Article from Makor Rishon
Live from the Stadium
By Tzvika Klein
Photos by Avishag Shaar-Yishuv
Translation by Sharona Halickman
He dreamed of connecting Jews around the world with Israel through sports and he runs a successful English sports website that covers everything that is happening in Israeli sports. Josh Halickman is trying to make Maccabi Tel Aviv FC our ambassador and he reveals the exciting reason why the country’s team plays in Yellow & Blue and not in the colors of the Israeli flag.
A few years ago, a tall North-American looking guy with a kipa entered the press conference room at the end of an Israel National Team soccer game. After some of the leading journalists in Israel asked the coach their questions, the new immigrant, Josh Halickman raised his hand and requested to ask a question. When he was asked which media he belongs to he answered in an American accent “Sports Rabbi”. There were curious whispers in the room but Halickman did not react, “In the beginning the journalists thought that it was strange that I was there, but when they saw that I was not stepping on anyone’s toes, they understood that I was not causing trouble and they began to work with me.”
Josh Halickman (43) from Montreal, Canada is the owner of the successful website sportsrabbi.com which gives the world news and interviews about Israeli sports. We meet at Mike’s Place in Tel Aviv in the afternoon when the restaurant is almost empty. He is there with a group of students from abroad on a MASA program teaching them about the Israel sports scene while incorporating Judaism and Zionism. “Sometimes watching a game in Israel is an escape from the difficult reality of terrorist attacks and imminent wars,” he tells his students, “two hours of quiet is good and this is very different from how you live your lives back home.”
Where is the Babysitter?
Halickman fulfilled his Zionist dream when he immigrated to Israel 13 years ago with his wife, Sharona and two children (he now has 3). He met Sharona when he studied in Israel in 1991 when he first left the small Jewish bubble of Montreal, “We were 13 boys in our class in Canada. I had never encountered a large Jewish community like what is found in Israel or New York where many of my friends in Yeshiva came from.” He studied at BMT (Beit Midrash L’Torah) and she studied at Machon Gold when a common friend introduced them. “I bought a few asimonim (telephone tokens) and I called her and she agreed to go out with me”. They have been together since they were 17. “Because of Sharona, I decided to study at Yeshiva University in New York where she was from. That is when I discovered the Garden of Eden of New York.”
As a dedicated sports fan, Josh wanted to learn about the local sports scene. Back in those days it was not an easy mission. “They told me at BMT that we can’t go to soccer games because they are all on Shabbat and the rabbis that I asked weren’t familiar with local sports. I had cousins that told me about a successful Israeli basketball player named Doron Jamchy and I remember thinking that he had a really cool name but I didn’t know how to buy a newspaper with a proper sports section in order to read about what was happening.” Today, Halickman explains that this was one of the unfortunate parts of his year of study in Israel, “The boys come to study in Israel for the year and they are living in an American bubble. I am not speaking about Charedi or Chassidic Yeshivot, I am speaking about Modern Orthodox institutions. Why couldn’t they take us to Tel Aviv to see a basketball game and experience singing Hatikva with ten thousand fans? That would be a religious experience. Right now I am trying to change the situation.”
When he lived in New York he worked as an accountant. “My father told me that accounting is a good field to know for whatever business I end up going into.” He worked at a large accounting firm in New York with many clients from the non-profit sector, many of them are “American Friends” of Israeli organizations. This helped bring him closer to Israel. In 2003, Halickman and his wife, Sharona began to speak about aliyah (immigrating to Israel). “We always loved Israel but we never spoke about aliyah. In addition, the second intifada brought many suicide bombings and deaths in Israel. It was very hard for us to hear about all of those losses. We were not wealthy so making large donations to Israel was not an option. What else could we do besides picking ourselves up and moving to Israel ourselves?”
At the time, his wife worked as a Hebrew Sunday school teacher for children who studied in public school. “She gave the students a worksheet where they had to write what God expects from them and what they expect from God” he reminisces, “as a joke she asked me to fill it out as well. I answered: to marry Sharona, have children and move to Israel.”
They sold their home in Riverdale, New York and bought an apartment in the Arnona neighborhood of Jerusalem. The exchange rate on the dollar was very high so they were able to live comfortably during the first year. His wife worked in education and he worked with the company that he was working with in the United States and he took care of the children most of the day. “One morning, the police stopped me while I was with my baby son. The policeman could not understand why the baby was not at a babysitter but instead with his father.”
