They built it, and they came.
In June 2014, The Times of Israel was the first to report that Major League Baseball sportswriter Jonathan Mayo and his childhood friend filmmaker Jeremy Newberger hoped to organize a Birthright Israel-type trip for professional Jewish American baseball players, and make a film about it.
It took two and a half years for the pair, along with Newberger’s partners at Ironbound Films, Daniel A. Miller and Seth Kramer, to turn this dream into a reality. The idea picked up momentum and financial backing only after Israel managed to field a qualifying team for the 2017 World Baseball Classic comprised mostly of American Jewish players. An Israel trip for 10 of the team’s 28 members took place in January 2017, two months before the WBC.
Now the filmmakers have hit it out of the park with their documentary about Team Israel’s journey, titled “Heading Home.” It premiered at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival in February and will travel the Jewish film festival circuit before screening in movie theaters this summer.
The film has more than enough on-the-field action to satisfy sports fans. However, the filmmakers never take their eye off the ball: The growth and transformation of the players’ Jewish identity as they get in touch with their heritage by visiting and playing for Israel.
“Heading Home” follows the players from the September 2016 WBC Qualifiers in Brooklyn, to their Israel trip, and through to their stunning and unexpected performance at the international tournament played in Korea and Japan.
Ranked 41st going into the tournament, Team Israel beat South Korea, Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands in the first round. They then beat Cuba before losing to the Netherlands and Japan in the second round. Having finished sixth out of 16 teams, Team Israel automatically qualifies for the 2021 WBC.
To go to bat for the Jewish state, the American players took a break from spring training or came out of retirement. Many play or have played in the minor leagues. Some, including Ike Davis, Ryan Lavarnway, Ty Kelly, Sam Fuld , Josh Zeid, Cody Decker, Nate Freiman and Jason Marquis, also have major league experience.
Former Houston Astros pitcher Josh Zeid, who played for the inaugural Team Israel (which missed qualifying for the 2013 WBC by one run), was an obvious choice for this team. Zeid openly and proudly speaks about his Jewish identity (including his Jewish education and bar mitzvah) and was eager to represent Israel again.
It wasn’t so easy to figure out which other MLB players qualified to play for Israel under the heritage rule, which allows any player to play for a country as long as he qualifies for citizenship of that country. In Israel’s case, a player would need to be able to provide proof of at least one Jewish grandparent to potentially qualify for citizenship under the Right of Return.
Like Jewish needles in a goyische haystack
“It was like working with tweezers to pick out these Jewish players. We knew who some of them were, but most of them we didn’t know. We had scouts in the US who volunteered to help us locate eligible players,” said Margo Sugarman, secretary general of the Israel Association of Baseball.
Sugarman told The Times of Israel that most of the players contacted were pleased to accept the offer to join Team Israel.
“The ones who didn’t join the team were ones who couldn’t take time away from spring training. They just couldn’t take themselves out of the fray professionally,” she said.
According to Mayo, it isn’t necessarily so easy for an American professional baseball player to decide to play for Team Israel. He was pleased to see that so many stepped up to the plate to embrace their Jewish identities.
“It can be daunting for some people to play on behalf of Israel and the Jewish state. It’s fine being known as a Jewish player. It’s another to walk out onto the field in an international competition with “ISRAEL” on your jersey and a Jewish Star on your hat,” Mayo said.
Ty Kelly, a 29-year-old utility player with the New York Mets, was one of the players with whom Sugarman and her IAB associates were not originally familiar. He grew up with an Ashkenazi Jewish mother and Irish Catholic father and had a passing cultural awareness of Jewish holidays and practices. Israel was not something he really thought about.
“Israel was not at all on my radar when I was growing up. I only saw what was on the news and grouped it together with other stuff about the conflicts in the Middle East,” Kelly told The Times of Israel in a phone conversation from Florida, where he had just finished up batting practice during a recent day of spring training.
Israel was not at all on my radar when I was growing up
When a student at UC Davis, he became aware of the Birthright Israel program, but as a serious college athlete, he was unable to take time out for the trip.
Kelly was one of 10 Team Israel players to board casino magnate and Jewish philantrohopist Sheldon Adelson’s private jet bound for Israel in January 2017. (The rest of the trip was funded primarily by Chicago real-estate investor and The Jewish Baseball Museum founder Jeff Aeder. The film was funded by Aeder, the JNF, and a Kickstarter campaign).
Each player was invited to bring along a family member. Kelly brought his mother, who had also never been to Israel. Zeid brought his Lutheran wife Stephanie on the trip.
Zeid speaks candidly on camera about their families’ initial opposition to their interfaith relationship as they shop in the Arab market in Jerusalem’s Old City for an olive-wood Christmas creche for Stephanie’s mother.
“Stephanie absolutely loved Israel. Playing baseball brought me to her, but continuing to play baseball has brought us closer. It has given us amazing opportunities to grow closer as a family and getting to see Israel together was the ultimate gift. I wouldn’t have wanted to see Israel with anyone else,” Zeid told The Times of Israel.
Miller said he, his directing partners, and Mayo wanted to make an unapologetically Zionist film to counter the negativity about Israel in America and the rest of the Diaspora. The production team grew up in Zionist youth movements and visited Israel many times.
“Zionism and Israel shaped us, but these guys’ [the players’] Jewish identity’s development was stunted by their athleticism, so it was really enlightening for us to see their transformation through being part of Team Israel and the Israel trip,” Miller said.
The players said they found the trip to Israel eye opening. They hit all the major historical and tourist sites in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and visited Masada and the Dead Sea. They also helped artist Solomon Souza spray paint a large street mural of Jewish baseball legend Sandy Koufax on a door in an alleyway in Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood.
Praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem proved to be an exceptionally spiritually moving experience, as was visiting Yad Vashem.
“At Yad Vashem, even if you are not actually at the concentration camps in Poland, you can feel the pain condensed into the museum. It’s different than reading about it in a book or seeing images on TV,” Kelly said.
“To see the Star of David as something negative [in the Holocaust] and then to be able to wear it on our hats and jerseys as a positive symbol and something to be proud of came to mean a lot to me,” he said.
Although baseball is not yet widely popular in Israel (some 1,000 people currently play the sport in the country, according to Sugarman), sizeable and enthusiastic crowds came out to meet the players at events in Petach Tikva and Beit Shemesh. These were opportunities for the players to understand how much they were admired — as well as meet the Israelis they would be representing at the WBC.
American Jewish baseball fans like New Yorker Dave Landesberg also rooted for Team Israel instead of Team USA, although it meant getting up at odd hours to watch Team Israel’s games.
Landesberg contributed to the “Heading Home” Kickstarter campaign and began reading up on the players and following their social media feeds. He feels Team Israel was underestimated. “Baseball is a great sport, because any team can win at any time,” he said.
Kelly attributes much of the team’s success to its cohesiveness, a result of the emotional experience that the core group of players had together in Israel.
“In baseball, team chemistry is not something you think about so much, but it was a huge thing on this team. This was one of the best teams I’ve played on. The guys were tight, and no one was acting the superstar,” Kelly said.
Heading to the Jewish homeland made all the difference to the players.
“Having been to Israel, and seeing the daily life and growth of baseball there, gave me a country, nation and purpose to play for. I hope we made Israel proud,” Zeid said.