Hockey Heats Up in Tiny Village With Israel’s Only Big Rink
Players Travel Hours for Chance to Hit the Ice; a Second-Hand Zamboni
By Joel Millman
December 19, 2011
METULA, Israel—The finger of territory where the farmland here juts between Lebanon and Syria’s Golan Heights is as close as this Mediterranean spot comes to Arctic climes. And, thanks to millions of dollars from Jews in Canada, this is home, too, to Israel’s only regulation hockey rink.
That makes Metula a hot destination for many of the million-plus Russian immigrants to Israel, especially hockey players. Teams now draw a crew of international hockey fanatics to Metula’s ice on weekends. With yarmulkes tucked under helmets, and the occasional payot, or side curls, swinging free, religious skaters shoot and check fiercely, yet seldom keep score as their shots sail into nets.
“Pass, pass!” says Mike Mazeika, a Canadian who came here to teach the game to Israelis. “Take him to the corner, to the corner!,” says his rival at rink-side, Andrei Shtefuzza, once a professional player in the Soviet Union, now coaching Rishon Le’tsyon’s Ice Devils, Israel’s toughest club team.
“It’s a problem, but there’s no real rink to play on in central Israel,” says Coach Shtefuzza, who most nights teaches a contact-free game on inline skating “rinks” in Tel Aviv’s suburbs.
He has 250 protégés now, many of whom skate on ice only once or twice a year, and then only after traveling three or more hours to Metula. The tiny village of less than 2,000 residents doubles in size during big hockey tournaments, when players from across Israel fill Metula’s hotels and guest houses.
Apple-growing Metula beat out the neighboring town of Kiryat Shemona, originally the intended recipients of Canada’s philanthropy, because residents couldn’t stop arguing over where to locate the gift.
That was in 1995. Since then, Canadians have made a goal of supporting Israeli hockey—donating equipment, uniforms and even a second-hand Zamboni ice tractor to keep Metula’s skating surfaces smooth. Air Canada donated cargo space to bring the machine here.
A second hockey rink is under construction in Eilat, in Israel’s far south. In Netanya, on the Mediterranean, a Winnipeg-born podiatrist named Leonard Silverberg is about to break ground on a $5 million skating center, which he financed along with an Israeli partner. Dr. Silverberg, 68 years old, operated skating rinks in Southern California. He sees Israeli hockey as a can’t-lose proposition.
“In California, we ran 5,000 kids a week,” he says. “With a million-plus Russians in central Israel, we’ll have no trouble matching that.”
Until then, the hockey monopoly belongs to Metula, pilgrimages to which begin on Thursdays. That’s when devout Jews, mainly from Jerusalem, arrive. Forbidden under rabbinical law from driving on Sabbath, religious hockey fans must be off the road, or rink, by sunset Friday evening.
Danny Spodek, a dentist, juggles a waiting list of nearly 700 Orthodox and non-Orthodox hockey fanatics hoping to join his league’s Thursday night pick-up games. The Canadian immigrant offers slots for two teams of 15 skaters each, plus two goalies.
To pay for ice rental Dr. Spodek charges 100 shekels, or $30, apiece from 20 or so regulars who commit to driving to Metula each week. Casual players pay slightly more.
“It’s our North American style, which is more fun than the Russian way: brutal,” laughs architect Daniel Kleinman, 34, another Canadian émigré. “We skate for an hour and half,” says Mr. Kleinman, a father of five. “I’m home, usually, by 2:30 a.m.”
Yoav Marer commutes from Yeshiva Ohr Somayach, an ultra-Orthodox rabbinical school. A hockey prodigy while growing up outside Toronto, in 2007 Mr. Marer, 29, felt the call to study scripture in Jerusalem.
Hockey lends balance to his hectic schedule, which these days includes awaiting the birth of his second child. Mr. Marer says he skates a fine line between enjoying exercise while shunning overt competition.
“The Talmud warns against competitive fervor,” he says. One good thing about Thursday night hockey: it guarantees a quorum of ten observant men—known in Hebrew as a minyan—for evening prayers, the rabbinical candidate adds.
Russian émigrés come to Metula on Fridays, skaters from burly teams like Rishon Le’tsyon’s Ice Devils, Haifa’s Hawks and the Bat Yam Jet Turtles.
“I love playing on real ice, I love the contact,” says Bar Kaminski. The Rishon player, now preparing to enter military service, enjoyed a recent face-off in Metula, clanking on pads and skates in a locker room buzzing with Hebrew, Russian, Ukrainian and other languages from the former Soviet Union.
Levav Weinberg, an apple grower, anchors Metula’s team, Macabi. “I split my life,” says the 30-year-old grandson of Polish Holocaust survivors. “In summer, picking my apples. And during the winter, play hockey.”
“Macabi” honors the Jewish guerrillas who rebelled against foreign hegemony in ancient times—an event commemorated each winter with Hanukkah. Yet while Metula still has its share of border conflicts—it sat in the crossfire between Israeli and Hezbollah forces during fighting in 2006—this winter, Mr. Weinberg has been passing pucks to promote peace.
He’s recruited Arab youths from two nearby villages to join Israel’s national junior team, drawing players from the town of Al Ghajar, half of which sits in Israel, the other in Lebanon. Others come from Majdal Shams, a Druze village in the occupied Golan Heights.
Druze are Arabic-speakers, too, part of a tribe divided between Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Neither Islamic nor Christian, their members in Israel are loyal to the Jewish government, although adults in Majdal Shams continue to hold Syrian passports and send their children to university in Damascus.
Some Druze parents see hockey as a way to expose their kids to opportunities in Israel.
“Anyone can play soccer,” says Anan Radah, a Druze community leader. “If you want kids to be special, give them a special sport. Hockey, with the gear and the ice, gives them more to experience.”
This month, Mr. Weinberg is training a team of junior stars to represent Israel in a tournament in Quebec in February. His 2011 squad won their division with an all-Jewish team, but in 2012 he’s planning to bring both Arab and Jewish players.
Mayas Sabag is already contemplating the glory of international competition. “Now whenever I score a goal, of course I feel pride,” says the 12-year-old Druze villager. “But then I immediately think: how do I show it? Raise my arms in the air, or hold up my stick?”