Although Highlands Ranch residents Noah Hirshorn and Andrew Medina spent a week in Israel for lacrosse, they came back home with a lot more than playing time.
“I was raised Jewish — going to Sunday School, I had my bar mitzvah in the sixth grade — but lately I’ve been going to the synagogue maybe twice a year. I kind of stopped practicing (the religion),” Medina said. “This trip reconnected me to my heritage.”
The teenagers, both 16, were selected to visit the country to play in exhibition games and host clinics for the Israel Lacrosse Association, an organization dedicated to developing the sport across the Jewish nation. After arriving at the Wingate Institute, an Olympic training facility, team members spent the next several days practicing and touring the country.
Head coach Noah Miller said the teens were “passionate” about the game and “leaders both on and off the field.” Although key in an exhibition victory over a Polish team, Miller said they embodied the heart of the program more through outreach.
“What is perhaps more important and admirable was their desire to contribute to the development of the game, taking lead roles in running clinics with our youth players in Ashkelon,” Miller said.
On Dec. 25, the organization held clinics for school children in Ashkelon, nestled by the Mediterranean Sea just a few miles near the Gaza Strip. After a day of scrimmages, teammates pulled together dozens of pounds of lacrosse equipment to donate to the schools, the teens said.
“In Ashkelon, the kids were so happy. We bonded, not through words, but the sport itself,” Hirshorn said. “We saw our coaches fill bags until they were about to break. We collected about 50 good-sized duffel bags.”
“The coaches told us this time last year, they were in bomb shelters,” Medina said.
Amid the practices and clinics, the teammates were also whisked around to various landmarks in Israel, including the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem and Yad Vashem, a living memorial to the Holocaust in Jerusalem. In Poland, they visited Treblinka, an infamous extermination camp established by Nazi Germany when it occupied Poland during World War II.
Medina said the experience was hard to put into words.
“It makes you realize that you’ll never fully grasp it. It was indescribable,” he said.
“It was like nothing I would have imagined. It was hard to take it in, to understand why someone would do those things to other humans,” Hirshorn said. “It was a good moment to unite the team, to remember who we were playing for.”
Hirshorn also spent time with members of his father’s family who still live in Israel, cousins and aunts he said he had never met, on Dec. 27.
“I visited great aunts and had a Shabbat dinner, taught my younger cousins lacrosse. On the way back, I saw the apartment where my dad grew up and the elementary school that he attended,” Hirshorn said. “It was a good night.”
On Dec. 30, the teens participated in exhibition games between teams from Poland and Latvia. After losing 7-5 in a “very physical game” to the Latvian team, Hirshorn and Medina said they felt redeemed in a 6-4 victory over Poland.
“It felt good to get a win with `Israel’ on our jerseys,” Medina said.
“Everything on the trip led up to this,” Hirshorn added.
The teenagers left for home later that night, a goodbye that Medina called “bittersweet.”
“We played a lot of lacrosse, but we had a lot of time to experience Israel,” Hirshorn said. “To participate in something like this, spreading the sport across Israel, was incredible. They are growing the game from grassroots.”