Albany High grad puts on the football pads in Israel

Avi Rosenblum plays both sides. On offense, he runs and catches. On defense, he tackles. He is 6-foot-2, 210 pounds and adorned with tattoos. He is a 20-year-old African American man and the grandson of an Orthodox rabbi who survived the Holocaust.

And now, Rosenblum is one of the newest members of the Ramat Hasharon Hammers — a team in the Israeli Football League, an amateur league that has been playing full-contact American football since 2007.

Avi Rosenblum makes a catch in a preseason game on Nov. 23 in Israel. photo/courtesy avi rosenblum

Not only that, but Rosenblum just might be the team’s best player.

The Hammers played their first and only preseason game last weekend, and Rosenblum went off like a sonic boom: He caught two touchdown passes, ran for two other touchdowns and also scored a two-point conversion in the Hammers’ 52-26 victory over the Petah Tikva Troopers.

The Hammers, who went 8-2 last season,  will open the regular season on Dec. 12 against the Jerusalem Lions.

Even before suiting up in Israel, Rosenblum had some lofty athletic achievements. He competed twice in baseball at the JCC Maccabi Games and, in 2010, was honored by the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Northern California.

Rosenblum’s journey started in El Paso, Texas, where he was born to African American parents and adopted at the age of 12 days by East Bay residents Debby Graudenz and Rom Rosenblum. Growing up in the Bay Area, Rosenblum came to terms with and embraced the dual nature of his situation.

“I’m a black Jew and live with everything that goes along with it,” he says today.  When asked to elaborate, he explains, “People are surprised when they’re expecting to meet [someone with the name] Avi Rosenblum and it’s me. Sometimes when I go to a Jewish function, people look at me funny or ask, ‘Do you know this is a Jewish function?’ Yeah, I do; I’m Jewish.”

According to a recent article in the Times of Israel, Rosenblum has been getting a lot of stares on the streets of Israel.

Logo of the Ramat Hasharon Hammers

He’s also been “getting many calls from papers and TV stations for interviews,” says his father, Rom, a longtime audio engineer who used to work on Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants broadcasts. “Who knew he’d be such a star? Such a proud abba [father] I am!”

Rom and Debby met in Israel in 1969 when they were part of the Young Judea program and about the age Avi is now. They were in the Israeli armed forces during the Yom Kippur War and, one month after that conflict, in 1973, became founding members of Kibbutz Ketura, which still exists and thrives on the site of an old army base in the Arava Rift valley, about 30 miles north of Eilat, and, Rom notes, purposely within Israel’s pre-war border.

Today, Kibbutz Ketura is home to the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a graduate school that brings Jewish and Arab students together from all over the world to study environmental sustainability and meet challenges cooperatively.

Although they brought Avi up in Oakland and Albany, Rom and Debby spoke to him in Hebrew during his early years. They have always kept a kosher home, frequently attend shul and currently are members of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.

Avi speaks animatedly and expansively about his upbringing as a Jew and describes his affiliation as “laid-back Conservative.”

About football, however, Avi is hardly laid back. Having played all four years at Albany High on both offense and defense, and for the past two seasons at the junior college level, he has distinguished himself as a solid player who harbors a burning ambition to play at a higher level.

During a business trip to Wisconsin this past summer, Rom Rosenblum ran into a childhood friend who mentioned that the son of a mutual acquaintance was playing in the Israel Football League.

That very day, Rom emailed Avi with the contact information of the player in Israel, who responded at once and suggested Avi mail a highlight tape to the head coach of the Tel Aviv Sabres.

Shortly thereafter, Avi found himself on the phone with the coach and, after a long conversation about plans for changing the Sabres offense, was invited to join the three-time defending champions. However, he was later transferred to one of the IFL’s 10 other teams, the Hammers, “for a better fit,” as the Times of Israel put it. (Ramat Hasharon is located just north of Tel Aviv, so it wasn’t as if he was sent to another part of the country.)

On the Hammers, who were upset 40-36 by the Jerusalem Kings in the first round of the playoffs last year, he will play alongside other transplanted Americans and Israelis of both Jewish and Arab heritage.

