By – Eric Freidlander
Riding mopeds is a common form of transportation for Israeli citizens. Seeing a lanky 6-6 guy riding one, that is not common. However, for 6 months it was a sight the people of Rehovot would see often as Eric Klenofsky road around town. “I stuck out like a sore thumb” said Klenofsky who, despite appearances, was like everyone else – an Israeli citizen. Klenofsky’s journey to and time in Israel is not the usual tale of Aliyah, (when people move to Israel to become citizens) such as the religious Jew moving to the holy land, the lone soldier wanting to defend the homeland or the Birthright participant who fell in love with the country. It is a tale of seizing a professional opportunity and using that to grow on and off the field. As well as establishing a stronger connection to his faith.
For Eric Klenofsky, who grew up in West Milford, New Jersey, Judaism was not major factor in his life. A son of a Jewish father and Catholic mother, Klenofsky describes his upbringing as culturally Jewish. He would celebrate holidays with family but had no formal Jewish education and no real connection to the State of Israel.
“just kind of, I would say it was a complex situation, being in West Milford. There were not too many accessible synagogues in the area, or Hebrew schools.”
For Klenofsky, being one of a few kids he knew with Jewish blood, it was not something he was open about; in many cases it was something he tried to hide.
“There’s a handful of families with Jewish blood. One of my best friends, Kevin, we went to kindergarten together. We ended up going to the private school together; these are the two kids with Jewish blood in the town and we went to the Catholic school.”
So how did Klenofsky end up in Israel? Besides encouragement from Kevin, who studied at IDC Herzliya, it started with a text from Itamar Keinan. Keinan is an Israeli agent who has connected multiple Jewish Americans to Israeli soccer teams. Klenofsky laughs about Keinan’ directness, who only needed to know one thing.
“I would say, within 10 to 15 seconds of the phone call, Kleinan asked, ‘How’s it going? Are you Jewish?’” Once Klenofsky explained his situation, Kleinan was ready to go.
“He was like, ‘Oh, great! I think I might have an opportunity for you. It’s possible that you could make Aliyah.’”
While he was under contract (with who?) at the time, the idea of becoming an Israeli citizen stuck with Klenofsky. After he was cut due to a knee injury and several months back home rehabbing, Klenofsky decided to go for it.
“I’m just like, why not? Let’s do it. I’m young, I need games, why not? So, Itamar comes to the table with an offer from a team, turns out to be Hapoel Marmorek. And I’m like, Yeah, let’s do it!”
Klenofsky signed a one year contract with Marmorek in July 2018 and set off to Israel. Marmorek, a smaller club in the second division, is based in Rehovot, a small city south of Tel Aviv. It operates on a smaller budget, which offered up challenges for Klenofsky, from getting picked up for away games by the GM instead of a team bus, to not having a team gym or consistently functioning showers. These challenges offered Klenofsky perspective. It is a perspective he believes all players should have as it is one that helped him grow.
“I would love to see every talented Academy player at TFC [go on loan], like let’s go find him a loan somewhere overseas where they’re going to have to figure things out… There’s stuff. I’ve learned about myself as a goalkeeper, and as a person from Israel, that I’ve never been exposed to. And now I have that information to recall from, and I feel like I can deal with stress better because of situations like that”
Not only did Klenofsky grow as a professional, but his connection to Israel and his Jewish heritage grew as well. In just 6 months, Klenofsky was able to fully communicate in Hebrew on the field, as well conversationally. He still gets some practice today with the TFC security guard who happens to have family in Rahovot. Not only was he learning the language, but he was having Sabbath dinners more than he ever had. He also spent time in Jerusalem, a city with an special energy that is both religious and secular.
“I didn’t know much about it, I didn’t know what it looked like, and I didn’t know what life over there was going to be like… going to places like Jerusalem. Some very profound feelings, going and experiencing some of the stuff over there. You know, celebrating Shabbat regularly was not something that I always did. And I would say that definitely drew me much, much closer to Judaism than I’d ever been in my life”
Klenofsky’s time in Israel was short but impactful. It was meant to be longer, however joining Toronto FC was a chance to advance his career that he could not pass up on. When asked if he would ever go back to play there, the answer came easy.
“I would say, I’m interested in being back there someday. I don’t know when that is…[but] that’s in my scope of ideas.