Kiryat Shmona became famous for unfortunate reasons during the 1970’s and 1980’s, as the katyusha rockets fired by the PLO terrorists in South Lebanon sowed mayhem in the town which is situated adjacent to Israel’s northern border. These attacks led to the Operation Peace for the Galilee, which succeeded in distancing the PLO from South Lebanon, but could not prevent the formation of the Hizballah, another organization dedicated to disrupting civilian life in northern Israel.
In the last few years the town has become better known for its soccer team, Ituran Kiryat Shmona, which is considered a success story in Israeli sport. It has won several different cups and even won the league and played European football. Many players from other teams have been enticed to make their way up north as a way to promote their careers, but something about Kiryat Shmona made them think twice about their lives and careers.
Recently the footballers of the National League (which is just below the Israeli Premier League) have been fighting to transfer their soccer fixtures from Shabbat to a weekday, since they too want to keep Shabbat and do not want to cause all the supporters to desecrate the Shabbat in order to view them. However they are not the first footballers to have a strong connection to their faith. Many players put their hands over their eyes before a game as if they are saying Shema, celebrate scoring goals by pointing to the heavens and one even petitioned the high court to allow him to wear a head-covering during games.
It is interesting to note that quite a number of players who became more religious over the course of time spent part of their careers in the warm relaxed and traditional atmosphere of Kiryat Shmona and this may have influenced them.
Tomer Michael (37) still lives in Kiryat Shmona, and now works as a gardener in the Chafetz Chaim kindergarten together with his wife Dikla. Tomer played as a striker in the local team until age 25, and even spent some time in the premier league with Rishon Letzion, scoring a number of important goals for his clubs.
Tomer’s father died when he was 23, and even though at the time this did not have any religious influence in him, a year and a half later when Tomer was coming back from an away game, he started recollecting memories of his father. “The whole way back I was crying, even though at the funeral I didn’t cry” he said. “When I got home I sat down on my father’s bed and started talking to myself, saying: where are you Daddy, I want you. Suddenly I felt that he had sat down next to me and then he said to me: Tomer ,don’t worry, G-d is here, and I felt him caressing me. It was unbelievable, I thought I was imagining things and began to pull myself together and then I saw him leaving me. I thought I had gone crazy. I called my wife and told her about this experience and she decided immediately to keep Shabbat.
Was that the turning point for you?
Kind of. I found it difficult to explain what I had experienced. A short time later my brother told me that there would be a seminar run by Arachim in Netanya, and when I met Rabbi Lasri I learnt what I am worth as a Jew.
Until then you didn’t know what it means to be a Jew?
A person is born into a situation where he doesn’t appreciate what he has received. A rich person probably does not really appreciate and understand what wealth means because he has never experienced poverty, but after meeting him I realized what I had merited.
What was the next step after this?
The truth is that even though I was moved by the seminar, I continued to live my life as before, I couldn’t contemplate such a big change and giving up football.
How could a person stay indifferent to all of this?
I was afraid to change in the middle of my career. I knew that if I didn’t supplement this experience with Torah studies or something similar, my regular routine would take over and this is indeed what happened.
So what inspired you in the end?
There was a game against Maccabi Tel Aviv, and in the 30th minute I fell down without any reason. Suddenly I saw everything in slow motion which was very strange. I didn’t hear people talking to me, I didn’t understand what was happening and I felt as if I was about to die for a few seconds. I remember that I saw paramedics coming and I asked the manager to substitute me. I went into the dressing room, changed my clothes and said to myself: I’m not coming back here.
How did your team, family and friends react?
People began to call me from all over, asking what had happened. I realized that if I didn’t do anything about it, I would once again slip back into my routine. I decided to put on a Kippa. Then I met Rabbi Amram ben Dahan and the rest is history.
What was the atmosphere like then among the players in the team?
Even though games were played on Shabbat, I remember that many of the players would finish the training session and then go to Shul to hear a Torah lesson. Moreover each player in turn would invite the other players to his house to hear a Torah lesson.
Tomer is just one of many former players and staff who made the significant change to their lifestyles and became fully observant. Danny Rozeven, another former star, was influenced by Tomer and by manager Shimon Hadari, who used to organize Torah lessons, Tefillot , and meetings with famous Rabbis to strengthen the spiritual aspect of his player’s lives. Rozeven now teaches in a Rishon Letzion institution and also studies half the day. Yossi Bitton is another star who even played European soccer with Kiryat Shmona in their most successful season, but realized that keeping Shabbat was more important to him than staying in the premier league, even though it meant that his salary was a quarter of what he had made at Kiryat Shmona. Bitton currently plays for Hapoel Jerusalem who do not play on Shabbat, and has now spearheaded a religious revival among the younger members of that team, who have Tefillin and ethical books as well as Chumashim and other Torah books in their dressing room. Bitton like the others has no regrets about his choice and even though he could easily have continued to play in the premier league is convinced that he has made the best choice he could….by choosing to serve Hashem through his career.