A group of 30 kids with baseball bats could do a lot of damage. The founders of Baseball for All (Baseball Le’Kulam) intend the opposite: fostering fellowship among Jewish and Arab Israeli youth through the great American pastime.

Baseball for All just completed its first year, during which 15 Jewish 11- to 13-year-olds from Modi’in and 15 Arab counterparts from Ramla (Ramle) met three times for a free overnight baseball camp at the Baptist Village near Petah Tikva. They and their families also met twice for a joint dialogue. In between, coaches worked with each group locally.

“It was a success by any measure – athletically, educationally and logistically,” says Nate Fish of Jaffa, national team head coach of the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) and director of Baseball for All. “Even the parents are really enthusiastic and want to continue to stay in touch and get involved.”

The 2015 group at their third and final meet in December. Photo by Yossi Zamir/JNF
The 2015 group at their third and final meet in December. Photo by Yossi Zamir/JNF

IAB is the main sponsor of the program; it is also supported by corporate and individual donations to the Jewish National Fund’s Project Baseball. The US-based nonprofit Play Global, which develops baseball in conflict areas around the world, worked with Fish to organize Baseball for All and provides a professional coach for the overnight camps.

“You saw the kids getting better in terms of baseball and developing physically. You saw kids becoming friendlier at each of the three sessions,” says Peter Kurz, president of the IAB and manager of JNF Project Baseball.

“We made sure all the rooms and teams were fully integrated, and they just had a wonderful time together. There were no tensions even though one might have expected that,” Kurz tells ISRAEL21c. “I think the main thing was just realizing people are people. This was our contribution to that realization.”

Peter Kurz, manager of the JNF’s Project Baseball. Photo by Yossi Zamir/JNF
Peter Kurz, manager of the JNF’s Project Baseball. Photo by Yossi Zamir/JNF

Ophir Katz, a baseball coach from Tel Aviv, says he has long been involved in joint activities for Jewish and Arab kids from Tel Aviv-Jaffa. This year, for example, he started an IAB program for fifth- and sixth-graders at the Bialik-Rogozin School in South Tel Aviv where most of the pupils are children of migrants from a wide assortment of countries.

“But having them together for 24 hours causes a tremendous progression,” Katz says about Baseball for All.

“When we were waiting for them to — unwillingly — go to sleep, we were talking about how at the first session last February they weren’t really getting along or talking to each other, while this time around the kids were talking to each other,” Katz tells ISRAEL21c. “The girls from Ramla were showing their traditional dance and everyone was hanging around in the rooms talking together. I think they just got used to each other.”

Participants from Ramla kidding around with head coach Ophir Katz. Baseball for All director Nate Fish is in background at right. Photo: Yossi Zamir/JNF
Participants from Ramla kidding around with head coach Ophir Katz. Baseball for All director Nate Fish is in background at right. Photo: Yossi Zamir/JNF

Katz says baseball can teach life lessons about adversity, teamwork and patience. “But I think the main thing was that it offered the excitement of learning something new and fun. None of the kids had played before.”

“I call it painless education,” says David Leichman, an Israel Association of Baseball board member and an active proponent of Baseball for All. “The beauty of it, as a nun friend of ours said, is that they are all learning to play a new game by the same rules.”

 Girls’ turn at bat, with Baseball for All official Callie Caughron looking on. Photo by Yossi Zamir/JNF
Girls’ turn at bat, with Baseball for All official Callie Caughron looking on. Photo by Yossi Zamir/JNF

Leichman, a resident of Kibbutz Gezer near Ramla in central Israel, was best friends with Ramla Christian-Arab resident Samir Dabit, who passed away recently. He told Dabit’s grandson, 19-year-old Sami Salman, about Baseball for All, and Salman was happy to help recruit kids from his hometown.

After graduating from the Orthodox Arab School last year, Salman spent time with a family in Kansas City – Ramla’s sister city through a Jewish Federation twinning program – and watched the Kansas City Royals in two World Series baseball games.

“I had a really good time and I thought the sport was amazing,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “When David asked me to help with Baseball Le’Kulam, I thought it would be really good because I want to make it better here and maybe through baseball Jewish kids and Arab kids can make this happen.”

Sami Salman and David Leichman. Photo by Yossi Zamir
Sami Salman and David Leichman. Photo by Yossi Zamir

The principal of the Orthodox Arab School welcomed Salman, Leichman and Fish to recruit participants. Though it is a private Christian school, many of the students are Muslim and nearly half of those who signed up are Muslim.

“We told the kids they would get to be with kids from another city, practice English and learn a new sport. These kids are now aware of the game and want to continue playing in the future. I think this is a very cool thing,” Salman says.

The Rotary Club in Leewood, Kansas, and the Rotary Club of Ramla have both expressed interest in supporting the program, says Leichman.

“We are now working with the Ramla mayor to find a field for practicing baseball. We want to develop Baseball Le’Kulam throughout Israel,” says Leichman, who hopes some of those involved will end up on Team Israel in the future.

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