Olympics-linked Israel team helped U.S. baseball players better understand their Jewish identity

(JTA) – In May, as the last violent Israel-Gaza conflict Warmed up, Ty Kelly did something he could never do in any other pro baseball dugout: he turned to some teammates for more on the situation.

Kelly, a 32-year-old player who currently plays for the Tacoma Rainiers in the Seattle Mariners’ minor league system, was in Arizona for training camp with Team Israel, linked to the Olympics.

Most of the 24 men on the team are, like Kelly, American Jews who obtained Israeli citizenship to play for the team in Tokyo and other international tournaments. Four, however, are Israel-born players who emerged from the nascent baseball scene in the country and Kelly, who felt caught between sides of the public debate on Israel, wanted to hear them.

Kelly, who spent most of his professional career in the minor leagues but played in the major leagues with the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies, approached his teammates before practice with a question: What were they thinking there continuing violence between Israel and Gaza, while people with personal interests there?

Some of Kelly’s American teammates gathered to hear the discussion. Most Israeli players have criticized Hamas – the militant group that rules the Gaza Strip that the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization – but at least one has also criticized some of Israel’s actions. They also spoke of hearing from their families, who were in and out of the bomb shelters.

“You will only have to take the side of who you are going.” So I wanted to talk to the Israelis, ”Kelly said over the phone from the lobby of a Las Vegas hotel, where the Rainiers had traveled for a series of matches. “It’s nice to hear that there are many sides, even from the Israelis, and that it’s not, you know, always just that everything the Israelis do is perfect and that they don’t can do nothing wrong. But of course, that doesn’t mean the liberal media is covering everything that is true, or anything else, either. So I think it was really good for everyone to hear.

The moment underscored the unique power of Team Israel. As well as being one of six national teams to compete in the Olympics and having a decent medal chance, in part thanks to the presence of Ian Kinsler, a former Major League All-Star, the team has also united different types of Jews from the baseball diaspora into a tight-knit group – and pushed several of its American members to come closer to their Jewish identity.

Ty Kelly defeated in an exhibition game with the team in Arizona in May 2021. (Courtesy of Israel Baseball)

Kelly, for example, was born to a Catholic father and a Jewish mother in Dallas and grew up playing CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) basketball, eventually attending a Catholic school. His family celebrated both Christian and Jewish holidays, but he felt no strong connection with either, or with religion in general.

“I never assumed there was anything contradictory just because I assumed every person in the world was American and lived exactly like me,” he said.

Kelly is one of many players with at least one Jewish parent that Israel Baseball Association president Peter Kurz has recruited over the past decade as candidates for the team. His trip to Israel, the process of obtaining citizenship (which involves providing family history documents to prove his or her Jewishness) and becoming close friends with many of the team’s Jewish players have all made it happen. feel much more connected to Jewish culture.

His mother’s family, some of whom live in Florida, were delighted to be on the team.

“In a way, rediscovering everything and getting closer to Israel and Judaism, the Jewish people – that was so cool,” he said. “Hanging out with my mom’s side of the family… everyone has stories from Hebrew school or friends in Israel, like ‘you have to go see this person the next time you’re in Israel.’ … I think it was really cool because they are all so proud of me. And [they’re] so happy to have more ties to Israel. They are all so proud to be Jewish… I think it’s very cool for them, which in turn makes it even cooler for me.

These days he lives in Los Angeles during the offseason – where there are, in his words, “lots of people to celebrate” Jewish holidays. Shlomo Lipetz, one of the few Israel-born players on the team and a sports pioneer in his homeland, noted in an interview that Kelly’s Hebrew pronunciation, which he practiced on the popular Duolingo app, is perfect. (Kelly recently focused on Spanish in the app, believing he couldn’t speak Hebrew fluently without being more in Israel.)

Some players on Team Israel are now invested in helping popularize baseball in Israel, a country where few know the sport, let alone play it. Kinsler, one of the team’s de facto captains and its only former all-star in the major leagues, says that is his “primary focus” while playing for the team.

