Avraham Dov Rosenblum gets stared at a lot on the streets of Israel. That’s because he’s not an elderly Ashkenazi man, as his name might suggest, but rather a 6’2”, 200 pound, 20-year-old, dark-skinned African American football player for the Ramat Hasharon Hammers. Rosenblum (known as Avi), who came from Albany, California to join the semi-pro Israel Football League, doesn’t let the inquisitive looks faze him.
“People stare at me all the time, but I just stare back at them. I think it’s amusing,” he says. The adopted only son of a white Jewish couple, he’s had a lifetime to get used to people’s prejudices and misconceptions.
“He’s had many experiences walking in to Jewish teen dances and being told, ‘Excuse me, but this event is for Jewish kids,’” recalls his mother, Debby Graudenz, the daughter of a Holocaust-survivor rabbi. “We’ve watched him deal with these kind of situations.”
She’s proud of how despite challenges like this, her son has successfully integrated the various aspects of his identity. She attributes much of the relative ease with which Avi has done so to the acceptance and support their family has received at Netivot Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Berkeley, where they have attended Shabbat services every week since Avi was five months old.
“I’m black, but I’m really Jewish,” Avi puts it simply. Graudenz, a child, adolescent and family psychotherapist, and her husband Rom Rosenblum, an applications engineer, adopted their son in the first public trans-racial adoption in the state of Texas.
“The restriction on trans-racial adoptions had just been taken off,” notes Rom. The adoption was closed, but when Avi was 15, his birth mother tried to initiate contact. As of today, he hasn’t met his birth mother, who sent him on an emotional rollercoaster by recently canceling a planned meeting.
However, Avi has established relations with two of his three biological half-siblings (each of his birthmother’s children has a different father), as well as with an uncle and cousin. The identity and whereabouts of his biological father is unknown.
“It was very upsetting for Avi to find out that he has a younger sister who was not given up for adoption,” his father says. “He was wondering what was wrong with him that he was the one to be given away.”
But it turns out that the 19-year-old sister is one of the siblings Avi has gotten to know, and they get along well. Avi’s stay in Israel for at least a year is a chance for him to put some distance between him and those emotional ups and downs. It’s also a break from academics. He attended and played football at two different junior colleges post-high school, but he thinks he might have gone as far as he can with his schooling. “I’m more of an athlete than a student,” he says.
“Avi struggled in school, because he came to the world with some [learning] challenges,” Rom explains. “But in sports, he is extraordinary. He is unbelievably talented in sports. He makes it all look so effortless.”
“He’s there on every play. He has a sense of the way things happen. He doesn’t have to think about it,” he said of his son, who in addition to being a two-way starter in football, also excels at baseball and won a 2010 award from the Jewish Hall of Fame of Northern California. He has also been an active competitor in the JCC Maccabi Games.
Avi, who took his first steps in the Oakland A’s dugout back when his father worked in sports broadcasting, thrives on the intensity of high-level sports. “I like it when they put pressure and demands on me to perform. Even if coaches scream at me, I stay focused,” he shares. “I don’t crumble under pressure.”
Although Avi was originally slated to play for the four-time reigning champion Tel Aviv/Jaffa Sabres, he transferred to the Hammers for a better fit. Sabres coach Ehud Epstein described Avi as “intuitive, passionate, and high-energy.” His aggressive, physical style of play was better suited to what the Hammers coach (who has coached college football at Ohio State) was looking for.
Avi says he is getting along well with the other players, many of whom are considerably older than the guys he is used to playing with. “I’m the baby of the team,” the player notes. “Some of the other guys have jobs and kids. Others are in school or the army.”
Epstein says that Avi’s skin color is a non-issue. “Once you have Muslims and Jews playing together, color doesn’t matter.” Avi has been putting his best foot forward in practices and is looking forward to the Hammers’ first regular season game against the Big Blue Jerusalem Lions on December 12.
However, given his dream of one day playing in the NFL, he thinks its unlikely that he will want to stay on playing football in Israel for many seasons His parents, who were among the founders of Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava Valley in the early 1970s, would be very happy to see him “find a nice Israeli girl, settle down, and give us some Jewish grandchildren,” as Rom puts it.
For his part, Avi, who had only been to Israel once before joining the IFL, hasn’t warmed up to such an idea. The Tel Aviv weather alone is enough to discourage him from putting down roots in Israel. “It’s too hot for me!”