When Nathan Gadye tried to check five large duffel bags full of baseball bats, gloves and balls onto his flight from SFO to Israel a few months ago, El Al security had some questions for him.
First, was he moving to Israel? No, the San Francisco native replied; he had already made aliyah in 2009. OK, then what’s in the bags? Gadye told them it was baseball equipment for the kids he coaches in the eastern Galilee.
Then they wanted to know what baseball is, so he mimed throwing a ball. After a bit of joking around, they let him proceed to his gate.
Despite the Jewish state’s recent successes on the diamond — Team Israel has qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and Israel jumped from No. 41 to No. 19 in the world rankings after winning its group in the first round of the 2017 World Baseball Classic — in the country itself, baseball is still far from commonplace. There isn’t even a Hebrew word for baseball.
That’s where Gadye comes in. As both a youth coach and a proponent of growing the game in the Holy Land, the 29-year-old Lowell High School graduate is trying to raise money to build a diamond near the Golan Heights, at Kibbutz Gadot, where he lives with his Israeli-born wife.
He already has a name for it: Shalom Park.
“I’m not looking to build Yankee Stadium,” Gadye said in a phone interview. “I want to build a community baseball diamond for kids to play on that’s safe, where they can come out on the weekend and play catch with friends or hold a little game.”
Since December, he has raised about $2,500 toward his goal of $20,000 through a GoFundMe campaign at tinyurl.com/gfm-bb-gadot.
He says the money will be used to level an overgrown field, repair the grass, install irrigation, bring in dirt for the infield and build a backstop.
A lifelong San Francisco Giants fan, Gadye grew up playing sandlot baseball in San Francisco’s Parkmerced, which he said “kind of looks like a kibbutz” with its grassy patches and snaking paths. He attended Camp Newman in the summers and became a bar mitzvah at Congregation Emanu-El. After taking a trip to Israel at age 16 as a Diller Teen Fellow, he fell in love with the country and decided he wanted to move there.
After high school, he did just that and served in a special forces unit in the Israel Defense Forces for five years. (His baseball training gave him a leg up on his peers when it came to throwing grenades, he said.) He remembers in 2012, during officer training, when he and a fellow soldier from the U.S. would wake up at 4 a.m. to watch Giants’ postseason games on a “crappy TV” on their base.
Then they’d “participate in field exercises half asleep [and] fall asleep during classes, but it was all worth it.” The Giants swept the Detroit Tigers in the World Series that year.
As a volunteer coach, Gadye works with boys and girls from first grade to high school on Kibbutz Gadot and, separately, with a group of religious boys in fifth and sixth grades from around the Golan Heights. The practices are held on soccer fields, asphalt basketball courts and dance studios — wherever there is space.
“A lot of what we’re working on is basic fundamentals, just to get them to be able to throw the baseball,” he said. “It’s pretty foreign to them.”
Recently he took a group of kids to meet members of the Israeli national team — mostly Americans who took Israeli citizenship to join the squad — that is scheduled to compete at the Olympics in Tokyo this summer. He said he hopes the team will inspire more Israeli kids to get into baseball.
In addition to coaching, Gadye studies physical education at a teacher’s college and plays in the four-team amateur Premier League, which is dominated by U.S. expats.
One of the players he coaches is 11-year-old Shalom Yitzchak Frazin, who lives on Moshav Yonatan in the Golan Heights. “I used to throw barely 15 feet,” he told J. over the phone. “Now I can throw 50 feet, easily.”
Moving forward, Gadye wants to expand his program to surrounding Druze and Arab communities.
“A couple months ago I met with a Druze leader in Rameh [an Arab town in northern Israel] to get an idea of how to get kids in his area involved,” Gadye said. “He explained that the kids want to explore and breathe fresh air. And I think that a baseball diamond is a location that the players can look forward to coming to.”
Gadye secured a microgrant as an alumnus of the Diller Teen Fellows program, and he also received a donation of $1,500 (which bought the aforementioned baseball equipment) from Jack Anderson, 89, one of the founders of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Northern California in 2004.
Gadye told Anderson he thinks baseball can be a “catalyst for peace” in the region. Recounted Anderson: “He said to me, ‘If I can get kids to throw a baseball around, they’re not going to be throwing rocks at each other.’”