Ryan Fitzpatrick has never stepped foot outside of the United States, but in the coming days, the 20-year-old from Wakefield, MA will be getting on a flight to Ben Gurion Airport to play lacrosse in Israel. He is one of 23 Jewish American lacrosse players, men, and women, ages 18-23, who are arriving in Israel at the beginning of October for the Israel Lacrosse Masa Gap Year Program.
For Fitzpatrick, who plays lacrosse at University of Massachusetts, the program offered an opportunity to play the sport while many NCAA programs were suspended due to Covid-19.
“Initially [my thought about joining the program] was that I’m going to be able to play lacrosse during Covid when I can’t play over here,” he shares via a WhatsApp call. “Beyond that, it was ‘oh my god I’ve never been out of the United States,’ but I can connect with my culture, meet all these new people, make connections, and experience something I never experienced before.”
Like hundreds of student-athletes across the United States, Fitzpatrick’s 2020 lacrosse season was cut short by the pandemic. Initially, Fitzpatrick and the UMass men’s lacrosse team were scheduled to return in August with a list of restrictions. During the second week of August, the university canceled those plans, postponing their return until spring. This prompted Fitzpatrick to embrace the opportunity and take part in the gap year program, and even though the university recently announced that they are reinstating the team, Fitzpatrick is still coming to Israel.
The Israel Lacrosse Association (ILA) teamed up with Masa Israel Journey, the largest, immersive long-term education experience in Israel, funded by the Jewish Agency and government of Israel, to set up the eight-month program – split into two four-month sessions – where student-athletes like Fitzpatrick will have the opportunity to be fully immersed in Israeli society, living and training in Ashkelon and coaching Israeli youth.
“We are excited to offer a safe place for college lacrosse players to train at a high level, participate in service-learning and community give-back projects, and connect to Israel,” says COO of Israel Lacrosse Association, David Lasday. “The program creates real people to people connections through sport. Gap year participants will grow as coaches and role models, and our Israeli youth players will learn from NCAA standouts.”
“The Israel Lacrosse Masa Gap Year program really combines two great elements,” explains Tamar Zilbershatz Sharabany, Executive Director of Product Strategy and operations at Masa, who currently has 6,000 students in Israel on various programs. “First there is the career development, the personal development of the individuals who are on this program. On the other hand is the contribution, the immersive experience in Israeli society where they will be living in Ashkelon.”
Zilbershatz Sharabany calls it a “magical combination.”
Health and safety regulations in the time of Covid
Due to the ongoing global pandemic, Masa altered its health and safety protocols in recent months to adhere to those of the Israeli government. Students arriving in Israel all have to quarantine for two weeks under strict restrictions developed by Masa and the Ministry of Health along with Israel’s National Security Council.
“During the quarantine stage, we instruct the organizers to start the activities during the closure, over zoom, so students can continue to study, volunteer, or work, depending on their programs,” explains Zilbershatz Sharabany.
“If there is a situation like now where there is a lockdown they need to follow the rules and the Israel Lacrosse Association knows how to function in this reality and how to adapt their program.”
For its part, the ILA has taken additional steps to ensure health and safety protocols are understood and closely followed by all of those taking part, from student-athletes to youth players and coaches. As a contact team sport, the national governing body had to re-invent itself, following not only Masa’s regulations but also those of Israel’s Ministry of Sport.
The student-athletes will be living and practicing in their own bubble, following guidelines for high-performance athletes developed by Israel’s professional soccer and basketball leagues.
While the restrictions will allow full-contact training for top-level national team hopefuls, the ILA’s youth leagues are all returning initially with non-contact practices and two meters of distance between players at all times.
The ILA has been conducting ongoing certification programs on how to run and participate in social distance practices. Each coach, student-athlete, and youth player has to get certified by the ILA, exemplifying that they completely understand the protective measures in place to return to the field.
“While creating Covid-19 operating guidelines for the program we have benefitted from the guidance of the Ministry of Culture and Sport, Ministry of Health, Masa, and Ayelet, the Association for Non-Olympic Athletes,” says Lasday. “We are in touch with these bodies daily and it has helped us create an extensive safe structure for our players and coaches to continue to train and improve their performance during this challenging time.”
Training at an NCAA regimen
The ILA has constructed a training program at the NCAA level with morning practices five times a week as well as strength and conditioning sessions.
“The plan is to treat these players like professional athletes,” explains Jacob Silberlicht, acting head coach and captain of the Israel Men’s National team. “A lot of work is going into the housing, making sure that they will feel comfortable, and able to perform at their highest level.”
The mornings will be lacrosse intensive, explains Silberlicht, including practice, strength and conditioning, and film sessions. In the afternoons and early evenings, the players will help with youth development, volunteer, and take part in community outreach programs, a part Fitzpatrick is particularly excited about.
“I’m most excited about spreading the game of lacrosse,” he says. “I know Team Israel is big about the community service aspect and growing the game.”
The players taking part in the gap year program will also formally try out for Israel’s men’s and women’s national teams ahead of the 2021 summer schedule when several major championships are taking place.
Living and studying in Israel: an immersive experience
The players will be living and practicing in Ashkelon, a coastal city in Israel’s south. The ILA has set up four apartments overlooking the sea, with six players living in each.
While here, many of the players, a high percentage of which are recent high school graduates, will be taking courses on their own time through their universities or local community colleges. Fitzpatrick, for example, will be taking five courses through mid-November. Others will be taking courses through Masa and all will be working with youth.
Masa is offering the participants a variety of programs related to Jewish education, Hebrew studies, Israeli society, volunteer opportunities, and even private tours of museums across the country.
“[There are] various opportunities to really enrich the participants’ time in Israel and to make sure that at the end of the day the experience is not just lacrosse or an internship at a hi-tech company, or studying at a university,” says Zilbershatz Sharabany. “It is something more connected to society, to Jewish identity, and to really have an immersive experience in Israel.”
A bright spot during a Global Pandemic
Covid-19 has altered lives around the world, but it has given students an opportunity they should embrace, explains Lasday.
“Even before Covid-19 forced students out of the traditional classroom setting I would advocate that studying abroad offers students incredible growth and development,” he says. “Up until now this was not an option for college athletes and I have spoken to many players who have regretted not having this unique experience.”
Many have chosen to embrace such opportunities. Masa has seen a large increase in interest and participation from North America in its programs during Covid-19, including this opportunity with ILA. Zilbershatz Sharabany estimates that the reasoning behind this increase is the changes in education due to the pandemic. Changes in school schedules are pushing students to look for alternatives outside of their comfort zones, she says, something that will affect their lives and contribute to others.
“I think coming to Israel, especially on a gap year at this young age, is definitely an experience, where you’re leaving your comfort zone and making sure that once this experience is over I’m going to be a different person, for the good.”
Fitzpatrick shared a similar sentiment.
“What my dad says a lot and what my high school lacrosse coach says a lot is that “success starts where your comfort zone ends,’” he shares about his upcoming trip and opportunity.
Stepping outside of one’s comfort zone and embracing study abroad opportunities are two elements, students and student-athletes can and should continue to pursue post-Covid, says Lasday.
“I am hopeful after the success of our program both players as well as coaches and college administrators will see the benefits of giving their athletes the opportunity to study and train abroad.”