JERUSALEM – Missionaries of all stripes invade Jerusalem’s Kikar Zion (“Zion Square”) hours before the city’s sirens wail, reminding observant Jews to light their Sabbath candles. There, you can find young soldiers rapping, born-again hippies teaching the tenets of Greenpeace and middle-age women in bright T’s uniting souls of the world through Falun Gong.

A few steps away, down a hidden but well-trodden cobblestone path at a trendy bookstore and cafe, Tmol Shilshom awaits a missionary of a Canadian kind, wielding a long, wooden stick.

Esther Silver, 53, wearing homemade jewellery and a frayed denim skirt, has made a pilgrimage from Thornhill to Israel. It is one she makes often, each time carrying new bags of pads, pucks and sticks. Her goal is to convert Israeli girls into lovers of Canadian-style hockey and take Team Israel to the Olympics.

From skating on her flooded Prairie backyard as a young girl to being goalie for men’s Hydro Hockey in Toronto, Silver thinks she has what it takes to bring the team to the world level. And her girls, no matter how naively, have their sights set on the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

“We are trying to find all the other hockey Looney Tunes in the Holy Land,” quips Paul Shindman, a Toronto expatriate and one-time University of Toronto hockey coach. He started Israeli hockey for men about 20 years ago and is now Silver’s mentor and sounding board.

“One of the good things we have going for us,” says Shindman, “is that there are a million residents in Israel from the former Soviet Union who come from a hockey culture. We are hoping to find their children and convert them.”

Silver has met many hurdles, bureaucratic and cultural, while setting up a women’s team in Israel. “We get a lot of verbal support, but the feeling I get is that the Russians don’t really think we are going to make it. The men don’t believe women can play hockey and they are the majority when it comes to hockey in Israel.”

Last January, Silver led women’s Team Israel to its debut, at the country’s first international recreational tournament. “The men’s jaws dropped,” she said, “when they saw that I had brought out 25 women on the ice.”

One of those women was her star player, Lisa Horowitz.

Five-foot-two and 20 years old, Horowitz grew up with North American parents, from Montreal and New York. By age 12, she was enjoying summer breaks in the United States playing hockey while visiting grandparents. A few years ago, she decided to leave the family nest near the Dead Sea to be closer to the only professional-size rink in Israel’s north, at Metula.

She has been helping Silver coach the new team of about 20 girls, some of whom have just learned to skate.

Acting-captain Horowitz has played hockey on both sides of the world.

What does Israel have, that Canadian women might not?

“There is usually at least one split lip after every practice,” says Horowitz, suggesting the girls’ enthusiasm to get the puck at any cost is an indication of their competitiveness and devotion to the sport. “Sometimes they go for the puck and the action is like committing suicide … and last night at the guys’ practice, I think someone broke his leg. We don’t take hockey for granted here and for our girls, we’ll do anything to play. We don’t do our dads a favour by coming to hockey practice.”

She recalls playing in Canada four years ago. “Canadians can play. It was a challenge to play with them. They are laid-back, joke and have fun, talk about their wives while playing. And their game is still sharper and quicker. Here in Israel, it’s like we’re playing soccer with hockey equipment — tossing the puck in the air like a ball is not a whole-team play.”

Beyond the two practices a week, Horowitz and some of the girls travel to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv for road hockey or rally together at a friend’s house for the rare treat of watching a televised hockey game on premium cable.

“Lisa, at 20, is enthusiastic and knows hockey in an Israeli way,” comments Silver. “Hopefully, with her exposure to people schooled in Canadian and Russian hockey, she will get a a wider perspective to improve her game.”

Today, a third of Team Israel’s recruits are seasoned players like Silver who grew up in Canada, the United States or the former Soviet Union. The rest are young women who have just learned to lace skates. The older ones, Silver expects, will mentor and coach the younger ones in the same way Team Canada was built 10 years ago.

Her training as a psychoanalyst and doctor will go a long way when coaching, she suspects. “When you are learning any technique in medicine, like a spinal tap — first you see one, then you do one, and then you teach one. It is the same in hockey.

“I need to motivate the girls and get into the psyche of Israeli hockey while instilling in them the same love women have for hockey in Canada.”

When she says Israeli she means all Israelis, including Israeli Arabs, though they have yet to show an interest in hockey. “As a Canadian, I was raised to believe in democracy. We should encourage every part of the community in Israel to work together. I don’t know how much hockey is being played in Jordan, but if there is, let’s make contact.”

But first, Silver is simply hoping to reach the average Israeli. To them, hockey is as foreign as bobsledding once was in Jamaica.

“Mah zeh? [What’s that?],” the guards ask Silver every time she arrives at Ben Gurion airport bearing a new load of hockey bags stuffed with equipment impossible to find in Israel.

Soon she’ll be at Metula, which besides housing a great rink, is a provincial town near the Lebanese border, and where Horowitz and the team expect Silver, their good friend and hockey guru, to join them on the ice.

“Lisa doesn’t understand that I come to Israel for more reasons than just to play hockey,” jokes Silver, who plays goalie for the team.

Her ability to network has led to talks with Team Canada players. Geraldine Heaney and Vicky Sunohara have expressed interest in coaching the camp.

By then, Silver is hoping to have remedied some pet peeves. At last glance, some $6,000 worth of donated equipment, which Air Canada flew free of charge, was strewn all over the locker room. “I guess because there is no tradition here yet of discipline in hockey, they don’t have the structure to be organized.”

To condition the girls’ early on, Silver is looking to bring at least one of them, hopefully Horowitz, over to Canada within the next year to get some professional training on running a team.

And in Toronto, Horowitz might teach young Canadians a thing or two.

Silver explains, “Compared to Canadians, young Israelis are more mature, aware and knowledgeable. They identify with tradition in a meaningful way and know why they love their country. Yes, Canadians love Canada, but in an abstract way. They never had to fight for it.

“Israelis have a nice edge to them, too. They are going to bring to the ice what they bring to their lives in Israel. If the army can make a woman feel equal and competent, we are not going to have a problem in hockey.”

Silver concludes that Israel “still has a small-country mentality where people feel the need to break out. We have a lot of immigrants from a hockey culture, but I think the native Israelis will be the strongest ones — like any fresh convert to a new religion.”