It doesn’t take long to notice how passionate Ian Kadish and Jake Silberlicht are about lacrosse in Israel. In a country of about nine million closing in on just its 75th birthday, the duo devotes their time tirelessly working to grow lacrosse all over.
Silberlicht – the director of youth development for the Israel Lacrosse Association and men’s team captain – lives in Israel; Kadish – the executive director of the ILA – lives in the United States, as they both work to prepare the men’s national team for a trip to San Diego for the 2023 World Lacrosse Men’s Championship in June.
Every Friday, Silberlicht runs practices at the national training facility in Ashkelon, a city in the western part of the country that hugs the Mediterranean Sea.
He even welcomes players not on the men’s national team to participate. It never hurts to have more bodies to help simulate formations and plays.
“To be able to practice on a weekly basis I think is a really good thing as opposed to other countries who might not get together once a week,” Silberlicht said. “I’m fortunate that all of us guys here in Israel – maybe it’s because it’s a small country, maybe it’s just because we’re lucky – are able to see each other, practice at a high level and play within our systems on a weekly basis.”
Lacrosse is still a relatively new sport in Israel.
But in Silberlicht’s eyes, the purpose of the ILA isn’t to run youth programs all over Israel. They envision a self-sustaining group of non-profit organizations bolstering the sport across the country, with the ILA serving as a guiding body.
For example, the Ashkelon Lacrosse Association hires its own coaches, recruits its own players and runs its own camps. Silberlicht will sometimes drop by, evaluate players and coaches, and provide training for coaches once a month.
“The cool part is we go into Israeli schools to expose the sport to as many students as possible and basically just recruit,” he said. “So, I find a kid in P.E. class, and I show him the sport, and I put the stick in his hand, and I’m like, ‘Alright, this guy’s pretty athletic,’ and I try to get him to come to the field and become a lacrosse player.
“Now, it’s difficult because soccer is very, very popular in this part of the world, as well as basketball,” Silberlicht continued. “It’s like anything that you try to do at the grassroots level and build something from nothing; it’s a lot of trials and tribulations – an absolute rollercoaster. I’m lucky to have an extremely passionate staff of both Israelis and Israeli Americans who are here with me on the ground just trying to move the needle.”
For the 2023 Men’s Championship, Israel’s national team has two native-born Israelis, though as Kadish emphasized, everyone on the team shares a deep connection to the country.
“All of our staff and much of this team, they may not have been born in Israel, like Yakov [Silberlicht], who moved to Israel and served in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces), but they have similar stories,” Kadish said. “I know some of our players weren’t born in Israel, but I think through every sense of the word, they have earned the right to call themselves Israeli.”
Israel has also seen significant growth in native-born players participating in the sport. Almost the entirety of the U20 national team is Israeli-born.
One of the biggest challenges they face, though, is Israel’s mandatory conscription law for all citizens over the age of 18.
“You’re a great lacrosse player, you’re loving it, you’re training, but now you go to the army, and we lose you,” Kadish explained.
Players can apply for “Elite Athlete Status,” which allows them to fulfill their national service requirements through coaching and giving back to the youth in communities across the country.
However, convincing a player to apply for this status isn’t so simple.
“I want as many of my players who are under the age of 18 to try and apply for this Elite Athlete Status in the army,” Silberlicht said. “That’s what I selfishly want because I want our best assets to be around the field and around our players as much as possible. Serving in the IDF is a huge point of pride for Israelis. That’s a huge sense of pride for themselves, for their families and amongst their peers.”
Israel will compete in a tough Pool C in San Diego alongside Czech Republic, Philippines, Puerto Rico and Sweden and will need to finish in the top two to have a chance at advancing to the playoff round.
But that worry isn’t top of their minds.
“It’s just get outside and get the stick in my hand every single day,” Silberlicht said. “I can’t go anything beyond that right now. I can set goals for myself a week down the road, two weeks down the road. But we can’t get too ahead of ourselves here.”
Keeping this perspective remains key for a country that’s still working to expand the sport’s popularity. Sure, performing well at the men’s championship is the hope, but they also make sure to keep the long-term goals in mind.
It’s all about using their platform to inspire that new generation.
“The national team is cool, the national team is sexy,” Kadish said, “but the heart of who we are, the heart of what we want to be is growing the sport of lacrosse.
“As the guys responsible for keeping the ship of Israel lacrosse pointed north, winning games on the national stage is important, and it’s awesome, and it shows how far we’ve come. But at the end of the day, if it doesn’t prop up what matters to the core of our mission, then I think that is a failure.”
Silberlicht added: “It’s been really cool to see the development of the sport and see those people who pick up sticks, who gravitate towards the sport because it’s so new. The country’s about to be 75 years old, and in my eyes, that’s pretty young, and we’re here writing the history.”