NEW JERSEY — From Pierre Mevy Azaria’s calm demeanor as we sipped cappuccino in the lobby of his New Jersey hotel on Thursday, you would never guess that he is ultimately responsible for every aspect of the Israel versus Honduras soccer exhibition at New York’s Citi Field on Sunday — and that he’s getting married in Israel in two weeks’ time.

The well-dressed, bespectacled Mevy Azaria, CEO of the Geneva-based MCI Sport, seems comfortable in a range of countries and languages, and discussing a wide range of topics. He speaks openly and thoughtfully of his journey from childhood in Tel Aviv, to schooling in Toulouse, internships and jobs in Barcelona, and his current Geneva-based world of organizing and promoting soccer matches around the globe. And he discuses an upcoming move to New York City for his bride-to-be Laura’s law studies at Columbia University.

As we speak, he also deals with here-and-now questions and problems in a relaxed, efficient fashion. One member of the Israel national team approaches our table to inquire of the van driver’s whereabouts; the player is eager to go clothes shopping at a nearby mall.

An earlier mini crisis involves the room of coach Eli Guttman. “He usually gets a suite — to differentiate himself from the players, and so he has a meeting space. We arrived at the hotel and found out the room was given to another guest.”

How this matter was resolved? Mevy Azaria told the hotel manager, “You change the room, or we will change hotels.” He felt justified in making such a threat. “We came two months ago, looked at different hotels, worked out all of the details and signed a contract at this hotel.” Guttman quickly got his room back.

Israeli soccer players lounging at their hotel in New Jersey ahead of a match against Honduras. (photo credit: Howard Blas/Times of Israel staff)

I ask Mevy Azaria why the Israel team has not played in the United States in 35 years. “For lack of interest,” he reports unhesitatingly, but then explains why the timing is right, now, to stage what he refers to as “ethnic matches.”

“In the last two to four years, there has been a real development of soccer in the US — due to demographic reasons. There are a lot of South and Central Americans living here.” In addition, Mevy Azaria notes, the number of spectators watching the European Champions league games on TV “doubled in four years.”

Mevy Azaria is responsible for every aspect of Sunday’s soccer fest. “I rent the stadium, I pay the teams, hotels, and flights — for both teams, and I market the event.”

He says he found the management team at Citi Field “extremely nice to deal with” and felt it is “a Jewish-friendly stadium — like no other place in the world.”

Mevy Azaria was particularly taken by the kosher food stands. “This simply doesn’t exist in Europe.”

In addition, the Citi Field organization is particularly knowledgeable about the synagogues and Jewish communities in the area — a real help in promoting the event. “And the date was a total coincidence—we got two dates which worked for both teams. The Mets just finished up a series with the Yankees and are on the West Coast. And the date, June 2, just happened to be the date of the Celebrate Israel Parade!”

Mevy Azaria discovered football during a business school exchange program, where he had the opportunity to work for Barcelona, one of Europe’s very best teams. He began by selling tickets to Israeli companies for Spanish soccer games. Then, after a year and a half, the owner of MCI Sports approached him, looking for a ticket to a game. He then went to work for MCI.

“A company from Qatar wanted to buy the company, but I was given the chance to buy and develop it — which I did.”

MCI promotes “soccer friendly matches” in Europe — and is now hoping to expand to America. If the New York event is successful, Mevy Azaria envisions similar exhibition matches in such Jewish and Israeli-heavy cities as Los Angeles and Miami.

For now, Mevy Azaria is focused on Sunday’s event — and his wedding. “The game will be a great event, like a party,” he predicts. “The action doesn’t stop for 90 minutes, and it is a chance to cheer on and show support for Israel.”

Unlike the Israeli players who will enjoy vacation and travel time in the States in the week following the match, Mevy Azaria needs to get home to Switzerland, and then on to Israel for his wedding. “Laura has been very understanding.” She’d need to be.


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Jewish state’s elite squad is relaxed, ready and eager for Sunday’s exhibition game against Honduras

NEW JERSEY — The Israel national soccer team touched down at Newark Airport at 5:30 Thursday morning. By 9 a.m., the freshly showered guys were lounging on the white leather sofas of their New Jersey hotel — calling girlfriends, Skyping mothers, and playfully bantering with teammates, some of whom they hadn’t seen since their impressive 2-0 March 26 World Cup qualifier victory over Northern Ireland in Belfast.

