubling clouds of war.
“It inspires us to play even harder,” he says, “to really try and do our part here, to bring some good news about Israel. We see it as a tremendous opportunity. To be out there with the Israeli flag on our chests is very inspiring, especially in these challenging times.”
Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News