A proposal to build a sports park in Israel honoring an American baseball player slain in a terrorist attack is set to become a reality.
Ezra Schwartz was just 18 when he traveled from his home outside Boston to spend a gap year at a yeshiva in Beit Shemesh.
On Nov. 19, 2015, Schwartz and five friends were helping distribute food to Israeli soldiers in the West Bank when a drive-by shooter fired into their van and at other vehicles. Schwartz and another man were killed instantly, while a third was dead on arrival at a hospital.
The gunfire wounded numerous others.
Mohammed Abdel Basset al-Kharoub, a Palestinian, was sentenced in March 2017 to four life sentences in the deaths of Schwartz, an Israeli teacher and a Palestinian onlooker. The Ofer military court also ordered al-Kharoub to pay the families of the victims 750,000 shekels ($215,000) as compensation.
The sports complex will be built in Ra’anana, a sister city to Atlanta, 15 miles north of Tel Aviv.
“The reason we’re doing it there is because that’s where Ezra’s uncle Yoav lives. He is a very big supporter of ours, and he’s doing a lot of fundraising for it,” said Peter Kurz, the president of the Israeli Association of Baseball, who was featured prominently in the documentary “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel,” which had its world premiere at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival in February. “His cousins live there too, and Ezra used to play there.”
The finished facility will be dual-purpose, Kurz said, with the central part for baseball but the outfield available for soccer. The complex will be available for year-round baseball on regulation fields, still a rarity in Israel.
“We’re funding about one third of the complex, and the municipality is doing construction on it,” Kurz said. “It will take three or four months to build — not long — and all the approvals are in place.”
The proposal is very much in the spirit of sister cities, said Arnold Heller, who chairs the Atlanta-Ra’anana Sister Cities Committee, established in 2001 to foster trade with social, cultural, educational and athletic projects.
“They are honoring a ball player; I think it’s marvelous,” Heller said, adding that the project is indicative of the bond between the cities. “They think of us when they’re looking for help, and vice versa. These programs are about the art of the possible and how relationships can flourish.”
The field will be a focal point in central Israel for youth games and tournaments and will address the shortage of fields around the country, where about 1,000 youngsters now play organized baseball.
Schwartz became involved on arrival as not just a player, but also as a coach to young rookies, just as he had taught his three younger brothers to play baseball back home in Massachusetts.
“The old cliché is if you build it, they will come, and there’s no doubt if we do that, more kids will get involved,” Kurz said. “Most kids are now playing on soccer fields or empty lots. Our biggest area is Beit Shemesh, where we have 120 kids, but if we had a field, we would have three or four hundred.”
Margo Sugarman, the IAB’s secretary-general, said baseball participation is increasing in Israel, but the standard of play also must rise. “On the one hand, our constant goal is to keep growing, and we do get new players every year. But on the other hand, we want to increase the professional level, which we are succeeding in doing.”
Sugarman also features prominently in “Heading Home,” and she attended the premiere screenings in Atlanta of the documentary, which tracks Team Israel’s surprising success in last year’s World Baseball Classic and includes the unveiling of the sign for the Ezra Schwartz complex.
Powered by Jewish Americans, the team finished sixth out of 16 and advanced 22 spots to 19th in the world rankings and fourth in Europe.
“We’re hoping within a year we’ll have a field to play on,” Sugarman said about the Ra’anana site.
“More than $400,000 has been raised in Israel and abroad, and we need approximately $200,000 more to make the new field a reality,” David Levy, a former IAB board member who initiated the Ezra Schwartz project, said in mid-February. “This is a special way to show the world that, despite the threats and attacks, life in Israel will continue to thrive, and kids will play baseball to honor Ezra’s memory.”
The project’s progress can be tracked at www.facebook.com/FieldforEzra.
Schwartz’s uncle Yoav Schwartz, who collaborated with Levy, is happy with the results so far. “Overall, we are very pleased about the effort,” he said. “I’ve gotten deeply involved with this precisely because I feel it is the kind of project Ezra would have loved. He was a terrific athlete, a really caring and thoughtful kid, a young adult, and a wonderful friend.”