The team came to New York for an exhibition game against Honduras Sunday at Citi Field, home of the New York Mets baseball team. The game — the national team’s first here for 35 years — is the final event of “Celebrate Israel NY” which also includes a Celebrate Israel Run in Central Park and the Celebrate Israel Parade.

While willing to give exclusive-on-arrival interviews to The Times of Israel, most players — many in the United States for the first time — were admittedly more interested in the van, soon to arrive to take them to a nearby shopping mall. Three of the adventuresome players hired a driver to take them straight to Manhattan. Thursday was a free day. A late-afternoon practice was set for Friday at New Jersey’s Montclair State University.

Israeli soccer players (facing camera) Elad Gabai, Dekel Keinan, and Shimon Abuhatzira (photo credit: Howard Blas/Times of Israel staff)

Midfielder Sheran Yeini was excited to be in New York, “one of the best cities in the world.” The Maccabi Tel Aviv player said, “I can’t wait to see the stadium — I know it is a baseball stadium!” It takes 48 hours to convert Queens’ Citi Field for soccer.

Yeini and teammate Elyaniv Barda, a forward originally from Beersheba, and a sixth-year member of the Belgian Racing Genk soccer club, take turns rattling off positive comments about the game and the national team: “We want to represent Israel. We need you! Come to the game and show your support!”

Both made reference to the Celebrate Israel Parade on June 2, on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.

“Two or three players will be on a float at the parade — then they will rush to the game,” Yeini said.

Defender Dekel Keinan of Haifa felt both the game and his time in the States “will be an adventure.” Fellow defender, Rami Gershon, originally from Rishon Letzion, was similarly enthusiastic in describing his first trip to the US. “We are looking forward to all of our supporters coming out to the game. We hope families will come.”

Kol Yisrael Achim,” he then shouted. “All Jews are brothers!”

Gershon, who has played soccer for a Belgium team in Antwerp and currently plays for Scottish Premier League champions, Celtic, reported that he has never experienced anti-Semitism or anti-Israel sentiment overseas. “People are supportive and helpful.”

Midfielder Maor Melikson of Yavneh, a player on France’s Valenciennes club, said much the same. “There is no anti-Semitism — the other way around. People bring Israeli flags to the game.” Melikson was in the States six months ago with his wife, who is not accompanying him on this trip. He will travel to Las Vegas for four days following Sunday’s game. “I am looking forward to all the Jews coming out to cheer for us!”

Israeli midfielder Maor Melikson (photo credit: Howard Blas/Times of Israel staff)

Eli Guttman, coach of Israel’s National team (who with players Tel Ben Haim and Rami Gershon gave an online interview May 29, as part of “Hangout on Air with Israel’s National Team”) was not hanging out in the lobby with his players. He was reportedly resting. Guttman was no doubt pleased that Pierre Mevy Azaria, CEO of MCI Sport, the event organizer, promoter and chief logistical officer, had recently “rescued” Guttman’s hotel suite, which had been “reassigned” to another hotel guest.

In the online interview, Guttman acknowledged that Sunday’s game “is an important game for us — every game for the National Team is important.” But he conceded that it has greater significance for Honduras. “On [June 7] Honduras plays against Costa Rica in the 2014 World Cup Qualification. For them, they must be on a high level. We, after the game, will be on our vacation.” Still, he said of the game, “We are serious, and we want to be proud.”

According to Mevy Azaria, more than half of the players will be staying in the States from three days to a week, to relax and travel.

In the days leading up to the game, there is still work to be done. Sharon Eyny, director of GIDNY (getitdoneny), seemed relieved when the players boarded the bus for their shopping excursion. She could get back to selling tickets and coordinating logistics.

In the Jewish and Israeli communities, she and her team have reached out to synagogues, restaurants, venues hosting performances by Israeli musicians and more.

And while unwilling to disclose the number of tickets sold to date, she noted that “The Hondurans are passionate about soccer.”


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by Meredith Jacobs

Taglit-Birthright Israel’s 10-day trip to Israel has a mission to connect young Jews, ages 18 to 26, not only with Israel, but with their Jewish identity and each other. Once a year, a very special trip takes place for young adults for whom making connections is a challenge. The participants on this Birthright trip have Asperger’s Syndrome.

