Sporting Life

Team building

Two Elis and the rapid rise of Israeli lacrosse.

Alex Goldberger ’08 is an Olympics researcher at NBC.

Jay Johnston/Game Day Photography

Jay Johnston/Game Day Photography

Yale lacrosse alums Sara Greenberg ’09 (left) and Jenna Block ’10 (center) played for Israel in this year’s Women’s Lacrosse World Cup. View full image

Pennsylvania native Sara Greenberg ’09 has always felt a deep connection with Israel, a sentiment that led her to move there two years ago to work in venture capital and public policy before starting graduate school. But Greenberg never imagined that she would find herself in Oshawa, Ontario, in July, playing midfield for Israel at the Women’s Lacrosse World Cup.

For the Israeli team, the journey to that stage was as unlikely as it was for Greenberg. The last time the Women’s World Cup was held, in Prague in 2009, organized lacrosse did not exist in Israel. American lacrosse executive Scott Neiss changed that the following year, when he decided to start a national association while visiting the country on a Birthright trip. He quickly organized a men’s program, but the idea of a women’s team barely got off the ground until a mutual friend put him in touch with Jenna Block ’10, a former Yale attacker. Block agreed not only to suit up but to lead the recruiting efforts. “Scott said, ‘Who’s in your rolodex?’” says Block, who is now a healthcare consultant in Washington, DC. “Sara’s name came to the top of my list pretty quickly.”

Not only had Greenberg spent two years playing at Yale, teaming with Block on the 2007 team that reached the NCAA tournament, but her Jewish faith had always been a prominent part of her identity. Her mother’s parents had survived the Holocaust, and both her paternal grandmother and uncle had made aliyah—the Hebrew term for the immigration of Jews to Israel. “I grew up with a deep sense of my personal history and what my grandparents had gone through,” Greenberg says. “Israel lacrosse allowed me to maintain a strong connection and also help the country grow in an innovative way.”

Filling out the rest of the roster was more complicated. The Federation of International Lacrosse, the sport’s governing body, has strict eligibility rules, so players needed either to be citizens already, to have a parent, grandparent, or spouse who was a citizen, or to make aliyah before they could join for the national team. “Putting together the team for the World Cup took a lot more logistics, not just from a financial perspective but from a national identity perspective,” Block says. “It wasn’t quite as easy as identifying Jewish girls who could play the sport”; they had to be “people who are willing to make a lifelong commitment to the state of Israel.”

Following tryouts and an extensive interview process, the group that emerged—nearly all of them veterans of American college lacrosse—was dedicated not just to success on the field but to a dual outreach mission: to grow the game in Israel and raise money for a charity. The team had a week-long training camp in Israel before the tournament, touring the country while practicing and holding clinics for children, most of whom had never seen a lacrosse stick before. “Every day I saw kids moved by the experience, smiling from it,” Block says. “I knew this was a cause worth being involved in for my entire life.”

In Oshawa, Israel began its first World Cup appearance with four wins in a row, then split the next two games before losing in the quarterfinals to Canada, the team the US ultimately defeated in the gold medal game. Two days after losing to Canada, Israel forfeited its Saturday afternoon consolation game to avoid playing on the Jewish Sabbath.

The team ended up in eighth place, which was deemed a success by all involved. “It was the last thing I expected to be doing in Israel. I thought I’d retired from my lacrosse career,” says Greenberg, who is now pursuing a dual master’s in business and public policy at Harvard. “But the experience of playing for Israel with this specific group of women has surpassed any expectations I could have had.”

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