Today, Halickman is called the Sports Rabbi even though he is not a rabbi at all. “When we lived in Riverdale, we were members of Rabbi Avi Weiss’ congregation. When Rabbi Weiss wanted to fundraise for the Yeshiva that he would be opening, he went to meet the billionaire Malcolm Glazer who was the owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a football team in the NFL. He knew that I was big sports fan and asked me to tell a little about the team before the meeting. The following Shabbat, Rabbi Weiss told the congregation in his speech that he would now call me the Sports Rabbi. The name has been a part of me since then. At first, I didn’t like the title so much. I thought to myself ‘is this what will be written on my tombstone?’” Actually he is not a rabbi at all. Rather he is a sofer stam and cantor.
What is the first thing that you did in Israel?
“I bought season tickets to Beitar Jerusalem soccer and Hapoel Jerusalem basketball. I became an Israeli sports fan in every way. However, when I went to a game in Tel Aviv, I realized that it was more my speed. I said to myself ‘this is much more similar to Madison Square Garden’ and I started to root for Tel Aviv teams. I think that at age 31 that is still ok to do.”
His good Hebrew speaking skills are also connected to sports. “I bought a subscription to the Yediot Achronot newspaper and an electronic dictionary and I translated all of the words from the sports section that I was not familiar with. For example: who knew that there was a special word for ‘last night’? I watched as many sports shows as possible on TV and I also listened to many Hebrew sports radio shows.”
During that time period he decided to create his website as a hobby while he was working as Chief Executive Officer at a tour company in Jerusalem. Slowly the website turned into a serious sports news website and he started attending press conferences. “I tried to not be the one to ask the first question as I knew that there are journalists there who are doing this for a living and I am doing it as a hobby.” In addition, he wrote articles for the Jerusalem Post. “When they asked me what the purpose was of the website I explained that I want to bring Zionism and Judaism to the Jewish communities and the lovers of Israel in the world who want to keep informed of what is happening in Israeli sports.”
“The Jerusalem Post does not have a proper sports section and the Times of Israel does not have a sports section at all. I offer much more sports news than any other English media. For example, in basketball I have a specialty as I can interview the players and coaches in English. I cover the teams in a very professional way in soccer as well.” Today, he has strong connections with many Israeli sports journalists. “In basketball there are more journalists who have kippot, but soccer is problematic as some of the games are played on Shabbat.”
Halickman has an important mission to bring the stories from Israel to the Jews around the world. “I try to bring the message that something special is happening here. In my eyes it is amazing that foreign players choose to play in Israel instead of going to Russia, Spain or Italy. They love living in Israel as well.”
The Barcelona of the Jewish Nation
For the past few years, Josh has been working for Maccabi Tel Aviv Football Club and to balance it out he has been covering Israeli basketball. “I received an email from an 80 year old man in New Jersey who wrote: ‘Thank you for the video clips that you post on your website. I don’t speak Hebrew but I spent a summer in Israel in the 1950s and you are my connection to Israel.’ When you receive an email like that you know that you are doing something right. There are also young people in the United States who are big fans of Israeli sports or of Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball, their connection to Israel is through basketball. I have followers on Twitter from around the world and I am in contact with them around the clock.”
A few months ago, he began to seriously follow the Israel Baseball League which is made up of mostly American Jews who agreed to play for Israel in the World Baseball Classic. “I am the only source for news about the team. Aside from the magazine articles and interviews, I was the only place that had live reporting in real time. I interviewed the coach and some of the players. The Sports Rabbi also had a representative at the games. Each day we posted a ten minute update about what was new with the Israeli team.”
Most of his interviews are posted as written articles or audio podcasts. Over the past few years he has been broadcasting live on twitter and Facebook from press conferences, games and other events: “I do live tweeting from press conferences. This is good when the coach or players only know English and that is my upper hand. I give my followers unique content that they will not find anywhere else. Even professional journalists rely on my content from Twitter. One experienced journalist told me that I am his eyes and ears at the press conference.”
How did you get to Maccabi Tel Aviv FC?
“Lior Timor, a former sports journalist started to run Maccabi Tel Aviv’s New Media Department. One day he told me that they are building a new website and they want to have a high level English version as well. He made me an offer to work there. I asked my wife and I told her that they are not offering enough money. She said ‘are you crazy? Do it on the side. Everything will work out. It is your dream to work at a big sports franchise.’I met with Maccabi and I began to work with them earning a very small salary.”