“A medal for Team Israel would create that buzz,” Kinsler said, and “obviously draw more attention to the sport. So it’s exciting to think about all of this.

The Jewish National Fund-USA’s Project Baseball initiative, which has funded the team in recent years, is working on building a field complex in the town of Beit Shemesh, which Kurz hopes will be able to host leagues. winter in the near future – similar to those in Latin American countries, Florida and other warm places where professional players go to hone their skills during the MLB offseason.

Kinsler, 39, has been one of professional baseball’s best second basemen throughout his 13-year career, which began in 2006. He finished with a less than 2,000 hit – an exclusive club with less than 300 members. Kinsler is one of the reasons the team thinks they have a good chance of securing a medal in Tokyo when they face just five other teams – the United States, Japan, South Korea, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. . (Many U.S. and Dominican major league players don’t leave their teams to participate in games.)

Israel’s first game, against the United States, will take place on July 30. It will be the country’s first game at the Olympics in baseball, returning to the Summer Games for the first time since 2008.

Kinsler grew up in Arizona with a religious background similar to Kelly’s – he had a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, and did not identify with any of these traditions, entering synagogues and churches only a handful of times in total. But watching his father compile his Jewish family tree sparked interest in his Jewish heritage. He learns more about his paternal grandparents, who fled Germany in the 1930s.

“My father was able to contact the New York temple where he had his bar mitzvah,” Kinsler said. “It was a lot of work. And it was a lot of phone calls and legwork. But you know, in the end, it was totally worth it.

Ian kinsler

Ian Kinsler bubbles while playing second in an exhibition game in Arizona. (Courtesy of Israel Baseball)

Kinsler traveled to Israel to complete the application process in March 2020 on one of the last flights allowed into the country hours before foreign flights were shut down due to the growing spread of COVID-19. He was only there a few days but really enjoyed the experience – photos posted on the player’s social media holding a shofar like a baseball bat.

“We were up at 6 am and we went until 10 pm. Basically all week. And we did it all, ”Kinsler said of the trip, during which he was accompanied by his wife. “We went to Jerusalem, we went to the Dead Sea… the whole experience was only revealing and moving. And I want to come back. I want to bring my children there.

Kinsler said that in the major leagues his few fellow Jewish players knew each other and felt a certain sense of camaraderie. For example, on a bus at an all-star game, Jewish slugger Ryan Braun approached Kinsler and asked him, “You’re Jewish, aren’t you? ”

But the feeling of being in Arizona training camp surrounded only by Jewish players was “surreal,” he said. Kinsler, who said he doesn’t follow the news very much, added that the Israel-Gaza conversation initiated by Kelly was a highlight of the experience.

“There has to be a better word than exciting… that felt right to me,” he said. “It’s just a bunch of a bunch of really good guys enjoying their time together by taking this opportunity. I guess you can tell it was refreshing.

Some of the players were already more in touch with their Jewishness. Pitcher Jeremy Bleich, a former minor leaguer who briefly played in the majors with the Oakland Athletics in 2018 but now works for the Pittsburgh Pirates front office, helping players understand and digest the findings of complex analysis. He grew up in a conservative, kosher home in suburban New Orleans and has been to Israel four times, including once via Birthright.

Bleich said this team is closer than all the others because of the sensitivity formed from the players’ collective Jewish experiences.

“As a professional baseball player, there is like a buffer period in getting to know your teammates. And in this case, we didn’t need this buffer period, ”he said. “That familiarity kind of propelled us forward.”

Throughout the 2017 World Baseball Classic, the team mascot – a life-size Mensch on a bench – summarizes the fun that the team had together. He might not return for the Olympics, as the man behind the idea, former player Cody Decker, is no longer with the squad. But Kelly said it wasn’t too bad.

“It was really a Cody Decker thing… so I don’t know,” Kelly said. “I feel like everyone probably wants to separate World Baseball Classic from that because it’s a new team as well. But I mean, if [Decker] gets to make it to Tokyo… we can use any support we can get.

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