Two local Jews separated by almost two decades in age — one observant, the other "culturally connected" — find themselves on the same playing field in Israel as they aim to grow an upstart lacrosse team.
Reuven Dressler and Matt Cherry’s stories would fit nicely into a feel-good movie about an upstart Israeli lacrosse team.
Dressler, a goalie, would be the veteran who picks up his stick again after 20 years.
Cherry would be the young midfielder right out of college, eager to contribute to the team and to learn from Dressler.
As a student at Yale University in the early 1990s, Dressler won the school’s most valuable player award three times, led the team to the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament and then stopped playing after he graduated. The Dresher native became a doctor and, six years ago, he made aliyah.
For his part, Cherry starred at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., and became an All-American, breaking the school’s record for career assists.
He learned about a growing lacrosse presence in the Jewish state last summer, traveled to Israel and ended up joining the national team to compete in Europe. After graduating this spring, he went back with the intention of helping to build the country’s lacrosse program for a month or two. Now, the Bryn Mawr native says he is staying for a year, possibly more.
Though they are in two different places in life — Dressler is 40 and an observant Jew; Cherry is 22 and said he connects with Judaism more on a cultural level — the men from the Philadelphia area would both like to see lacrosse become a fixture on the Israeli scene.
The sport is basically still in its infancy in Israel. The idea to introduce lacrosse started with Scott Neiss, a 28-year-old from Long Island, N.Y. He traveled to Israel in 2010 on a Birthright trip and started gauging whether lacrosse could be viable there.
In less than two years, the sport earned official recognition from the country’s Culture and Sport Ministry and the men’s national team competed in the European Lacrosse Championships last summer. Last month, a women’s national team competed in the Women’s Lacrosse World Cup in Canada. That team, which also includes several Philadelphia-area natives, came in eighth out of 12 teams, forfeiting the final game so as not to play on Shabbat.
On Aug. 18, the men’s national team will play an exhibition game against the Filipino national team in Baltimore. The team also qualified for the World Championships next summer in Denver.
Neiss, founder and executive director of the Israel Lacrosse Association, never actually played the sport but said he has a passion for it. “I want to do everything in my power to make the sport big here,” he said.
He said he finds players like Dressler every day — American players living in Israel who have no idea there are opportunities in the country to play the sport.
After moving to Israel six years ago, Dressler spent two years as a doctor in the Israel Defense Forces. In explaining why he decided to serve in his 30s, long past the age when new olim are required to serve, Dressler explained, “We’re Jews defending our homeland. We’re doing what people for 2,000 years were unable to do and we need to contribute to that.”
Dressler now lives with his wife and four children in Ma’ale Adumim, a settlement 10 minutes outside of Jerusalem, and practices family medicine.
He said he hadn’t thought about lacrosse since college. Then his father heard about a league forming in Israel and helped connect his son to organizers. Dressler tried out. Coaches for the Tel Aviv club — one of two; Jerusalem’s the other — told him, “You’re our goalie.”
Neiss said Dressler has the athleticism of a much younger player. “I wish I could’ve seen him play in his prime,” he said.
Dressler sees it differently. “I’m a bit like a caveman that gets frozen in ice and is woken up,” he said. “The players are stronger and are shooting faster and more accurately.”
For his part, Cherry said Dressler has served as a mentor to him and other players his age.
“He answers any questions I have about Israeli culture or just learning day-to-day stuff about how to get around, what sherut to take,” Cherry said, referring to a group taxi in Israel. “He’s just a great guy to have a conversation with.”
Earlier this summer, Cherry, who plays for the Jerusalem club team, helped host clinics at schools around the country and was on the staff of a lacrosse camp in Ashkelon with some 50 children attending, the majority of them from modest backgrounds. At the end of the five days, the children got to keep their sticks. Many of them had never even heard of the sport before, let alone played it, Cherry said.
“These kids aren’t wealthy and when we told them they get to keep the sticks — to see the sparkle in their eyes is pretty cool,” said Cherry.
Now, having given up a job at an insurance company to remain in Israel for at least the next year, he is contemplating aliyah. In addition to competing, he said he will live in Tel Aviv and continue to work with children around the country as youth and community development manager for the lacrosse association.
His reason for staying? “I want to give back to the sport that has given me so much.”