It’s a classic Cinderella story. Except these women aren’t wearing dresses and tiaras – but jerseys, cleats, shin guards and sheer determination.
Three years ago, there was no high-level professional women’s soccer team in Jerusalem. Founded in 2020, the Hapoel Jerusalem team has advanced against all the odds to the women’s Premier League and is now ranked second nationally. This season, the team was undefeated until game 14, when it lost to the top-ranked FC Kiryat Gat.
It has been an uphill battle for the team and its founders, backers and supporters. In a country where female sports are largely an afterthought, women’s soccer is mostly ignored by mainstream media, financially struggling and often facing backlash from more conservative elements of society.
To get where it is today, since 2011 Hapoel Jerusalem has worked its way up from the bottom, first launching neighborhood leagues, and then teams for young girls and amateur women’s leagues across the city.
“Until we started our activities, if you were a girl or a woman and you wanted to play soccer in Jerusalem, you had no option at all,” said Uri Sheradsky, CEO of the entire Hapoel Jerusalem club, which includes the headline-grabbing men’s professional team.
This season, there is a team from Jerusalem in the eight-club women’s Premier League for the first time in history. And Hapoel Jerusalem is one of only two clubs in the State of Israel to have a team in both the women’s and men’s premier league.
Love of the game
On a frigid Jerusalem evening in mid-January, the players gathered for one of their thrice-weekly practices. Having come from work or school, they assembled first to celebrate the birthday of one of the players, then reviewed video of their game a week earlier and finally heading out onto the field to practice into the late evening hours.
With little to nothing in the way of income, the team is supported by local and foreign grants, including a sizable investment from the local branch of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Despite playing in the country’s highest women’s league, the team – and women’s soccer in general – doesn’t garner even a fraction of the media attention granted to the high-profile Hapoel Jerusalem men’s team.
The team was established ahead of the 2020-2021 season with the help of Ziva Assayag Benayoun, its founding and current manager, who retired three years ago from a long career in the Jerusalem Municipality working on projects related to women’s advancement.
As a child growing up in Jerusalem, Assayag Benayoun said she longed to play soccer, but her father stood in her way. Decades later, she achieved her goal by helping found the Hapoel Jerusalem professional women’s team.
“I realized it was my dream. It was something I was stopped from doing as a child – my father didn’t allow me to play soccer; he cut a hole in my ball and told me I couldn’t play anymore,” she recalled. Many years later, she jumped at the “opportunity to support so many women who want to play soccer today.”
Journey to the top
The Hapoel Jerusalem women’s team, officially known as Hapoel Bnot Katamon Jerusalem, was launched ahead of the 2020-2021 season, joining the lowest-ranked Arzit League. At the end of its very first season on the field, it finished in second place and was promoted to the Leumit League for the 2021-2022 season.
Last year, the team once again finished the season in second place in the Leumit League and was promoted to the Premier League, the top women’s soccer league in Israel. The team is currently ranked second nationally in the Premier League, with 7 wins, 7 ties and one loss.
“We didn’t think when we got here [to the Premier League] that we would get to this point,” said Assayag Benayoun. “We want to go as far as we can – we don’t know where that is yet.”
Spanning ages 16-40, they are Christian, Muslim and Jewish, secular and religious – and there is even one Haredi athlete, who plays in a specially designed skirt
The team is composed of a diverse range of women who came from all walks of life with just one goal in mind: playing soccer. Spanning ages 16-40, they are Christian, Muslim and Jewish, secular and religious – and there is even one Haredi athlete, who plays in a specially designed skirt approved by the Israel Football Association.
The team is made up of “people I’m unlikely to meet on a day-to-day basis, but we get together here, talk, get to know each other,” said player Adva Bucholtz, a religious 17-year-old from Efrat who has played for Hapoel Jerusalem teams since the 7th grade. “We’re all from the world of soccer, so we connect on that, even if we’re from very different worlds.”
Noura Abu Shanab, 35, a native of Jadeidi-Makr in the north, joined Hapoel Jerusalem at the start of this season after close to 20 years of playing with a range of other Israeli teams. She said the team is diverse in age and background, but everyone works together seamlessly.
“The people on this team, the chemistry between us, is like a puzzle where all the pieces fit together,” said Abu Shanab. “As long as there is respect for one another, it doesn’t matter. I’m Arab, but I don’t feel like anyone looks at me differently or treats me differently – the opposite. We have chemistry and synchronization and it’s based on mutual respect.”
