Many of the sixth graders playing baseball last Friday at the Baptist Village field in Petah Tikva have never heard of the Mets or Kansas City Royals, the two teams that recently faced off in the 2015 World Series.
“Nope, they don’t know anything about stats or teams,” said Peter Kurz, who is president of the Israel Association of Baseball, the nonprofit organization that brings baseball to the Middle East. “Some of them come because it’s a good way to learn English.”
This particular baseball program for sixth graders is called Baseball for All, offering a chance for Arab and Jewish kids to coexist for a 24-hour period.
The kids — fifteen 12-year-olds from the Jewish town of Modi’in and 15 sixth graders from a Christian Orthodox school in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Ramle — were meeting for their third time on this particular Friday, having met two times last spring. Their third meeting, scheduled back in October, was postponed when the recent spree of knifing attacks began.
Now, however, things seemed calmer and the organization’s officials felt the kids would be fine together.
“It’s our little contribution to coexistence in Israel,” said Kurz.
The point of the organization is to teach baseball, of course, as well as the wholesome values of the American-founded sport. Kurz called it “a values-oriented kind of thing.”
“It’s not like soccer with all the cursing on the field,” he said. “We really try to teach them leadership and sportsmanship, playing as a team.”
The baseball association also strives for a full, geographic dispersal of the players, aiming to have secular kids from Tel Aviv play with religious kids from Jerusalem, said Kurtz, as well as the program for Jewish and Arab kids, some of who are Christian, and others who are Muslim.
“There’s no massive political agenda,” said Margo Lipshitz Sugarman, the secretary general of the organization. “Ninety five percent of what gets done is just playing ball together. When the kids get out and play, they ignore the differences. It’s a really nice interaction without requiring anything.”
Baseball is a new sport for most of the kids who play, said Sami Salman, a 19-year-old coach from Ramle, who first began playing when he was in high school. “It improves their English because many of the coaches speak in English and they want to understand what they’re saying.”
The Baseball for All teams always mix Arabs and Jews — there were only a few girls this time around – as well as in the rooms at Baptist Village, where they spend one overnight each time they meet.
The kids end up hanging out together, eating meals, chatting and acting like a team, said Lipshitz Sugarman.
“You get excited by the game and the cooperation between Arabs and Jews,” said Salman. “That’s what happened to me.”
Kurz noted that this time, following the recent spate of violence, the Jewish kids from Modi’in came specifically to have exposure to the Arab kids, given their wholly Jewish hometown. The Arab kids from Ramle, however, coexist with Jews in their city, he said, and usually come to baseball for the introduction to the all-American sport.
They come to Baptist Village on late Thursday afternoon, where they do some warm-ups on the field and at batting stations. After dinner there’s usually an evening game followed by a movie and time to hang out.
On Friday morning, they start with breakfast and a round robin of morning games before gathering for lunch and a final session to discuss the experience.
Kurz said he expected some negative reactions at this most recent session, given the recent wave of terror attacks and tension. But the only problem was that the kids stayed up too late and dragged a little the next morning.
“It generates this feeling of being pretty much all the same,” said Lipshitz Sugarman. “There’s no grand political statement, they’re all just positive.”
The program is still new for the Israel Baseball Association, which has been in existence for 25 years. There are around 1,000 people playing baseball in Israel, with teams and games for kids and adults.
Some get to play on proper baseball fields, like the one in Baptist Village and Kibbutz Gezer, near Ramle, but most end up running bases on soccer fields and empty lots, added Kurz. Funding for the baseball program comes from the Jewish National Fund’s Project Baseball, which does some baseball field development, as well as from Citibank Israel and other individual donors.
Half a dozen national teams play overseas each summer, in youth and adult championships in Europe.
Like many of the parents involved in the organization, both Kurz and Lipshitz Sugarman became involved because their own children played baseball. Kurz said he was more of a fan than a player as a kid growing up in Manhattan, but ended up coaching a Tel Aviv team when they needed someone to fill in.
“The head coach told me, ‘You know a lot more than they do,’” he said, when he was asked to step up from assistant coach to head coach.
“Growing up in New York, baseball is just ingrained in you,” he said. “For kids here, it’s not ingrained in them. They come because their parents send them to learn English on the field or to get rid of them on Friday afternoon so they can take a nap. Israeli parents are much less involved than American parents.”
“It shouldn’t be a big deal for an Arab kid and a Jewish kid to eat breakfast together and chat and toss a ball”
The Baseball for All program is geared for sixth graders, an age when kids are relatively coordinated and old enough to be away from home for a night, but not “too old to have hardened ideas about each other,” said Lipshitz Sugarman.
The organization’s officials also meet with the players’ parents in between the games, bringing them to play on the field as well, in order to have a taste of what their kids are experiencing.
“We had Muslim women wearing abayas and they grabbed gloves and were throwing balls,” said Lipshitz Sugarman. “So much positive comes out of it.”
The players may eventually end up on different teams, competing against each other but they also train together at summer camps and holiday clinics.
The association hopes to include several Ramle teams in the national league next spring, and to introduce other Arab towns to the sport. They also want to work with Tel Aviv’s Regosin School, an elementary school with a mixed population of local kids born to foreign workers and refugees from Africa.
“It shouldn’t be a big deal for an Arab kid and a Jewish kid to eat breakfast together and chat and toss a ball,” said Lipshitz Sugarman. “We make it something that you do. We’re not bringing world peace but it can bing a small group of kids to walk out of here and have a different attitude.”