Albany High grad gets taste of football in Israel

He racked up numbers that would send a tingle up the spine of any NFL scout: 1,200 yards rushing, 22 touchdowns, 67 tackles and five interceptions.

Rosenblum makes a catch in the Israel Football League.

That sums up 21-year-old Avi Rosenblum’s first — and probably only — season with the Ramat Hasharon Hammers of the fledgling Israel Football League.

While Rosenblum had a great rookie campaign, and his team finished the regular season with a 7-2 record, the Hammers’ season ended in disappointment: a six-point overtime loss to the Jerusalem Lions in semifinals of the IFL playoffs.

The Lions went on to play in Israel Bowl VII last month, getting walloped 80-28 by the Tel Aviv Pioneers in front of a packed house of nearly 700 at Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem.

For Rosenblum, an Albany native who grew up as the adopted son of observant Jewish parents, playing football in Israel was, as he put it, “a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was playing with guys who didn’t know much [about football], but they had heart.”

During his months in Israel, Rosenblum lived in a Tel Aviv suburb apartment. He says he did his “fair share” of clubbing and hanging out at the beach, but most of his time was spent working out and practicing for game day.

Despite being a 6-foot-2, 210-pound African American man, Rosenblum said hardly anyone he met in Israel blinked twice when he told them he was Jewish. “There are a lot of Africans there,” he said. “There are many Ethiopians. They’ve seen black Jews.”

Avi Rosenblum (left) and Willie Brown, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in 2010

Rosenblum’s team, the Hammers, is one of 10 in the IFL, which kicked off in 2005 with funding from New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. They play on a 60-yard field, while adhering to a blend of NFL and college football rules, as well as “a few they make up,” Rosenblum said.

Players hail mostly from Israel and include both Arabs and Jews, though there were plenty of imports from North America. Rosenblum said he felt at home from the start.

The former Albany High standout was a triple threat, playing offense, defense and special teams. For most of the season, he rarely left the field. Still, he wasn’t even the best player on his team; that was Jonathan Curran, who was the league’s runner-up MVP after recording 29 touchdowns (either passing, running or catching) and picking off five passes.

Rosenblum said one of the many adjustments he had to make was the kinder, gentler form of play.

“You can’t hit people hard,” he said of the IFL. “They don’t like it. I had to adjust. I broke the league record for penalties.”

The Hammers were called for more than 1,500 yards in penalties — about 150 yards per game. Still, the team tied for the second-best record in the league and had a five-game winning streak at the start of the season.

Rosenblum said he enjoyed the fans, though many do not fully grasp the intricacies of the gridiron.

Rosenblum (center) and two of his teammates in Israel

“[Football] is not big yet, but it’s getting bigger,” he said. “In the playoffs, we had a full stadium. The fans were crazy. You could not hear. I was captain of defense, and I couldn’t hear the plays.”

Rosenblum’s athletic reputation preceded him before joining the Hammers. After playing in high school, he went on to play for both Laney College in Oakland and Merced Community College, though a shoulder injury sidelined him for a while.

He competed twice in baseball at the JCC Maccabi Games and, in 2010, was honored by the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Northern California.

Now back home, he has a job coaching at El Cerrito High School with head coach Kenny Kahn who, like Rosenblum, is also an African American Jew. They’ve known each other for years, and Rosenblum considers Kahn a mentor.

Adding public speaking to his resume, last month Rosenblum spoke to a BBYO teen gathering in Nashville about his experiences of playing football in Israel. He will do the same at a Hebrew school class at Congregation Beth Chaim in Danville next month.

As fun as the experience was, Rosenblum does not think he will return to Israel to play football, despite his love of the country.

“I do want to go back,” he said. “My parents are both Israeli citizens. But it’s too hot over there. I am a true Bay Area kid.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.