We arrived in Jerusalem on Shabbat. After services and dinner, everyone else made plans to stay near the hotel for the evening. But I had my own agenda. I quickly changed into my gear and jumped in a taxi, arriving at 11pm. I was told there would be a pickup game at that time but the park was completely deserted. I wandered around, hoping to find someone to ask where to find it. Far off in the distance, I saw bright lights. So I gravitated towards the only signs of life and was greeted by a dozen young boys, all of whom spoke Arabic.
I realized then that I would not be spotting any Israeli Jews on the court because of what day it was - the day of rest. Despite my U.S. Soccer shorts and tee, my American accent, my Jewish star necklace and my gender, they let me join.
The wonderful thing about The Beautiful Game is that you can find it anywhere around the globe, especially in the form of pickup. My friend Gwendolyn Oxenham documented the phenomenon in her film "Pelada" where she traveled the world with her husband and two close friends in search of the stripped down game. One of the locations shot was in Jerusalem, where I currently stood. Her documentary confirmed that soccer is a universal language unto itself. Through hand gestures and all sorts of body language, you can communicate your intentions. It does not matter if you are tall or short, young or old, skinny or overweight, male or female, gay or straight, white or black, American or Israeli, Jewish or Muslim, you can still play the game as long as you can play the game.
Despite me being everything they were not, I played with the young boys until grown men showed up just after midnight. I then continued to play with the new group. No problems there either. I slotted some promising through balls, scored a few integral goals and defended against some feisty forwards. Despite my successes, they would not give me high-fives or defend me properly because I was a woman, and according to their religion, men do not touch the opposite sex.
The most profound moment came when I took a hard shot at goal, missed and screamed, "Oh my G-d!" What was meant to be an exasperated frustration turned into a revelation when a teammate asked, "To which G-d do you refer?" It was then that I really acknowledged I was in the birthplace of three prominent religions and the home to devout religious followers. Surprisingly, my answer did not bother him, and we continued to play. My team won by two, and we all said our goodnights. No harm, no foul, just an appreciation for the global sport that brought us together against many odds. If we all could co-exist without judgement or blame on the soccer field then the only thing that really mattered was the game.
Sport has the potential to be a microcosm of society. It is the first to break barriers and encourage empowerment, diversity, inclusion and social justice. It is the universal language that allows anyone from anywhere in the world to communicate with one another. When you get into that huddle at a local pickup game, your race, gender, religion, socio-economic status all disappear because you cannot win unless you all pull together. Sport has the power for social change at the macro-level, if we only enable it to reach its potential.