Are you ready for some American football… in Israel?
Aaron Hecht holding the chain at a Jerusalem Lions football game
The Kraft Family Israel (Gridiron) Football League (IFL) is set to kick off its tenth season in a few weeks, with eight teams competing for the league title.
The Jerusalem Lions, the Judean Rebels, the Tel Aviv Pioneers, the Haifa Underdogs, the Petah Tikva Troopers, the Beer Sheva Black Swarm, the Mazkeret Batya Silverbacks and the Ramat HaSharon Hammers make up the roster of teams.
Believers are participants on nearly all these teams as players, managers, coaches and even owners. I myself am an assistant manager of the Jerusalem Lions. I started out in the league five years ago as a player, and although I enjoyed it, I didn’t enjoy getting injured, which happens a lot when you’re playing a full contact sport in your mid-30s. So I moved to a managerial position where I could stay involved but less likely to get hurt.
Although I don’t get paid for my work and, in fact, often pay for the privilege of participating, it provides me the opportunity to obey Jesus’ command to be “salt and light” in one small little corner of Israeli society populated mostly by people who, without football, might not ever have much contact with believers.
Everyone on the team knows I’m a believer, but no one has ever protested my presence. There’s a couple of Arab Catholic guys playing on the team and we pray before every game that there won’t be any injuries and for the game to be a blessing to everyone involved, while the Jewish guys, many of whom are Orthodox, respectfully give us space and privacy. A couple of them even told me that this has inspired them to pray before the games too.
Being involved in the football league also gives me a chance to help build civil society and culture in this country, something government officials often talk about and which I think all believers ought to be actively involved in as much as they can.
Finally, it’s a lot of fun, especially when the Lions win football games, which they do quite often, although it’s been a few years since we won the league championship.
The head coach of the Haifa Underdogs is Jay Armstead, a believer from the US.
“I am grateful to have the opportunity to see some of the guys that I have coached on the national team as they are spread out on all the other teams,” he said, referring to Israel’s recent formation of a national team that has competed in the European League.
Pastor Al Nucciarone of Jerusalem’s Baptist House also leads the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Israel, which has organized several teaching seminars and clinics for the IFL.
“When I first came here nine years ago, the IFL was just getting started. I got a hold of the league and arranged for several coaches to come over and started plugging them in with the IFL. We started off small, then got some momentum and interest. Now we have clinics in five different locations every summer with college and professional coaches and players from the US. We have a permanent invitation from the league. We do this to be salt and light, to help promote peace and community development through sports.”
Cole Kiser is a student from Texas who joined the coaching staff of the Judean Rebels and their high school affiliate, the Warriors.
“It gives you a chance to interact with people you otherwise would not,” he said. “The team aspect of football is unlike any other sport, and when people who do not know each other outside of football come together to achieve a common goal, it’s inspiring.”
“We have high hopes for the year in terms of wins and losses, but ultimately we coaches care much more about character development. We tell our players all the time to make good choices, and that extends much further than the football field. Football teaches teamwork, selflessness, and hard work. These are qualities our players can learn on the football field and apply to other areas of their lives. Not to mention that football is fun! It’s the greatest sport in the world, and to be able to participate in this sport in Jerusalem of all places is an amazing opportunity.”
On behalf of all those believers blessing Israel through their contributions to the IFL, I request prayers that we may be a good reflection of God’s love for this country and its people. I’d ask you to pray for the Lions to win the championship too, but that might not be fair.
In any case, you can find us on Facebook at IFL – The Israel Football League.
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Aaron is a member of Jerusalem Assembly, House of Redemption.