Avi Rosenblum plays both sides. On offense, he runs and catches. On defense, he tackles and inflicts pain. He is 6’2, 210 lbs, and adorned with tattoos. He is a 20 year old African American man and the grandson of an orthodox rabbi who survived the Holocaust. Starting this month, Avi is the newest member of the champion Tel Aviv / Jaffa Sabres, part of the Israel Football League and a team which went 12-0 in the 2012-13 season and won the Israel Bowl VI.
Even before he dons pads and sets foot on the field at the highest level of American football played in Israel, Avi Rosenblum is already a champion, having competed twice in baseball at the JCC Maccabi Games and, in 2010, been inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Northern California.
Avi’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, who worked in sports television. Growing up in the Bay Area, Avi 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 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."
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, 50 kilometers 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 Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, which Rom describes as an “egalitarian, conservative synagogue.” 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 community college level, Avi has distinguished himself as an exceptional player who harbors a burning ambition to play at an ever higher level.
During a business trip to Wisconsin this past summer, Rom Rosenblum ran into an old childhood friend who happened to mention that the son of a mutual acquaintance was playing in the Israel Football League. That day, Rom emailed Avi with the contact info of the player in Israel, who responded at once and suggested Avi mail a highlight tape to the head coach of the Sabres. Soon, 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 team. Thus, one month after Avi learned of the existence of the Israel Football League, he finds himself on the roster of its premier, championship team, where he will play alongside transplanted Americans such as himself and Israelis of both Jewish and Arab heritage.
"The Israelis play for the love of the game; it's not a salaried job," Debby says. "But I am so excited for Avi, and so thrilled that he’s in Israel.”
Since Avi visited Israel at 12, he has yearned to return. Like his parents, 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 there, 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 of the business of sports. He cites the powerful effect 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. The JCCSF's Jackie Lewis, who headed the San Francisco delegation to the JCC Maccabi Games in the years Avi played baseball, echoes Rom’s sentiment and credits Avi’s participation in the Games for opening his eyes to the truly international scope of Jewish athletic experience.
" Between the Jewish Hall of Fame induction and his connection with Bay Area Jewish camps, our family experiences with Bechol 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."
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 Superbowl champion New England Patriots. Avi hopes the Kraft connection will help him get that shot and he calls for inspiration on the example set by former San Francisco 49er Taylor Mays, who currently plays for the Cincinnati Bengals. Mays 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 everywhere. He considers Nicole Meisner, a gold medalist in track at the Detroit Maccabi games, to be his soul mate. The football coach at El Cerrito High School, a friend and mentor, has an African American father and Jewish mother. Another friend with a similar background coined the term “Blewish,” which he's been using to describe himself since he was 7 or 8 years old.
So when the Tel Aviv/ Jaffe Sabres open their 2013-14 season on November 30 against the Beersheva Black Swarm, look for a revamped offense and a Blewish guy in the lineup. He might also be on defense. Avi Rosenblum plays with heart, and very well, on both sides.