Making of a Mitzvah: The Story Behind Israel Lacrosse’s Project Cleats for Kenya’s Team

Ella Duvdevani (seated) and her Israeli teammates with the Kenya lacrosse team

A lacrosse match in the world championships turned into an unexpected opportunity for Israel’s national team to do some good, coordinated by a member of Birmingham’s Jewish community. Their gesture was hailed as an example of sportsmanship and made headlines worldwide.

The Women’s Lacrosse 2019 U19 World Championship was held this month in Peterborough, Canada, with 22 teams. During the Aug. 6 match between Israel and Kenya, which was delayed an hour due to rain, the team from Kenya kept slipping and falling on the wet turf, as Israel won, 13-4.

According to the Peterborough Examiner, many of the Kenyan athletes live “in abject poverty in two-bedroom mud shacks housing families of eight,” and they had to overcome numerous obstacles to even get to the tournament, including a government attempt to shut down the team.

Kenya Coach Storm Trentham told Varsity, the student newspaper at Cambridge University, where she used to coach, that “the highlight of coming to camp for some of the girls is that they get three meals a day for seven days straight.”

The Kenyans had ordered new running shoes, but upon arriving in Canada, they discovered they were in U.S. sizes and not the U.K. sizes they ordered.

Tournament committee member Rose Powers and brokers from Exit Realty then purchased new running shoes for the girls, as they would also be practical for everyday use back home.

But running shoes were no match for the wet turf.

Birmingham’s Ella Duvdevani, a member of Israel’s national team, said “it was very noticeable” that the sneaker-wearing Kenyans were slipping on the field during warmups. She assumed that they would change into cleats before the match started, but they never did.

After the game, the Israeli team had a free evening. Parents who were at the tournament took their daughters out to dinner, along with teammates whose parents were not there. Ella’s father, Michael Duvdevani, said they had five team members with them, and at one point the conversation turned to the day’s match.

He commented about the Kenyan athletes sliding around during the match, and Israel’s goalie, Lielle Assayag, said “of course they were falling, they don’t have cleats.”

“That’s crazy,” Duvdevani said.

Duvdevani, founder and CEO of Complete Feet, a pedorthic clinic in Birmingham, knows about the need for proper footwear. Sitting in the restaurant, it was 5:20 p.m. when he sent a message on the WhatsApp group for the Israeli team parents, relating what Assayag had told him. “Who is thinking what I am thinking,” he asked, and Project Cleats was born. He quickly looked up sporting goods stores nearby, finding a large store near the team hotel.

He called them and asked if they had an ample supply of cleats. They did, but could not guarantee they would all be the same style or color, but that did not matter.

He contacted the Kenyan coach and coordinated donations from the Israeli team parents to purchase the cleats for the Kenyan athletes. By 9 p.m., they had new cleats for everyone on Kenya’s team.

But before the Israeli parents could get the cleats, more information was needed — the correct sizes. The Kenya coaches quickly planned an evening activity for their athletes, along with a cover story of how they needed to leave their sneakers in the dorm for an equipment check. They sent Duvdevani a list of names and sizes, and it was time to shop.

Kenya’s assistant coach, Patrick Oriana, accompanied them to the store. A member of Uganda’s national lacrosse team, Oriana is quite familiar with Israel, having represented Uganda at the FIL World Championships in Israel last year. He also played for Barak Netanya in 2017, and in 2014 was captain of Uganda’s team at the FIL World Championships in Denver, the first African club ever in the tournament.

Back at the hotel, they put each box in a bag, attaching a rolled up slip of paper with the corresponding Kenya athlete’s name on it.

The next day, the Kenyan team had their free day and attended the Israel-Belgium match, having been told that they were going to scout Belgium before playing them the following day. “We knew we were going to be giving them the cleats after the game,” Duvdevani said.

After each match, the athletes go into the equipment tent, then come back out and line up on the field for the announcement of that game’s most valuable player. The Israeli players emerged from the tent, each carrying a bag onto the field.

As Team Israel stood there, Duvdevani addressed the crowd. The Kenya team had “played good, they played hard, they played strong” the day before, but “you shouldn’t have to put up with slipping and sliding, you should have the same quality equipment as everyone else.”

With that, he called each Israeli team member forward to surprise each of the Kenyan athletes with her own new cleats.

