For The Love Of The Game

by Peter Talhame | February 2015 | Popular Stories From the SDJJ

Here in the U.S., despite not owning the title “America’s Pass Time,” football is the sport so intrinsic to our culture that from late August onward, our nation’s obsession with this complicated game rises until it culminates into one of the world’s largest televised events. Now consider Israel. Did you know there are 600 men who may actually take the game even more seriously than the American men and women who literally plan their lives around their favorite sport? In the documentary “Touchdown Israel: Tackle Football in the Holyland,” director Paul Hirschberger traces the origins of tackle football in Israel by following a handful of the sometimes larger than life players and coaches of the Israeli Football League (IFL).

Hirschberger’s film explores how the IFL found its way into its current iteration, with the help of olim Steve Leibowitz. In 1988, tired of missing the sports he grew used to in his American childhood, Leibowitz helped form a popular touch league and eventually became involved with Ofri Becker, the founder of the IFL, a small tackle league that played without helmets. In 2007, after members of both leagues brainstormed on the future of the sport in Israel, the IFL was reborn as a four team league complete with helmets, pads, coaches, and referees. With it’s tactical appeal and ability to serve as a positive outlet for pent-up Israeli aggression, the league has swiftly expanded to 11 teams, with more than 600 players on their roster.

Despite paying for their own equipment, often dressing for games right on the sidelines of torn-up poorly-lit surfaces, and playing through injuries, it is clear that every single player featured is fully committed to the sport and the brotherhood found within their teams.  From the controversial Judean Rebels, a team of West Bank settlers; to the recently integrated Jaffa Sabres whose Jewish and Arab athletes have found unlikely friendships that transcend religion and politics; to the Northern Stars, one of the newest teams just off of the border of Lebanon whose multi-ethnic members are all awkwardly learning the game together; with each team we meet, the audience is treated to a new cast of charismatic and memorable characters.

While the documentary mostly chronicles the progress of the growing league – a fair portion of its hour-plus runtime is dedicated to on-field footage – what’s at the heart of the film is the passion and dedication that the game has ignited in a small but strong minority of football lovers in Israel. Hirschberger weaves in the individual realizations by some of his focal subjects that their ideas of faith and tradition are not in conflict with the camaraderie that can be experienced between sportsmen who share a common bond regardless of their beliefs.

With the IFL sharing a religious breakdown similar to that of the nation itself, “Touchdown Israel” frames the league as a bright microcosm of Israel, proud in the face of adversity, embracing the values of family and friendship, and ultimately with the potential to overcome the differences that separate people.

At times, the documentary’s klezmer and jazz-riff heavy sound editing don’t match its tone and a few limitations of the production can be seen in the cinematography, however, neither are enough to diminish the film’s compelling storyline.   While any football fan in the U.S. or abroad will enjoy watching the blossoming of the sport as its played in Israel, you don’t need to be a fan to appreciate this warm and engaging documentary.

Going deep to explore Jewish
identity at the Jewish film festival

By Peter Keough

In this year’s Boston Jewish Film Festival, people find out who they are in unlikely places and unexpected situations. Weekend athletes learn about themselves and others as they play football in Paul Hirschberger’s “Touchdown Israel” (Nov.15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Belmont Studio Cinema; the director will attend the screening). And cocky
WWII American pilots discover their heritage asthey fly for Israel’s fledgling air force in Roberta Grossman’s “Above and Beyond” (Nov. 11 at 7:15 p.m. and Nov. 12 at 1 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner Theatre; the producer Nancy Spielberg will appear at the screenings).
Given its daunting power today, it’s hard to believe that the Israeli Air Force started out with just two rickety Piper Cubs piloted by former US airmen. So begins Grossman’s account.