On defense, Avi plays safety, and on offense, he is both a receiver and a running back. He also plays on special teams. In the preseason game on Nov. 23, he had 120 yards combined rushing and receiving while wearing No. 4, the same number he wore in high school at Albany High.

Avi with his parents, Rom Rosenblum and Debby Graudenz

“The Israelis play for the love of the game. It’s not a salaried job,” Debby says. Some people use the term “semi-pro” to describe the league, but the players get only insurance and a small stipend; Avi is currently looking for a job, hoping to hook up with the organizers of the Maccabiah  Games in Israel.

“I am so excited for Avi, and so thrilled that he’s in Israel,” Debby adds.

After visiting Israel at 12, Avi yearned to return. Like his parents, he says he feels a deep connection to the country, its people and culture.

“I’ve always wanted to go back to Israel,” he says. “I was already thinking about taking a year off and studying [in Israel], so when this opportunity came up, it was perfect.”

His mother’s brother, “Uncle Jack,” whom Avi describes as “black hat Hassidic,” lives there and, as it happens, has an adopted son from Brazil, whom Avi calls “the Israeli version of me.”

As for Rom Rosenblum, who was at first quite reticent about his son’s transition from baseball, he says, “my wish has come true for Avi. He has grown into what I dreamed he would be, a strong Jewish man. I hope Israel sticks, he makes aliyah, marries a nice Jewish girl and gives us a lot of Jewish grandchildren.”

At minimum, Rom believes this chapter in Avi’s life will strengthen his relationship with Judaism and give him useful knowledge about the business of sports. He cites the powerful effect that competing in the JCC Maccabi Games had on Avi and posits that perhaps Avi will make a career of working for that organization or one with a similar mission.

Jackie Lewis, who headed the JCC of San Francisco delegation to the Maccabi Games in the years Avi played baseball, echoes Rom’s sentiment and credits Avi’s participation in those games for opening his eyes to the truly international scope of Jewish athletic experience.

“Between the Jewish Hall of Fame [of Northern California] induction and his connection with Bay Area Jewish camps, our family experiences with Be’chol Lashon, the JCC Macabbi Games, our shul and his schools — all pulling for him —  Avi is really the community’s kid,” Rom says. “It’s neat.”

Avi’s bar mitzvah photos/courtesy of rom rosenblum

However, not surprisingly, Avi has his eye on a shot at the NFL. It so happens the Israel Football League is sponsored in large part by Robert Kraft, owner of the three-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Kraft donated money to build the first football-only facility in Israel, Kraft Stadium in central Jerusalem; it has 14,000 seats, lights and artificial turf, and has been the site of the Israel Bowl for all seven years of its existence.

Avi hopes the Kraft connection will help him get his shot in the NFL; his dream is to follow in the footsteps of Cincinnati Bengals safety Taylor Mays, whom Avi calls an inspiration. The former USC star and San Francisco 49ers’ draft pick is the son of an African American father and a Jewish mother, and was inducted into the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2011. And there are many others.

Avi says that black-Jewish athletes are plentiful. He considers Nicole Meisner, a sprinter now at the University of Detroit that he met at the Maccabi Games, to be his soul mate.

And the football coach at El Cerrito High School, Kenny Kahn, has an African American father and Jewish mother. Avi considers him a friend and mentor.

Another friend of Avi’s with a similar background uses the term “Blewish” to describe himself.

So when the Ramat Hasharon Hammers open their season in two weeks against the Jerusalem Lions, fans will see a revamped offense and a Blewish guy in the lineup — on both sides of the ball. Avraham Dov Rosenblum plays with heart, and very well, on both sides.

J. staff contributed to this report. A longer version of this piece appeared on 3200stories.org, the digital venue of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

Jonathan Harris
Jonathan Harris

Jonathan Harris is a synagogue administrator and writer-editor living in San Francisco with his wife, three daughters and an ungrateful cat. He can be reached at advicemensch@gmail.com.