When Nonnewaug High School Junior Ian Bootsma first picked up a lacrosse stick at age 10 he was hooked. So when the opportunity to share his love of the game with at-risk youth 5,000 miles away in the Middle East presented itself, it was something he just couldn’t pass up.
Bootsma, 17, of Woodbury, has played defense as a member of the Nonnewaug Lacrosse Club since the 8th grade. He said he was inspired to take this service trip by his Nonnewaug Club Lacrosse Coach Matt Glaser who, as a member of the Israel Lacrosse organization, has made the trek to Israel with the high school group annually for several years.
Bootsma joined 50 high school lacrosse players from all over the country for the Israel Lacrosse High School Winter Service Trip from December 24 through January 2. He said the experience — the opportunity to teach the game to at-risk youth in Israel and surrounding areas, play alongside members of international lacrosse teams, create bonds with peers and tour places he never dreamed of seeing – was a life changing event.
“It gave me a deeper insight into life in the Middle East through playing and teaching younger kids a sport that was new to them,” said Bootsma. “It was great because the kids were really excited to hang out with us and it was fun teaching them the basics of the game. Most of the kids had little to no experience. I learned that the children that came to our clinics get a lot of happiness in playing sports and in that way were no different than American kids. But their culture and daily lives are different.”
With 50 pounds of lacrosse gear donated by friends and the Lacrosse Unlimited store in Danbury, Ian met the other mostly Jewish American high school lacrosse players at Kennedy Airport and took off for Israel on December 24.
For the next 10 days, the high schoolers were one-on-one with Israeli youth in Netanya and Ashkelon. They also went to the Arab Bedouin villages of Rahat and Hura to run co-existence lacrosse clinics, introducing the sport to young athletes who are new to the game. Although some of the children did not speak English, the mutual love of teaching and learning the new game of lacrosse seemed to be enough to communicate.
The American lacrosse players, who each brought 50 pounds of donated gear for the young Israeli players also ran clinics for middle and high school students in Ashkelon new to the game and then teamed up with Israeli high school teams for the annual Hanukkah Tournament.
The trip was not all about sticks and balls. The group learned about Israeli culture, practiced saying and reading Hebrew words and were exposed to many fascinating aspects of a new land.
Members of the service trip traveled the country learning about themselves and the Jewish culture. For Ian, who loves history even more than lacrosse, seeing sights like the Masada, Yad Vashem – Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust as well as Jerusalem and hearing about the country’s military Israeli Defense Force was awe inspiring.
“I found it interesting that Israelis, both men and women, have mandatory military service and serve at a very young age,” Bootsma said.
The trip concluded in Serbia where members of the service trip suited up and played with the National Israel Lacrosse team against Serbian Men’s National Team and the Czech Republic Women’s National Team.
With hopes of growing the Nonnewaug Club lacrosse program at his own high school, Bootsma said he was inspired by Israel Lacrosse and the change that comes when people who love the game can motivate others.
The non-profit Israel Lacrosse Association has sponsored this service trip since 2011, the same year lacrosse first came to Israel and the same year the first National team game was played on Israeli soil. Their mission is and always has been to grow the game and connect Israel to others. And what better way to do that than by inspiring young Jewish American players to visit Israel and teach the game to those who otherwise might never have picked it up. This past summer, just seven years after the game was first played there, Israel hosted the World Lacrosse Championships in Netanya.
“Nonnewaug Lacrosse has been around for 10 years and has been a great outlet for hundreds of local kids who don’t have a place to play at their own high school,” Bootsma said. He added that the program has grown so much over the years and he is hopeful it will be a true varsity sport at Nonnewaug High School or a co-op with another area high school.