The six ponytailed young women in Tel Aviv's Hayarkon Park tossed balls back and forth as they ran down the field, catching and cradling them in the nets at the end of their wooden sticks.
A young Israeli man passing by on his way to a soccer game in the next field stopped, stared curiously for a while and finally asked, "What are you playing?" The women explained they are playing lacrosse — and let him pick up a stick and give it a try. As they played and chatted, he was surprised and impressed to find out that the women weren't just hanging out in the park for fun.
They were part of a new Israeli national team — including several Philadelphians — preparing to leave the next morning to participate in the 2012 European Lacrosse Championships in Amsterdam.
Lacrosse, which originated with Native Americans and is popular in many regions of the United States, is as alien to most Israelis as it was to the young man.
But that will soon change, if Scott Neiss has his way.
Neiss, 27, resolved to take on the challenge of bringing the sport to Israel two years ago during a Birthright trip. His relentless efforts have culminated in the creation of two national teams, men's and women's, who made their debut in the international arena this month.
The men's team immediately took their division by storm, winning their first games handily. The women's team joined them over the weekend, and also defeated their early opponents.
Among the female players is Sara Greenberg, 24, who grew up in Center City and Gladwyne, played lacrosse from middle school through college, and currently is living in Jerusalem.
Greenberg was a regular participant in the Hayarkon Park practice sessions, and took part in the intensive training camp in Ashkelon for both male and female players to prepare for Amsterdam.
Like her teammates, Greenberg said that playing lacrosse for Israel was an unexpected opportunity. A former member of the Yale University women's lacrosse squad, she had believed her playing days were long behind her.
"I had hung up my stick," she said. But while in Jerusalem, she got a call from a former Yale teammate, who was coming to Israel to play on the team, and Greenberg decided to join in as well.
Greenberg,who came to Israel for six months to do an internship at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs before she heads to graduate school at Harvard University, views her lacrosse experience as both fun and meaningful.
"For me, it's not only an opportunity to play lacrosse again, but a chance to represent Israel in an international arena and bring a new sport to Israel, " she said.
It's a bonus, she added, when she talks to friends back home. "They have this image of Israel as this dangerous, complex place, where in reality it feels safer than the U.S. The fact that I'm playing lacrosse here makes it seem more normal. Lacrosse has opened up the dialogue to talk about my experiences here to people who have never been here."
Because the women's team does not have enough players who hold Israeli citizenship, they did not qualify to compete in the official competition in Amsterdam. Instead, the team is part of a festival tournament that will play "friendly" games. But the women's team captain, Stephanie Tenenbaum, said she is confident that there will soon be enough full-fledged Israeli women to field an official team.
The highest-profile Philadelphia representative is Bonnie Rosen, associate head coach for the women's team. Rosen serves as the head women's lacrosse coach at Temple University. She was a member of the U.S. women's national team for 13 years and was inducted into the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame.
"I was interested in getting involved in this on every level," said Rosen, 42, speaking by telephone shortly after landing in Amsterdam over the weekend.
"Tying it in to Israel plays into my Jewish identity, and it is exciting to get Israeli national lacrosse off the ground," said Rosen, who grew up in Bala Cynwyd,was a member of Temple Har Zion in Penn Valley and played lacrosse in middle school and at Harriton High School. "This is exactly what I love to do — coach, participate in international competition, start up new programs — it feels like my whole career has prepared me for this opportunity."
"Judaism was a huge part of my family life growing up, but coming from such a Jewish environment, it wasn't until college that I understood how important it was to me," she recalled. "At the University of Virginia, I felt like a minority for the first time, and I took great pride in being a female Jewish athlete." The opportunity to coach the Israeli team "is bringing things full circle for me," she said.
On the men's side, Matt Cherry, 21, a graduate of Radnor High School who just completed his junior year at Dickinson College, is a key player.
Cherry said that the moment he heard about the creation of the Israeli team last year, he quickly "jumped on board." Growing up as a member of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, Cherry said, he "loves Jewish culture"and was excited to be part of a project that would bring him to Israel for the first time.
It has been a busy spring for the dedicated player — after his college team lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament, he headed to Israel to participate in the Ashkelon training camp before leaving for exhibition games in Turkey and then Amsterdam.
"My time in Israel, seeing the sights, going to the Western Wall and Masada was special and meant a lot to me."
In Ashkelon, the political science major participated in lacrosse clinics that the team held for local children. Back home, he said, his parents are "happy I am getting this experience; my mom emails me every day." He joked that his father asks him less about how he is doing than how the team is performing. "They are real lacrosse parents; my dad is totally obsessed with the game."
In order to be a full-fledged national team in Amsterdam, 85 percent of the roster must hold an Israeli passport. The men had enough to field such a team. Some of its members have made aliyah; others were born in Israel and moved away at a young age. A second men's team, like the women, largely comprised of Jewish players from abroad, are playing in the "friendly" exhibition games.
So how did Neiss, who is from New York and made aliyah earlier this year, quickly identify talent like Greenberg and Cherry? His strategy was simple: "We made as much noise as possible and they found us."
He also has strong powers of persuasion. Neiss managed to bring on board the men's team's head coach, Bill Beroza, 56, a former professional player who has been inducted into both the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame and the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
When young Neiss first called him, Beroza recalls being skeptical. But he was impressed with Neiss' passion and determination, and agreed to join the effort, both to serve as a coach and to help Neiss build the organization. Coming to Israel to train the team was Beroza's fourth experience in Israel. But it represented his first opportunity to marry his lacrosse career to his Judaism and ties to Israel.
"It's very emotional, it's a very proud and humbling experience, to be doing something that hasn't been done before," said Beroza, who lives in Boston and sells software for IBM. Speaking from the competition in Amsterdam this week, he said the "kids are playing well together."
Most importantly, he said, "it's an amazing experience for these players. Just think — they will tell their kids and grandkids they were on the first Israeli National Lacrosse Team."
In addition to the team's participation in the Amsterdam tournament and plans for future international competition, Neiss is bringing the sport to the Maccabiah Games, the Jewish Olympics in Jerusalem every four years.
He convinced the International Sports Committee for the 2013 Maccabiah Games to formally approve the addition of men's open lacrosse as an exhibition sport, conditional upon at least three countries participating. If all goes well, it will be fully included in the 2017 Maccabiah Games.
By then, presumably, Israelis will be able to identify a lacrosse stick when they see one.