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Baseball diplomacy
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Baseball diplomacy

A bar mitzva project of international proportions

When Mica Jarmel-Schneider was looking for a community service project for his bar mitzva four years ago, he decided to think outside the box — in this case, the batter’s box.

Mica wanted to combine his favorite sport with his love for his paternal grandfather, Herb Schneider. How to do that? By donating baseball equipment to the young people of the country that provided refuge for his grandfather and his family during the Holocaust: Cuba.

Schneider, then seven years old, fled Vienna with his mother in 1941 but were unable — for security reasons following Pearl Harbor — to join relatives already established in the United States. They remained in Cuba for two years.

“The U.S. said ‘no’ and Cuba said ‘yes,’” said his son and Mica’s father, Ken Schneider, in a phone interview from the family’s home in San Francisco. “And Mica, with that vision of a 12-year-old, said, ‘I want to thank the people who saved my grandpa’s life.’”

Ken Schneider estimated that Mica collected more than 400 pounds’ worth of balls, bats, gloves, shoes, catcher’s gear, bases, etc., “98 percent” of which came from donations, with the rest purchased with the young man’s bar mitzva gift money.

But when the family hauled some of the gear to the post office, Mica got a quick lesson in international affairs: because of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, the mail could not go through.

“Mica was thrown a curveball, and that was the U.S. embargo,” said his mother, Marcia Jarmel, who works with her husband as a film documentarian. “The embargo makes it nearly impossible to send anything larger than a letter to Cuba from the U.S.”

They worked around that difficulty by traveling to Canada, where Mica mailed three packages. This solution was far from ideal, said Jarmel, as bureaucracy stymied their attempts to track the material. They determined to deliver the rest of the gear personally, a move that had its own challenges.

During this whole process, Mica’s parents decided to make a permanent record of their son’s mitzva project. The result is Got Balz, a feature-length documentary that is in post-production.

Home movies

“We don’t usually make films about our kids,” including Mica’s younger brother, Jaden, said Jarmel. “We started watching what was happening around this project Mica was doing and thinking it was a really interesting story.”

The original plan was to make a short film, but as things got more complicated and Mica began encountering more obstacles, they expanded on their idea. “It started to unfold…and we saw it was bigger than just a project, which is the journey that Mica was undergoing,” Schneider said.

“Mica’s been a good sport about it,” said Jarmel, who spent her “wonder years” in Livingston and attended Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills before moving to Boulder, Colo. “I think he had this vision…that his project could be more helpful than just delivering baseballs to these kids in Cuba, which was his original aspiration. As we talked about this project and what the film could do, I think he was interested in having the possibility of a bigger impact it could bring his little story.”

How difficult was it to deliver the equipment in person?

“Since the Obama administration “lifted some restrictions in January, it’s fairly easy to travel with tour groups and a little easier independently,” said Schneider. The couple could have traveled under the general license as filmmakers doing professional work, Jarmel said, but it would have been impossible to bring the sports gear from the States and to travel independently with their sons.

To circumvent the restrictions, the family traveled via Mexico before spending 10 days in Cuba in the spring of 2011. “We mixed together the various elements of Mica’s journey: Jewish Havana, grandpa’s story, baseball, and the donations. We delivered 200 pounds of gear to the Martin Luther King Center of Havana.” The equipment was distributed on an as-needed basis throughout the island.

They also made a trip to the house where Herb Schneider lived as a child, which has been abandoned for more than a decade, and Mica played ball with a local team against a visiting team from the Dominican Republic. “Baseball is not only big there, but it’s supported,” said Schneider. “These kids came and they had natty uniforms [and] gear, but the team Mica played with had a single helmet, which they had to share. That was an interesting contrast.”

Grandpa Herb did not want to travel to Cuba. “I don’t think he has that same curiosity about that part of his life that Mica does,” said Jarmel. “I think he wanted to leave that part of his life behind him.”

Working with family has its pluses and minuses, said Mica’s parents. The kind of work they do, said Schneider, “is all about trust and relationships, and we don’t want to film people who don’t want to be filmed.”

“There were times when Mica clearly — even though he didn’t say it — didn’t want to be photographed, and we had to…understand that we were documenting a process, that coming of age doesn’t happen the day of the bar mitzva and it’s over,” said Jarmel. “We knew that if we couldn’t get the thing that happened that day there would be another opportunity the next week or the next month.”

Jarmel and Schneider believe Got Balz will be a hit on the film festival circuit. To help raise the $40,000 they need to complete post-production, they have created a project on Kickstarter, an on-line funding platform for creative projects. For more information about the film, visit Gotbalzfilm.info; to contribute, visit kck.st/gotbalz.

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