For two former New Jerseyans on Israel’s first national women’s lacrosse team, it was a dramatic end to a year of high-flying successes.
Stephanie Tenenbaum and Lauren Dykstra, both midfielders, and their teammates for the first time made it to the Federation of International Lacrosse World Cup held July 11-20 in Oshawa, Canada. After defeating such top-15 teams as Germany, Scotland, and New Zealand, Team Israel lost to third-ranked Canada in the quarterfinals.
But whatever disappointment they might have felt was softened by the fact that, even if they had made it to the finals, they would have forfeited, for a reason that brought pride to the entire team. The Gold Medal game was scheduled for Saturday, July 20, and the Israel Lacrosse Association had made a decision to refrain from playing any matches on Shabbat.
When a match against the North American-based Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Nation was also scheduled for Saturday, July 20, Team Israel decided to forfeit and accept eighth place — not bad for a previously unranked team.
“We want lacrosse to be the national sport of Israel,” said Tenenbaum, adding that the team’s decision not to play on Shabbat is part of “our responsibility to keep the organization connected to Israel’s — and Judaism’s — cultural roots.”
Tenenbaum, originally from Short Hills, made aliya after graduating from New York University in 2007, and served in the Israel Defense Forces for two years. Named one of Israel’s three team captains, she has been a vital force in both the establishment and success of the country’s lacrosse program.
Dykstra grew up in Mendham and played lacrosse for Mendham High School before she was recruited to play for Lehigh University. “My motivation to play for Team Israel was not only to play lacrosse again but also to get connected to my Jewish heritage,” said Dykstra, now a dual citizen.
Israel’s national women’s lacrosse team was formed after a series of intense tryouts held in both Tel Aviv and in New Jersey, at the Peddie School in Hightstown. It is comprised of 20 mostly dual American-Israeli citizens or American immigrants. Many of the Jewish American players previously played lacrosse for both NCAA Division 1 and Division 3 teams in the United States.
Israel Lacrosse, just three years old, began as the idea of New York native Scott Neiss, former executive of the North American Lacrosse League and National Lacrosse League. After visiting Israel through Taglit-Birthright Israel, Neiss decided to bring lacrosse to a country in which the sport was practically unheard of.
“We’re basically developing the sport from the top down, and also from the bottom up,” said Tenenbaum. “We’re trying to spread the word about lacrosse and get sticks in as many children’s hands as possible,” including Jewish and Arab Israelis and Palestinians.
Israel Lacrosse holds free clinics around the country. During their own training camp, members of the women’s national team held a lacrosse clinic at Soccer for Peace, a nonprofit organization dedicated to uniting Arab and Israeli children through soccer. Members also held a clinic for the girls of Bet Elazraki Children’s Home in Netanya, which provides psychological and academic support for over 200 at-risk youth.
“It was amazing for our team to know that we gave these girls something to look forward to and we became role models for them to look up to,” said Dykstra.
While raising funds for their trip to the World Cup in Canada, members of the women’s national team chose to support other Israeli nonprofits. Members visited Yad Vashem with the Adopt-a-Safta program; planted trees for Jewish National Fund; picked onions for needy families with Leket, Israel’s national food bank; and visited soldiers at an army base with Friends of the IDF.
“Representing Israel to us is so much about Jewish values, and a huge value in Judaism is giving back to the community,” said Tenenbaum.
Tenenbaum said she is proud of her team’s impressive performance at the World Cup. “It’s a testament to all the hard work so many people have put into this organization, and also all the amazing, amazing Jewish Americans who have chosen to really adopt Israel as their homeland, become dual citizens, and help this sport grow in Israel,” she said.