As Spencer Rockman, who has been conducting adult and youth soccer camps and programs for 40 years in central New Jersey, davened in morning minyan four years ago, he sensed God telling him to take his skills and message of unity to Israel.
As he sat at Congregation Etz Ahaim in Highland Park that April morning, said the Edison resident, “I felt something in this particular posek [verse] that was very powerful.”
The forceful verse spoke of Abraham’s departure for Beersheva. After consulting his rabbi, David Bassous, Rockman knew he was destined to go where Abraham went — and so began Rovers International Soccer Beersheva and Beyond Adventure Camps, a series of summertime soccer clinics in Israel.
However, despite having touched the lives of thousands of Ethiopian immigrants, underprivileged Israeli kids, and those who live with the threat of missile attacks, Rockman knew part of the divine message remained unfulfilled. Because the Genesis passage also notes that Abraham “returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheva,” Rockman said, he “always had this sense others would come with me.”
The “young men” turned out to be Justin Weissbrod of Scotch Plains and Jesse Talmud of East Brunswick, cocaptains of the soccer team at Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union in West Orange, who accompanied Rockman on his “soccer mission” this summer.
The June 18-July 8 trip “was a great opportunity to give back to the Land of Israel, which we love, and combine our passions, which are Torah, soccer, and giving back to the community,” said Jesse, 17.
For Justin, 18, the experience was one he “will never forget because we saw these kids who had so little and it really made us appreciate what we have.”
Justin met Rockman at a program at his synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains, where Rockman’s brother Ron and his family, belong.
“When I heard about what he was doing I knew I really wanted to get involved,” said Justin, the son of Linda and Peter Weissbrod. “I told him I had another friend who would want to get involved because we both love soccer and are spiritually connected to the Land of Israel.”
Jesse, whose family, coincidentally, belongs to Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick, where Rockman’s brother Bruce is cantor, shared his friend’s enthusiasm.
“As soon as Justin told me about it, I said, ‘That sounds amazing’ because it combines everything I love to do,” said Jesse, the son of Steve and Shelley Talmud.
The young men solicited donations of sports equipment from Soccer Stadium in East Brunswick and Champion Sports in Marlboro. Swiss Air waived the extra baggage charges.
Justin and Jesse “were sent from above,” said Rockman. “The itinerary was very demanding and they passed each test and challenge along the way.”
The youths said one particularly moving experience was a stop at Nitzan, where former settlers from Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip were still living in trailers five years after the evacuation.
“Both of us really felt bad for them,” said Jesse. “It was terrible how they have to live, but we felt great about what we were doing for them. It was a great cause.”
The “unity through soccer” programs emphasize midot (character), mitzvot (divine commandments), and mumhiyut (skills), said Rockman. Among this year’s clinics at 19 locations in five cities were programs for Potchim Atid, a nationwide mentoring program for at-risk youth, for Ethiopian teens at three Beersheva locations, and for the Neradim Youth Village in Arad.
The camps are held in memory of Capt. Shai Bernstein, an Israeli tank commander from Beersheva killed in 2006 during the Second Lebanon war.
Rockman founded Rovers International Soccer in Edison 40 years ago and cofounded Edison United Soccer Association, whose complex bears his name. He was honored two years ago by the Edison Council for pioneering more than 30 grassroots initiatives, conducting more than 15,000 clinics, and mentoring “tens of thousands” of youth in Edison and around the world.
Locally, Rockman also runs an annual fund-raiser for children with cancer and blood disorders and has run a fund-raiser to help build a health clinic and library in Zambia.