Like the Air Force, the Kraft Family Israeli Football League has had an uphill battle
from the start. The game features 11 teams of eight men, playing on truncated fields
(one of them donated by Patriots owner Robert Kraft) that span 60 yards and don’t
include goal posts. It’s been a struggle to win over fans unfamiliar with the format.
However, as Hirschberger’s inspirational documentary demonstrates, the League’s
purpose is not to fight an enemy, but to bring enemies together.
Many of those in the IFL are American émigrés who played the game back home. Others
are Israelis and Arabs who know nothing about the sport except for the hitting and the
strangely shaped ball. One coach claims he first became interested in the game when he
watched it played in the 1989 Sylvester Stallone prison film “Lock­Up.” NTL FILMS

The IFL’s amenities aren’t much better than those in the movie. Not only do players
have to buy their own uniforms, but they sometimes don’t even have locker rooms to
change in. Be that as it may, the playoffs and final showdown in the Israel Bowl may be
as exciting as an NFL game, largely because Hirschberger has drawn the viewer into the
players’ lives and into their sense of team spirit.
When it comes to the team, politics and religion don’t matter. Could this be a key to
peace in the Middle East? As one Israeli right­winger says about a teammate, “Who’d
have thought I’d have a friend named Saud Kassas? Not me. Not in a million years.”
For more information go to www.bjf .org
Peter Keough can be reached at

Film about Israeli Football League to screen here

By Mark Shanahan and Meredith Goldstein | BOSTON GLOBE STAFF OCTOBER 16, 2014

It’s strange to think that pigskin is popular in Israel, but football is indeed a thing there.
If you don’t believe us, just check out “Touchdown Israel,” a new documentary screening
as part of the Boston Jewish Film Festival. The film directed by Paul Hirschberger is
about the Israeli Football League, an 11­team league composed of a cross­section of
Israeli society, including Arabs, Christians, and assorted other religious settlers. The
film screens Oct. 29 as part of a BJFF kickoff event and Patriots owner Robert Kraft
will be there.


‘Touchdown Israel’

By Peter L. Stein

Flash quiz: name a Jewish pro football player. Stumped? No wonder, there have been precious few. So Israel is the last place you would expect the corn-fed, Friday Night Lights tradition of American football to catch on. But don’t tell that to the passionate players and coaches in the 11-team Israel Football League, who play for nothing but pride and have had to endure years of matches played on woefully short soccer fields, under bad lighting, with no locker rooms, in front of an indifferent public. Touchdown Israel is a surprising look at how the gridiron sport has found an unlikely toehold in the Holy Land. Initially imported in the 1990s by American-born Israelis who deeply missed the scrimmages of their youth, American football in Israel has had to counter not only the vastly more popular appeal of soccer and basketball, but legions of Jewish mothers worried about their grown sons’ injuries. As league macher Steve Leibowitz claims, “Jewish mothers somehow don’t get it, it’s nice to be bruised.” But the documentary has serious points to make as well, as it examines the Jewish-Arab camaraderie (and occasional tensions) within the multiethnic lineup of the Tel Aviv–Jaffa Sabres, as well as the controversial “bad boy” profile of the Judean Rebels, a team composed largely of West Bank settlers. Some rivalries go deeper than sports. 

SFJFF Spotlights: 112 Weddings / Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story / Touchdown Israel

by CARRIE KAHN on JULY 23, 2014

Touchdown Israel
(USA/Israel 2014, 85 min)

If you weren’t aware there was an American-style football league in Israel, you’re not alone; Paul Hirschberger’s new documentary tries to correct that oversight by letting the world in on the action. Founded five years ago, the Israel Football League (IFL) has ten teams and over 500 volunteer players (every player still has to buy his own equipment) from seven Israeli cities, all vying for a chance to play in the Israel Bowl, the IFL’s version of the Super Bowl. Filled with richly diverse players – American expats, other foreign immigrants, and Israeli native Jews and Arabs alike – the IFL is an equalizing force in a divisive, explosive country. The film is at its most effective when the players talk about their experiences getting to know their teammates, many from cities and cultures they’ve only heard about disparagingly. The film’s best scene features three members of a Tel Aviv team – a Catholic/Buddhist Filipino immigrant, a devout Jew, and an Israeli Arab – talking about their preconceived ideas of each other, and about how being teammates has changed their perceptions and brought them new friends they never fathomed they’d have. That conversation is a poignant and heartening moment in a film that manages to balance entertaining, ESPN-style sports coverage with much weightier, thoughtful discussions.

