Avigdor “Randy” Yonah grew up in a state that prized football, but with few Jews around, his observance of Torah was a private affair, known to only a few. After a decade of growth in his Orthodoxy, Jonas is set to return to Jerusalem on Aug. 3 for his second year as the assistant coach of the Jerusalem Lions football team, living his dream of football greatness in the holy city.
“I’ve coached Texas high school football for 20 years. Nobody knew I was Jewish,” Yonah, 58, said. Feeling conflicted between the sport and his faith, he snuck in a bottle of grape juice, challah, and candles to his coach’s office, he made the blessing. “Nobody was allowed in my office, but one day a senior player walked in and asked me what this was.” Hoping to avoid a religious debate in the heavily Christian community, Yonah said that he was praying for his Fort Stockton team to win.
As his observance grew, he left the Texas panhandle and football for Forest Hills, where he met his wife Denise Temime. Born to a Moroccan Jewish family and raised in Israel, her world was very different from Jonas, who grew up in an intermarried household. Yonah appreciated the richness of Jewish life in New York, while homesick for football. “I’d watch two games every Sunday and the Monday night game. To Denise, they all looked the same.”
The couple took an active role at their Queens synagogue, Congregation Machane Chodosh, but Yonah’s newfound observance pulled him towards greater spiritual heights as he spent months volunteering in Israel, expressing a desire to make aliyah.
“When I got there, I camped out in Tzfat for a week, then I took a bus to Jerusalem. I passed by a field near the Central Bus Station and I thought I heard a punt, then a whistle. It’s a very distinct sound. The sound of football,” Yonah said. Peering over the fence, he caught an Israeli high school team playing American football at Kraft Stadium, which was built by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
On his second night in the holy city, Yonah saw the semi-pro Jerusalem Kings, followed by the Lions on his third night. The match was made, as Yonah approached the coach to talk football and was hired as the Lions’ offensive coordinator last summer. Settling in Ma’aleh Adumin, he changed the gentile Jonas last name to the Hebrew Yonah.
While baseball in Israel came with hype followed by a financial collapse in 2008, football is limited to a tight following of sabras and olim, which Yonah credits for its survival. “These players grew up watching the game at home at 4 a.m. One of our players owns the Lion’s Den, a football bar,” Yonah said. The coach estimates average game attendance at 300, which balloons to 1,400 during playoffs.
The eight-person teams of the Israel Football League play under NCAA rules, and a schedule around the military reservists on the team. “A big war can stop the season. Most of my team served in Lebanon and Gaza. It bothers them that they are always on call,” Yonah said. The league launched in 2005 and expanded to its eighth team, the Herzliya Hammers in 2008.
As Yonah prepares for his August return to Israel, his wife will be joining him, having retired from her career as a clothing designer. But Denise won’t be the only woman in his new Israeli life. “This year we are starting women’s tackle football,” Yonah said, describing a new program for college-age players. “They’re way more aggressive than the men. When they run, they put their faces right in it.”