Once they realized what was happening, the Kenya athletes started hugging the Israelis, with a celebration breaking out in the stands.

“It was definitely the best experience I’ve had in my life,” Ella said. “It was overwhelming.”

Duvdevani said it was eye-opening for the team. When it comes to equipment like cleats, “we don’t think twice about this sort of thing.” For others, it is a luxury. “For us, it’s only cleats. For them, it changes their game.”

Afterwards, he commented that “it has been a great day for Israel Lacrosse.”

Is it the shoes? On Aug. 8, Kenya beat Belgium, 16-9, after another rain delay. The win broke a three-game losing streak since Kenya won their opener against Jamaica. Kenya Lacrosse tweeted that it was “a brilliant win today on the slippery surface thanks to our 11th man, Israel Lacrosse, and our cleats!”

Israel had opened with an 11-7 loss to Hong Kong, then had two lopsided losses, 21-3 to Haudenosaunee, and 20-1 to Puerto Rico.

About 300 campers from nearby Camp Moshava, a religious Zionist Bnei Akiva camp, attended Israel’s game with Haudenosaunee, and the team greeted the campers afterward.

After also going winless in their first U19 championships in 2015, Israel gained its first-ever victory, against Belgium, 17-4, followed by the Kenya win. On Aug. 7, Israel defeated Belgium again, 16-6.

On Aug. 9, Kenya defeated Chinese Taipei, 11-10, to qualify for the 17th-place match, then went to the next field to watch the end of Israel’s 15-8 victory over Ireland, which was the other play-in game for the 17th-place match.

Kenya athletes parade with the Israeli flag during Israel’s match against Ireland

As the game ended, the Kenya players were dancing around with the Israeli flags, chanting Israel’s rallying cry, “Yalla Israel.”

At one point, Duvdevani said he mentioned to a couple of the Kenyans that the day’s victories meant Kenya and Israel would be facing off the next day for 17th place. Because the teams had grown so close, that news was like a slap in the face, he said.

Between the growing international media sensation around Project Cleats and the swirl of emotions in advance of the final game, Duvdevani and Oriana went to a nearby field late that night and started tossing balls around.

Ella said it was difficult to play Kenya in the final game, because one must be aggressive in lacrosse, and they had formed such a bond. “We had to leave all our emotions off the field,” she said.

Still, it wasn’t just any game. For example, at one point when a Kenya player lost hold of her stick, one of the Israelis picked it up and handed it back to her. Normally, “you don’t do that.”

It was a much tighter game than before, with Israel squeezing out an 11-10 victory. ‘Win or lose, it would not have mattered,” Ella said. “The bond was so strong,” and after the game “everyone hugged each other.”

She said one of the Kenya players told her “this has changed my life and how I see the game.”

As the story grew worldwide, the Kenya team tweeted “The support from all around the world for our African Queens is priceless and hugely humbling.”

Earlier in the tournament, the Wales team had brought a full gift set for the Kenya players, and they received numerous donations of clothing and equipment from local Canadians. The Peterborough Lakers lacrosse team covered extra baggage fees so the team could bring all the donations they received back to Kenya.

As the first women’s team from Africa to play in international competition, they completed a requirement for all continents to be represented in men’s and women’s competition before a sport can become eligible to include in the Olympics.

Ella, a rising sophomore at Mountain Brook High School, started playing lacrosse two years ago when a friend approached her in the lunchroom and said their lacrosse team needed more players, and since she ran track and field, her speed would be a great asset. She went to a practice and stuck with it, and this past year “is when I really started playing.”

While at a tournament, she wondered if Israel even had a lacrosse team, since “it would be really cool to play for Israel,” and looked online. Her father contacted the team’s coach, Alex Freedman, and after communicating for a while, she invited Ella to be on the team. Duvdevani said he replied “of course,” and then told Ella about the invitation.

Duvdevani, who grew up on a moshav near Gaza, explained that Israel “doesn’t have an abundance of players,” unlike the United States, which had around 800 applicants for its team.

As the second-youngest player, “I was really scared at first,” Ella said, and it was an emotional time as well because she had to leave her session at Camp Ramah Darom early for the tournament.

Ella, who appeared in all eight matches, was “really honored to represent my country and the Jewish people as a whole,” especially “coming from Alabama, where lacrosse isn’t a big sport.”

The tournament in Canada was “an experience you could never forget.”

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