‘Touchdown Israel’

May 22, 2014

A film about football and friendships — could it lead to peace?

The Jerusalem Lions line up against the Tel Aviv Pioneers. The two teams are IFL arch-rivals. (provided)

The Jerusalem Lions line up against the Tel Aviv Pioneers. The two teams are IFL arch-rivals.

Almost four years ago, San Francisco-based documentary filmmaker Paul Hirschberger began learning all he could about the North American-style of tackle football that is being played in Israel.

He has turned the research into his first sports film, “Touchdown Israel,” about how the growing sport is bridging cultural gaps in Israel.

“I was looking for my next film project and in doing my research I had read a feature story in The New York Times about tackle football being a growing sport in Israel,” Hirschberger said. “I contacted Andrew Gershman and Ari Louis of Israel Sports Radio, who covered football in Israel, and that began my nearly three-year odyssey to tell the story of football in Israel.”

He decided to use much of his own money to tell a story that has many facets to it and showcases how sports can be a tool to bring people together as teammates.

“What I ended up with was ‘Touchdown Israel,’ a feature-length documentary that presents the broader religious and cultural diversity that is Israel and illustrates how sports can be both metaphor and unifier for the world around it,” said Hirschberger. “American football has set down real roots in the Holy Land. The playing levels vary widely, but the cast of characters is utterly compelling: Israeli Jews, Arabs and Christians as well as Americans living in Israel and religious settlers.”

He added that the game is played in a uniquely Jewish way, with some players putting helmet on over their yarmulkes and some player will davening before the game starts.

An important part of the film, Hirschberger said, is the history of the game, which began in 1988 with the establishment of the American Football in Israel (AFI) group. The group grew to more than 90 contact and non-contact flag football teams. In 2005, the AFI established the Israeli Football League (IFL), which is devoted to American-style full-contact tackle football.

“They play an eight-man game [instead of 11 like in the U.S.] because the fields are smaller than the regulation 100-yard football fields that we are used to here in the United States,” he said.

Hirschberger credits Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, and his late wife, Myra, for advancing the game and sports in Israel in general. Although he had some safety concerns initially, Kraft worked with sponsors to build fields and get uniforms for teams in the league. The league honored him in its name, the Kraft Family Israel Football League.

“Kraft Field is likely the only place in the entire Middle East you’ll find Palestinians and Jewish settlers embracing after a big win,” Hirschberger said. The IFL has grown from 25 players in Tel Aviv to a thriving league of more 600 players and 11 teams throughout Israel, he added.

The 2014 league is comprised of the Tel Aviv/Jaffa Sabres, the Tel Aviv Pioneers, the Ramat Hasharon Hammers, the Jerusalem Lions, the Judean Rebels, the Jerusalem Kings, the Haifa Underdogs, the Beersheva Black Swarm, the Petach Tikva Troopers, the Northern Stars and the Rehovot Silverbacks.

“In many ways, Israelis are perfectly suited to play the game of football,” explained Hirschberger. “They have all served their country in the military and love the strategy that goes into the game along with the physical contact.”

While covering the football side of the story was interesting, Hirschberger was also inspired by watching Israeli, Arab, Christian, Thai and Palestinian players work together as teammates. The film focuses on the friendship of three particular players: Jeremy Sable, a Conservative Jew who played youth football in Philadelphia but wouldn’t play on Shabbat and gave the sport up until his family moved to Israel, Saud Kassas an Arab from Jaffa, and Roni Srisuren, a Christian from Thailand who lives with his family in Israel.

“I got the three of them together in a bar and we just talked about everything,” Hirschberger said. “Each young man spoke in detail about growing up with a total lack of understanding of the religion and backgrounds of others. Yet, it was through football these three men became friends for life.”

Hirschberger is taking the film on the festival circuit before he releases it nationwide. He will start at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, head to the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and then the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. He is in discussions with film distributors and hopes to announce local showings soon.

To see previews of “Touchdown Israel” and get the latest news on where it is playing, go to