Patriots owner tackles new idea: Israeli womens football team

jerusalem | Large numbers of Israelis watched the Super Bowl on Sunday, Feb.1, cheering on the victorious New England Patriots and their philanthropic-minded owner, Robert Kraft.

Soon they’ll be cheering on a very different football team backed by Kraft — a team of young women, many of them Orthodox Jews.

Kraft does business in Israel, operating the country’s largest packaging plant, Carmel Container Systems in Caesarea. And along with his wife, Myra, Kraft has helped develop a sister-city relationship between his hometown of Boston and Haifa, assisting in the absorption of Haifa’s Ethiopian community.

But Kraft has done something even more unusual, blending his love of Israel with his passion for football by sinking $250,000 into the Kraft Family Stadium. Located at the north end of Sachar Park near the entrance to Jerusalem, the stadium has served for four years as a center for sports in the Israeli capital, hosting youth soccer and softball groups, boys’ baseball and a hugely successful men’s flag football league.

Now the stadium is also home to something new: Israel’s only women’s football team.

“When we first met with the Kraft family, Myra was quite interested and insistent that we do something about women’s sports,” said Steve Leibowitz, stadium director and president of American Football in Israel, which runs the men’s league. “At the time it hadn’t occurred to us because we were involved with men’s football and we didn’t think in terms of women’s football.”

While refereeing a men’s game last October, Leibowitz noticed a group of high school girls watching. He walked over and asked if they wanted to form a women’s team. They jumped at the chance, and two weeks later provided a list of interested players.

Well, not exactly “players.” While the men in the league — mostly Americans spending a post-high school year at an Israeli yeshiva — have been playing the game since childhood, some of the women had never held a football before.

“They had never played — most of them had no concept of the game,” said Yona Mishaan, a perennial MVP in the men’s league who volunteered to coach the women. “I had no idea if this was going to work.”

Mishaan’s aim was to take the 14 women, ages 15 to 23, and make them respectable enough to compete in the international flag football championships next month in the Dominican Republic, where the Israeli national men’s team also will play.

He found his team leader in 17-year-old Shana Sprung, the quarterback, whose experience consisted of playing tackle football at home with two older brothers.

“When I look at this team — I was here from day one — how it was then and what it is now, it’s amazing what a difference,” said Sprung, a native of Miami who made aliyah with her family 15 years ago. “We’re catching the ball. A lot of the girls, when they came out, they didn’t even know, like, how the game worked.”

Because most of the players are observant, there were other concerns. Leibowitz, who called the team “a real breakthrough” for Orthodox women, said he and Mishaan had to calm the fears of the players’ parents, calling a meeting to discuss issues like keeping kosher, observing Shabbat and uniforms. Some will wear pants, while others wear skirts.

Ironically, those uniforms will include the patch of the team’s main sponsor, JDate, a Web site devoted to dating.