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Jews and Baseball

Baseball took Josh Scharff from St. Louis to Yale, and now it’s placed him in the heart of Israel

Nate Fish and Josh Scharff table at local Israeli schools to encourage youth to play baseball.
Nate Fish and Josh Scharff table at local Israeli schools to encourage youth to play baseball.

For now, he is alone.

”I’m kind of like the crash test dummy over here,” he says over the phone, his voice stretching across eight time zones back to the United States. “We’ll see how it all shakes out.”

Scharff, 25, is the first participant in the fall pilot for the Masa Israel Sports Initiative’s Baseball Program, which was launched by The Jewish Agency for Israel. His primary focus will be teaching baseball to the country’s youth, many of whom have never seen the game played before.

A Missouri native with Jewish roots, Scharff decided to apply for the program in June, and now finds himself in the streets of Tel Aviv as August comes to a close. Two years ago, he spent several months here as part of a fellowship program.

“I’ve been searching for an opportunity to get back” he says. “And all of a sudden this fell into my lap. It’s a great honor to give something back to Israel, make a positive impact and bring something that taught me so many amazing life lessons – – baseball – – to a lot of people here. It’s a really cool cross-cultural connection.”

Scharff’s baseball life began before he learned to walk.

“About the time I could stand up, my dad put a bat in my hand,” he says.

The 5-foot-10 first baseman played for a travel club as a teenager, touring around the country while developing skills that would eventually land him a spot at Yale.

A self-described “gap-to-gap” hitter, Scharff admits he was “not the fleetest of foot.” He collected 79 hits in 116 games at the college level, and his best season came as a senior in 2013, when he hit .284 with a homer and 11 RBIs.

Two years later, he’s ready to give back to the youth of Israel and build a baseball culture several thousand miles from home.

“I just want to teach them to fall in love with the game,” he says. “The amazing stories, amazing athletes, amazing personalities the game’s produced over the past century. It’s really a global game. All you need to do is find that niche here, and I think once you show people what a rich thing it actually is, it’ll start turning some heads.”

Scharff’s boss overseas is Nate Fish, who serves as Head National Team Coach of the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB).

At this juncture, they’ve only really gotten to know each other over the past two days. But Fish is very familiar with Scharff’s strengths after the summer-long application process.

“It doesn’t get much better than that if we’re talking about the kinds of skills and experiences we are looking for from applicants,” Fish writes in an email. “He is a capable dude, for sure, smart, good baseball background, but from what I have seen so far his best skill is his attitude.

“I can’t overstate how important that is for players coming on this program. Israel is a crazy country. They’re going to be dealing with a different set of living and playing circumstances than ever before, and their willingness to enjoy that and adjust will be the most important tool they have.”

Coming from a mixed faith background, Scharff says he was nevertheless raised in a “strong Jewish community,” and he lists Judaism as an important personal identifier.

He takes pride in his “Jewish journey,” and has developed a deep Hebrew vocabulary – – though he still needs a translator from time to time.

“There are funny things that happen with the language,” he says. “If you change a vowel you’ll say something very very different than what you intended. You’re treading water a little bit, there’s never a dull moment.”

Scharff also needs some time to adjust socially, noting the quick pace around town.

“There’s not so much time for that ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and all that,” he says. “You’ve got to be direct and to the point and not waste people’s time. It’s not a rude thing. People are very honest and blunt. I think it’s pretty cool.”

School begins soon, at which time Scharff will be thrust into the role of instructor.

If everything goes to plan, he will be the first of many participants in the Initiative. Scharff will lay the groundwork this fall, while many others will be applying to be part of Masa Israel’s five-month baseball program that runs from January to June next year.

The plan is to build a national baseball presence that can one day rival international behemoths such as the United States and Cuba. But for now, Scharff will be focused on making sure kids slide their fists together on the bat, and place their gloves on the correct hand.

It’s all about bridging the gap between Missouri and Tel Aviv.

“I know I’m a lot of miles away, and I’m sure my mom would prefer that I take the accounting job down the street from her in St. Louis,” he says.

“But this is special.”

  • Masa Israel is a proud beneficiary of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
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