Just before the start of the World Baseball Classic in March 2017, an ESPN.com article compared the Israeli national baseball team’s chances of succeeding to that of the overwhelmed Jamaican bobsled team in the 1988 Winter Olympics.
Even though the Israeli team qualified for the tournament the previous September for the first time, the 28-man roster was comprised of mostly minor leaguers and a few past-their-prime former Major Leaguers.
“With a little luck, they might be the kind of team that movies are made of,” the ESPN.com article concluded.
That’s what Westchester filmmaker Jeremy Newberger had already decided to do, capturing them winning their qualifier in Brooklyn and following the team on their unlikely David-versus-Goliath run through tournament play in South Korea and then Japan.
Newberger, who is a partner in the Garrison-based Ironbound Films with Seth Kramer and Daniel A. Miller, said an old Jewish sleep away camp friend of his who has since become a Major League Baseball reporter and had always been a Jewish baseball player aficionado, kept on suggesting that they collaborate on a baseball movie. They kicked around the idea of making a documentary about Jewish ballplayers, with a contingent of higher-profile Jewish Major Leaguers having emerged over the past decade, including Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler and Joc Pedersen.
That idea didn’t pan out, but the 2017 Israeli baseball team was Newberger’s chance. The film, “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel,” will be featured this Wednesday at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville at 7 p.m. featuring a post-screening Q&A involving the three directors. There will also be multiple showings this Friday through Sunday at the Cinema 100 in White Plains.
“We got really lucky and all the pieces were in place to make a film about this,” said Newberger, a Yorktown resident. “What I didn’t realize was this group of guys who I’d say were mostly minor leaguers, with the exception of (former Major League players) Ike Davis and Jason Marquis, there weren’t that many marquee names. So I really didn’t imagine this team going so far.”
What he and his partners also weren’t expecting was that many of the team’s members, whose strongest connection to Israel and Judaism, in most cases, was that they had a Jewish parent or grandparent, would find a greater connection to their family heritage. Virtually the entire roster was American-born, but the rules of the World Baseball Classic allow players to represent countries where they would be eligible for citizenship.
Before they went on to South Korea, players visited Israel, most for the first time. Since then, about 10 players have applied for dual citizenship and plan to compete for Israel in the 2020 Summer Olympics, when baseball returns to the Games.
“They kind of became Jewish by identification,” Newberger said of most of the players before the competition “They’d play a game in a stadium; some fans have identified them as Jewish and say they’re a Jew also. All of a sudden, they’re signing yarmulkes. But that was the extent of their Judaism. There’s going to be some learning, there’s going to be some emotional connecting and we captured that on our trip to Israel.”
Newberger said the film traced General Manager Peter Kurz’s search for Jewish ballplayers around the world and how and why the players on the roster agreed to represent Israel.
Although the team was a bit of curiosity piece in Israel because most sports-minded Israelis are basketball and soccer fans, except for some American ex-pats, Newberger explained why the story has seemed to resonate in the American Jewish community.
“I think whether it’s in film or sports, in politics, you want to find a piece of yourself in your heroes and I think that’s why a lot of Jews revere Sandy Koufax,” he said. “He’s the No. 1 Jewish sports hero in the Jewish world because it’s someone who achieved something that’s not just good for a Jew but as good as the best pro in baseball, and it just shows that you too can follow your dream.”
Newberger is already working on the sequel – following the 2020 Israel baseball Olympic team and the 10 players who became dual citizens.
“This film is like a diaspora Jewish love letter to Israel,” he said.