‘The chemistry between us is like a puzzle where all the pieces fit together’
Janet Egyir of Ghana is one of five foreign players to join the team this season, along with athletes from Brazil and Nigeria. Egyir, 30, has previously played professionally in Iceland as well as in her home country.
“I have never been to Israel, and I had read a lot of stories in the Bible about Israel – and when they said the club was in Jerusalem I was very much happy,” said Egyir. “I am very happy here – the club honestly has really taken care of me… they received me as family.”
Egyir said so far her time with the team has exceeded her expectations.
“We have a very young team and we are eager to play,” she said. “The target for this season was to stay in the league, and we are doing great so far.”
Bucholtz said that since joining the Premier League, “the level is much higher, much more professional, much more demanding. But we worked hard to get here over the past two years, and it’s great to be here.”
Peace through soccer?
CEO Sheradsky said the club spends around NIS 1.7 million ($500,000) annually on the women’s team, compared to around NIS 15 million ($4.5 million) on the men’s team.
He said the women’s team has received about NIS 300,000 ($90,000) from Athena, the Center for Promoting Women’s Sports in Israel. Over a period of 2.5 years, USAID has provided Hapoel with $828,263 (NIS 2.8 million) for all of its women’s soccer activities, as well as its teams for 9- to 17-year-old Jewish and Arab boys and girls, with a grant through its Conflict Management and Mitigation program.
Hapoel’s activity “promotes equality and mutual respect, lowers barriers and shatters stigmas,” said Amy Tohill-Stull, the mission director of USAID West Bank and Gaza, in a statement. The women’s local and professional teams “empowered girls and women to eliminate differences, reduce political barriers and limit cultural impediments.”
USAID is ending its Conflict Management and Mitigation program and will move its “peacebuilding funding” to within the newly established Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (MEPPA), said Tohill-Stull. A spokeswoman for USAID said Hapoel has not received any grants under MEPPA so far, but could apply for further funding in the future.
Sheradsky said the team is slated to receive funding from the state-run Sports Betting Board as well as the Jerusalem Municipality – though neither has announced an amount.
“The municipality still hasn’t decided,” Sheradsky said. While the men’s team receives NIS 1.5 million from the city, “there’s no chance we’ll get that, it’ll probably be a maximum of NIS 400,000.”
In addition, the women’s team is sponsored this season by Loox, a Ramat Gan-based tech startup.
“Supporting Hapoel Jerusalem’s women soccer team aligns perfectly with our values as a company that prioritizes equality and inclusion, and we are proud to be a part of the club’s efforts to make a positive impact through sports,” said Loox CEO Yoni Elbaz in a statement. “As a bootstrapped company, we share Hapoel Jerusalem’s spirit of building something great through hard work, determination, and the support of our customers, much like the club is funded by its own fans.”
Battle to stay afloat
The bottom line, said Sheradsky, is that fielding a women’s soccer team in Israel is simply not a sound fiscal decision.
“The club is in a deficit right now of about NIS 500,000 – and what’s funding it is the [income] from the men’s team,” he said. “Which is why all the professional men’s teams in Israel like us don’t also support a women’s team – because it’s a losing proposition, it’s something that makes you take money from the men’s side, which is the only side that makes any income. Women’s soccer itself doesn’t produce any money.”
Hapoel Jerusalem is a standout not just in fielding a women’s team, but also in how the entire club is run. The team is owned by its fans and run by a board elected by members of a communal organization which supports the club. It is currently the only fan-owned soccer team in the men’s Premier League.
The Beitar Jerusalem club has a women’s soccer team, which was relaunched in 2019 and currently plays in the Leumit League. But the team has seen little success, and is currently ranked 9th out of 10 clubs in the league, with 11 losses and 1 win.
Assayag Benayoun said she believes that the status of female sports in Israel will only change if other teams in the 14-club men’s Premier League support women’s teams.
“The biggest change will come if Maccabi Tel Aviv opens [a women’s team]. Or Maccabi Haifa,” she said. “If the big clubs open women’s teams, like Hapoel Jerusalem did, that’s when we’ll really feel it.”
