By Julian Brenman ’20
Lacrosse enthusiasts Jessica Horenstein ’19 and Thea Volpp ’20 have never found the commute from home to practice strenuous. Jessica, a resident of Penn Valley, and Thea, who lives in Wynnewood, both play on the Friends’ Central team. In addition, both girls began their lacrosse careers at the nearby Lower Merion Girls’ Lacrosse. In late December, however, the duo left the parameters of the Main Line on a mission to the Middle East, where they each participated in the Israel Lacrosse Winter Service Trip, a program which takes teenage American Jewish lacrosse players to Israel to compete in various tournaments, create bonds with peers, and introduce lacrosse to Israeli youth. Jessica and Thea spent eight days in Israel, as well as two in Poland.
This December marked Thea’s first time participating in the program, as well as her first time visiting Israel. Thea shares how this experience came to be: “Starting last summer, I was looking into doing some kind of community service. I heard about this trip, and I was talking to Jess about it, since she did it two years ago. Then we decided to do it together this year. I loved it.”
While this was Jessica’s second voyage to Israel with the program, she reflects on how her two experiences contrasted with each other: “The first time I did it I was in ninth grade. I was still really young and I definitely enjoyed the trip a lot, but I knew I wanted to go back. This year, when Thea expressed interest in it, I was kind of reflecting on it, and was like, ‘That was a really fun trip. I’d like to go back.’ It turns out it was actually a lot better this year.” Jessica adds, “I think it’s really special that everybody on the trip was Jewish, because it’s another factor that brings everyone together. Although it seems like there are [many Jewish people] in our small community, there aren’t that many Jews in America on a relative scale…There are probably even less Jewish lacrosse players! Therefore, it’s just a very close community that we’re going to have friends from forever.”
Thea explains the significance of her recent work in Israel: “A lot of kids in Israel have never seen lacrosse before, and so the goal of the trip was to show them what lacrosse is and get them interested so they can further develop their National Israeli Lacrosse team. They want to make lacrosse more of a sport there. We’d play in front of them, and then we’d kind of coach them in clinics. Along the way we became friends with a lot of the people on our team and a lot of the girls on the Israeli National Lacrosse Team, as well as the people we met at the schools that we coached at. It was a lot of fun.” As two of the most talented lacrosse players at FCS, Thea and Jessica have had the privilege of being shaped by some remarkable professional coaches. Thea reflects on what it was like switching roles, and becoming the coach for the Israeli children: “Actually becoming the coach was rewarding. We were introducing the sport to them, which was a big deal. I spend a good amount of my life playing lacrosse. Since I’ve been playing for so long, it’s meaningful to share it with others.”
In addition to spreading her enthusiasm about the sport with others, Jess says the trip improved her game as well: “Going back to the basics actually kind of helped [my lacrosse playing] a little bit, because you don’t think about those [basic] things when you’ve been playing for so many years, and when you go and teach somebody, you have to really step back.”
The girls spent much of their trip focused on sticks and balls, yet managed to also make time to learn about, tour, and immerse in Israeli culture. Jessica describes a particularly special day: “We woke up at 4:00am, and got to hike up Mt. Masada, which, though touristy, is a special and important thing to do. After that, we went to the Dead Sea, and in that same day, we were able to go to Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem. Then, we spent some of the night in Jerusalem at the Western Wall and around the city. That was a really special day for me, getting to get that taste of Israel that I wanted very badly. We went to these beautiful gardens in Haifa, and then drove to an Arabic town called Acrel. Getting to see that was cool. Getting involved in Israeli culture, whether that was learning Hebrew words, or meeting new Israeli people from the clinics and just around, was fascinating.” The players indeed gained a flavor of the land.
Jessica elaborates about her time in Israel: “Somebody said something that really stuck with me. That person said, ‘now we get to go home and be ambassadors for Israel.’ We can easily contradict people’s misconceptions about the country. Even though it has seen a lot of violence in its time as a state, it’s not the place you would expect it to be. It’s the complete opposite than that poster country for war or violence. In Israel, I’ve never felt safer. I knew that even if there were any type of violence, G-D forbid, that I would be protected because of what the I.D.F. (Israeli Defense Forces) does. I’ve been told so many times that if something were to happen, people would let you into their house. It’s important that people know that Israel’s not a state of violence. It’s a state of people who are so good-natured and fun-loving, and just happy people. It’s also a really big cultural center. There are many Arabic towns, many Christian towns, as well as Jewish people.”
Thea expresses similar views about her time away: “While I was in Israel, I was learning a lot and I was exposed to a lot. It was pretty much what I expected, it was really enjoyable. We really wanted to stay. The last night was really sad. Israel is a great place to visit, but also a great place to live. The food’s great, the people are great. It was really special to be there because the connections you make with people are really special there. I knew that I’d enjoy my time there, but I didn’t know that I’d end up wanting to stay for that long.”
Jessica and Thea left on such a high note that they both feel that this experience was only the beginning of more time playing lacrosse. Jessica declares, “I don’t know if I want to play lacrosse in college, but I want to stick with the sport. I can’t imagine quitting now.” Thea reveals, “I’ll be happily returning to Israel this summer with my family, and hope to participate in this winter service trip again in the future.”
As far as trophies, Jessica and Thea didn’t return empty-handed. They won a tournament against the Polish National Team. Though competition is exhilarating, Jessica exclaims, “In the end, the most exciting thing was watching them have fun, because that’s what’s the sport’s all about. It’s about learning new things and meeting new people. We still keep in touch with all of the Israeli girls over social media, and kind of seeing how their lives stay in Israel is really cool.”