Hitting a Home Run in Israel

Tags: Federation, Israel, Overseas, Young Adults, Onward

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My #JewishCleveland

There are two things in my life that define me – my Jewishness and baseball. I was born and raised in Jewish Cleveland and the values of Judaism were instilled in me from a very young age – from synagogue, Sunday School, Jewish Day Camps, BBYO, and activities at the Mandel JCC. Jewish Cleveland is everything to me – as is playing baseball. I’ve put so much into being able to play my entire life, including in college.

A few years ago, I was fortunate to go on a Birthright trip to Israel. From the time I stepped off the plane in Israel, I couldn’t stop smiling. The culture, the smells, the feeling of the country – it felt like home. After those 10 days, I returned to the U.S. with a deepened sense of connection to the global Jewish community and a strong desire to return to Israel.

Through some friends, I learned about Cleveland Onward Israel, a two-month summer internship program supported by the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, which allows college students to immerse themselves in Israeli culture, living and working in Tel Aviv. It was also around this time that the Israel Baseball League  was becoming an international sensation at the World Baseball Classic. I was staying up until 2am to watch them in Korea. It was exciting for me to see Israel placed on the baseball map and talked about in the baseball world.

Onward Israel participant Ryan Willen (center) with his Team Israel colleagues.

I was thrilled to learn one of the internship options through Onward was with Team Israel Baseball – yes, that Team Israel! I didn’t hesitate to apply and thankfully, I was accepted to the program. My assignment with the team was Development and Operations Intern. My primary role was to coach younger and current players. But part of my duties was also to look for new areas for baseball fields and facilities throughout the country. The country only has one full-size usable field. I wanted to expand the reach, look for new fans and potential players - and I was able to do that by connecting with both younger and older fans of the game. I was helping to grow the passion of baseball from the ground up - and with people all over the country.

This experience wasn’t all work, though. I lived with others from Cleveland who worked in just about every business field; There was someone interning in arts & entertainment, in science and medical laboratories, in finance. Together, we enjoyed the incredible night life and culture that Tel Aviv has to offer, especially for young adults.

It was also a personal journey. I was able to meet my Israeli family for the first time after hearing so much about them during my childhood. I was able to stay with them in a kibbutz, see how they live like true Israelis. Meeting them wouldn’t have been possible at all if it weren’t for the opportunities through Onward Israel and the Federation.

Coming back to Cleveland, I was a little emotional that I was leaving all of that behind. It had such a strong impact on me. It reconnected my love for the game of baseball and to my Judaism. I have talked every day to people from Team Israel. They want me back, and I plan on going back; it just may not be right away. Helping the kids over there made me feel that I did something so meaningful. They do not grow up with any baseball culture like kids do here, so to see them so passionate about the game is meaningful – not just for them, but also for me.

Ryan Willen (far right) with fellow Onward Israel participants from Cleveland Summer 2017.

This experience with Cleveland Onward Israel and the Israel Baseball League brought me closer to other young Jews my age from the Cleveland area and around the world. We were all coming to Israel for the same purpose – to learn more about ourselves, our Jewish roots, and to have an amazing experience in Israel. It was just incredible. And for me, to have baseball on top of that – it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I’ll never forget!

That is #MyJewishCleveland!

For more about Onward Israel, please contact Ilanit Gerblich Kalir at 216-593-2815 or ikalir@jcfcleve.org.

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Learn More: Federation, Israel, Overseas, Young Adults, Onward