Compare and contrast
Unlike the men’s games, the women’s matches are free to attend – and still just 50-100 fans show up each time. Though the women’s Premier League was established in 1998, not a single one of its games was ever aired live on TV until 2021, after the Sports Channel signed a deal to air about one game a week.
The lack of attention that women’s sports receive in Israel is exasperating for many of the players, who leave blood, sweat and tears on the field each week. Except for the foreign players, all members of the team are either studying, working or still in high school – since it is next to impossible to survive on a salary even from a team in the Premier League. The average salary for the players on the women’s team is around minimum wage – NIS 5,400 ($1,600) a month.
“It’s frustrating if you compare it to what the men get, or even what other women get elsewhere in the world,” said Rachel Shtainshnaider, 28, a native of Beit Shemesh who has played with several other Israeli teams as well as abroad in Denmark and France.
“Over there things are advancing, but here it’s really slow,” she said. “There isn’t enough exposure or serious attention… but it has enormous potential. It sucks that we don’t get the same conditions [as the men], but we invest just as much – we plan our lives around it, we practice late at night, get home late. It’s not easy.”
At times it seems like the battle for relevance in women’s soccer in Israel is a classic question of chicken or egg: people don’t show up to games in part because the media doesn’t pay attention to them and the Sports Channel doesn’t air them, and the sports media ignores the games partly because not many fans show up.
“The media’s treatment of women’s soccer is a catastrophe – it almost doesn’t exist, I have to fight for every item in every local paper,” said Sheradsky.
The female players all said that the compensation and conditions they receive playing for Hapoel Jerusalem are superior to any other women’s team in Israel.
Signing with Hapoel Jerusalem “is the best thing that happened to me recently… I’m very happy,” said Abu Shanab. “Compared to what I received with other teams, facilities, conditions, the support we receive – no other club has this. It was a real upgrade to come here.”
‘No other club has this. It was a real upgrade to come here’
Shtainshnaider said the offer from Hapoel Jerusalem was one of the reasons she returned home after time spent playing professionally abroad.
“What brought me here is the program that they set, and that you know that you have a path – something that is building and will keep building,” she said. “We get everything we need, all the infrastructure, the facilities, the staff.”
Shtainshnaider said Hapoel provides “even more than [Israel’s] national team,” on which she also plays, “which is amazing. And that’s the way it should be.”
Sheradsky said the club has made a principled decision to “try and make sure that almost everything the men get – the women get too” when it comes to staff, facilities and equipment.
“I hear stories from women on other teams and it makes me want to cry” over their lack of support and infrastructure, said Assayag Benayoun. “It’s not like it is here.”
Nevertheless, all of the women on the team – except the foreign players – are conscious that they cannot support themselves solely via sports.
“It’s very difficult to be a female soccer player and to earn a living just from soccer,” said Assayag Benayoun, noting that even her salary as manager of the team is supplemented by her state pension after years of working for the municipality.
Abu Shanab is studying nutrition, Shtainshnaider works as an aerospace engineer at General Motors, while others are still in high school, pursuing academic degrees or working.
Shtainshnaider said her family supports her sports career, “but it’s not that easy because there is no real financial future in it. So they are worried.”
Abu Shanab said she “pushed off studies a few times because I always preferred to put soccer in first place.”
But she also knows that “unfortunately there isn’t much of a future for soccer in general in Israel and women’s soccer… at some point you have to start thinking about the next steps and the day after.”
‘At some point you have to start thinking about the next steps and the day after’
Seeing the salaries, conditions and infrastructure that male soccer players receive in Israel “makes me really angry, in particular in this season when we really give everything we have, commuting, getting home late, getting up the next day for work or studies,” said Abu Shanab. “If only I had the possibility of just focusing on soccer. It’s really infuriating. It’s just not fair.”
With seven games left in the regular season before the playoffs, nobody on the team would venture to speculate how the club would cap off its first season in the Premier League.
“We have an incredible team, players who are professional and who want it and are giving it their all,” said Assayag Benayoun. “I truly believe in them.”
Abu Shanab said her time with Hapoel Jerusalem after so many years on other Israeli teams has left her cautiously hopeful about women’s soccer in Israel.
“There’s a little movement [in the right direction], but it’s still not enough,” she said. “There are some advances, but they’re still not enough [to motivate] young girls to come and say ‘it’s my dream to play soccer.’”