When he received an offer to open up a non-profit organization that deals with Maccabi Tel Aviv’s community activities, he knew that this was the opportunity that he was waiting for. He was asked to prepare a work plan and then he formed the Maccabi Tel Aviv FC Foundation. Halickman is excited each time he speaks about his job, “I live the dream. I work for a sports franchise in this country, something that would never happen to me in the US and in addition to that I have my own website, The Sports Rabbi. I have an opportunity to promote Zionism through sports.”
In order to build the work plan, Halickman researched 170 teams in the world including NBA and Premier League Clubs and non-profit organizations with the idea that Maccabi Tel Aviv would be international franchise and the ambassador of Israel. “I have a dream that I hope will come true within 20 years, that Maccabi Tel Aviv will be the Barcelona of the Jewish people. That Jews around the world will wear Maccabi Tel Aviv jerseys and be proud of it.”
In addition, Halickman researched the history of Maccabi Tel Aviv and he lectures about it to groups of students from Israel and around the world. Maccabi stands for Mi Kamocha BaEilim Hashem, Who is like you among the Gods- was established in 1895 in Constantinople (Istanbul today) by Jews that were thrown out of their teams due to Anti-Semitism. During the First Aliya they were already playing soccer in Israel.
“In the 1930’s, the members of Maccabi Tel Aviv went on a half year trip to the United States in order to raise money for the Jews in Europe. It’s amazing. They played in Yankee Stadium and they even played against the All-Stars in the United States.” There is a reason why the uniforms are Yellow & Blue, “First the uniforms were Blue & White, but they requested to change the colors to stand in solidarity with the Jews in the ghettos that had to wear the yellow star. The thought behind it was that after the war they would go back to the regular colors but when six million Jews were murdered they decided to leave the yellow as an everlasting memorial to those who perished. When I speak to groups and tell them this story they all connect.”
Do you only connect young people through soccer?
“If it is connected to my work at Maccabi Tel-Aviv, then I mostly speak about soccer. However, I also include the great moments and not so great moments in Israeli sports. I tell them about how in the 1960’s the Israel National Team won the Asian Cup and I also talk about the Israeli athletes who were murdered in Munich.” He also mentions that Maccabi Tel-Aviv Basketball won the European Championship in 1977, “The win against the Russians was really a story of David and Goliath.”
What do you do as an ambassador of Maccabi Tel-Aviv?
“I work with organizations such as ‘Chinuch L’Psagot- Educating for Excellence’ and ‘Special Olympics’. We connect communities in Israel and around the world. We work with Holocaust survivors, Lone Soldiers who come from Ultra-Orthodox homes who were disowned by their families. We invite ten lone soldiers to sit in the VIP section at each game and our volunteers pick them up and drive them to and from the stadium.”
Josh is also responsible for Maccabi Tel Aviv’s English website. “We reach Jews and friends of Israel to explain what we do. We host groups from Taglit-Birthright, high school students from abroad and Maccabi World Union participants. They come to our practice field and participate in a soccer practice led by one of our coaches. We also host tournaments for Arab, Bedouin and Druze youth. Many Taglit-Birthright participants say that visiting Maccabi Tel Aviv was one of their favorite programs and that they enjoyed it better than their visits to Masada and the Kotel (Western Wall). If they speak this way then it means that I have succeeded.”
According to Halickman, all of the players on the team know him: “Dor Michha and Eitan Tibi volunteer with special needs community. Sheran Yeini, the captain is also involved in our programming. Eyal Golasa always wants to visit ill children. The goalkeeper, Daniel Tenenbaum made Aliya from Brazil. He doesn’t play very much but he is a promising keeper and I always invite him to speak to the South American groups. It is very exciting for the students to meet someone like him.” Halickman also works with former players such as Benny Tabak (aka F15 since he is one of the best) as well as youth players who help connect Jews from around the world to Israel. “In my eyes, sports are the tool to achieve the goal.”
Halickman explains that before he made Aliya he was asked to speak to his congregation. “I told them that I have three passions in life: family, sports and Israel- not necessarily in that order. To work for Maccabi Tel Aviv is a dream come true for me. I believe that God helps those who help themselves. What else can I ask for?”