Jewish soccer players from Israel, Scotland make home in Huntsville

By Lee Green

Deep South Jewish Voice

Two Jewish soccer players — one from Israel the other from Scotland — continue to push toward their goal of a successful career and athletic achievement in the United States.
And senior Paul Sammeroff, along with freshman Ori Ben-Shalom, are getting their kicks out of their University of Alabama at Huntsville Chargers soccer team, heading toward the Gulf South Conference playoffs.

Both are friends on the team and united by several things — the importance of their Judaism, their friendship and their quest for team success as well as a great life in the United States. But with Sammeroff being from Glasgow, Scotland, and Ben-Shalom from Netanya, Israel, both took different paths to the Deep South.

“The people here have been very nice and welcoming. This is like a home to me,” said Sammeroff in a thick Scottish accent. “When I told my mom I wanted to play soccer at a university in the U.S., she said that I shouldn’t go to the South because she didn’t like the accent,” he says tongue-in-cheek. “But I really have adjusted well and the people here are hospitable as well as being great soccer fans.”

Sammeroff said that his only lament about playing soccer in the United States is that it doesn’t have near the overall fan base on the college and pro levels as his native Scotland or other countries. “Over there, people eat and sleep soccer. It is similar to the way people feel about college football in the South, perhaps. I am Jewish first, but soccer is always considered my ‘second religion’,” he said.

In Glasgow, many soccer players were signed to professional development contracts as young as age 13. If a player doesn’t attract that “star” attention before they turn 17, normally, a good bet is to play on the college level in the U.S.

Sammeroff played for the Macabee team in Antwerp for a year and then began researching U.S. schools. He had planned to go Winthrop College in South Carolina, but his plans changed after an ankle injury. Once he healed, he went to a tryout at UAH and there was an immediate fit.
He said people are surprised to meet a Jew from Scotland. In Glasgow, he said, there used to be as many as 6,000 Jews. That number is now about 3,000 and they usually stick to one area of town.

Ben-Shalom’s native Netanya has a population of 200,000, similar to Huntsville, but of course, the Jewish population is much greater than in Huntsville and Glasgow. Ben-Shalom, 24, completed his service in the Israeli Army and then traveled the world for several years. Why did he settle in Alabama?

“UAH has a great academic reputation and I knew I could play with a great soccer team,” said Ben-Shalom, who is majoring in marketing. Sammeroff has a double major in marketing and management.

“I feel very comfortable here. People ask me questions about being Jewish and what is going on in Israel. They have been very welcoming,” he said. “Most of the time they seem to have a pretty good understanding already. But one guy asked me one time if we all ride camels to get around in Israel.”

One guy asked Sammeroff seriously how long it took for him to learn English, to which he retorted humorously, “how long did it take you to learn American?”

“Religion is very important in the South and I have found that people don’t care as much if your religion is different from theirs. They respect you for having strong beliefs and are knowledgeable about other religions,” he said.

Sammeroff and Ben-Shalom spent the High Holy Days with UAH Associate Director of Athletics Michael Altman, who is also Jewish. Once the season is over, Ben-Shalom will also work for Altman in his office, which coordinates all facilities management.

“Of course I knew when Ori came here that he was Jewish. Ori got to know Paul and found out he was Jewish but neither Paul nor I knew the other was Jewish,” said Altman. “After I invited Ori to celebrate the High Holy Days with us, he went back downstairs and then Paul came up yelling ecstatically, ‘I didn’t know you were Jewish! You have to invite me too!’”

The soccer season for UAH runs from August through late October. During that time, especially considering that the team could be on the road for several days a week across the Southeast traveling to games, balancing course work with athletics poses a challenge.

“I am used to traveling a lot so I know how to do as much as you can when you can. We study on the bus going to games a great deal,” said Ben-Shalom.

Sammeroff said that soccer is played just about year-around in Scotland. “I wish the season was longer,” he said, though for the first time in several years UAH’s season will be a bit longer since the Chargers will play in the conference playoffs — and perhaps regional and national if the team qualifies.

He said he coaches a youth soccer team in his free time and he hopes to ultimately go into coaching or perhaps sports marketing and management after he graduates this May. But Sammeroff is not ready to hang up the cleats by any stretch of the imagination.

“I want to continue playing as well as coaching after I graduate. It’s in my blood. I like it in the South and I am strongly considering staying here,” he said.

As for Ben-Shalom, he hasn’t played a lot this season since he is a freshman and is still learning the ropes. But he hopes to earn more playing time and achieve even greater success on the soccer field and in the classroom.

“I am lucky to have this opportunity and I want to make the most of it,” he said.