“With Asperger’s, the main disability is social,” said Leesa Fields, whose son Jeremy Band was a participant on the Dec. 23-Jan. 3 trip. Even though the family has traveled extensively throughout their son’s life and Band has been on a plane by himself, this was the first group trip he took by himself.

“When he expressed interest [in the Birthright trip], I jumped on it,” said Fields, who had to move quickly because at age 26, her son was about to reach the age limit of the program. “We were thrilled, but nervous. He called us every day. He made at least one new friend.”

Band, who holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in library science from the University of Maryland, is considered “high functioning.” Fields explained that while there are many programs for low functioning, she has found few options for high functioning, something, she believes that makes this particular experience unique.

According to Howard Blas, the trip leader, what presents a challenge for those with Asperger’s Syndrome is that the individuals “look typical.” This means, others “expect certain things, they don’t cut you a break. It’s different if you have Downs [Syndrome]. It can be tough for people with Asperger’s.”

Blas, who directs the Tikvah program for special needs campers at Camp Ramah in New England and runs a trip to Israel for the Tikvah campers every other year, was contacted by Rabbi Elyse Winick, director of KOACH, to help with the Birthright trip. He explained that while, in many ways, this was a regular Birthright trip, some modifications were made for the participants – there were fewer participants (20 versus 40 or 50), a greater staff to participant ratio and some large crowd events, like a concert, were eliminated from the trip. Added to this trip was a meeting with Shekel, a group of Israeli young adults with Asperger’s.

“I would have enjoyed getting to know them more,” said Band of the meeting with Shekel.

While he had been told for years to go on a Birthright trip, it was when he realized that this was his last chance to go that he signed up.

“I’ve been to Israel twice before but only with my family, never with a group of peers,” he said. “And I’m glad I did. I’ve been to many of the same places but never with native Israelis and never with kids who were like me. I got to make friends with people like me, who think the way I do and share experiences with them.”

Band, who was honored with the group’s “paper plate award” for “most brutal honesty,” stays in touch with fellow participants through a Facebook group and shared a recent Shabbat dinner with another local participant. He has plans to travel with a friend to Italy this spring with a group of retired female librarians.

The Asperger’s Taglit-Birthright Israel trip is organized by Shorashim in partnership with KOACH. KOACH, the college outreach project for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, created the Asperger’s trip in 2006. Winick said, “Everyone is focused on the notion of Birthright as a way to connect with Israel, and we all understand that the peer setting reinforces the relationship with Israel. But for this group, the ability to make those peer connections, to find those friends is almost more important than the relationship and connection to Israel. For so many of them, this is the first time they walked away from a group experience knowing what it means to belong.”

Shorashim runs more than 20 Birthright buses a season (community buses, special needs buses and special niche – like an “Israel challenge” competition bus). They partner with other organizations for specific trips. According to Naomi Shapiro, North American director of Shorashim, they are an educational organization that believes in learning about Israel through the people. “We have Israeli participants on the buses all 10 days,” Shapiro said. While the Israeli participants on the Asperger’s trip don’t have Asperger’s, they do have experience with people with special needs. “The idea is Americans get to know [the Israelis] as peers. You can’t really understand a place until you talk to its people.”

She explained that the Asperger’s trip is a “special experience for staff on the bus. Our office staff and logistical staff in Israel feel how powerful it is for the participants, and that trickles down to us.”

Blas believes that other trips may have been a challenge for his participants. “Those with Asperger’s, by definition, have social challenges. They may miss social cues like when the conversation should be over or when someone is not interested in having a conversation.” They may have been tolerated in another group, but here, he said, “they made friends.”

“For me, as someone who works so much with this population, there is such a range of everything. People often highlight the difficulty making connections but we really saw beautiful connections being made – putting their heads on the Kotel, sharing Shabbat. I would have thought more would have opted out of the group meetings, but with very few exceptions, everyone came to everything. I think the wonderful surprise was how people connected. I think what people underestimate is the desire of people with Asperger’s to connect.”

The Taglit-Birthright Israel trip with Shorashim in partnership with KOACH runs every December. Registration opens in September; however, they are collecting a list of interested participants now. For more information or to express interest, go to

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Members of a Birthright group talk about the joys of seeing the country with people just like themselves

More than 20,000 Birthright participants will have spent 10 days in Israel by the end of the 2012-2013 winter season, including 20 participants with Asperger’s Syndrome, now known as the “Mishpocha,” or Bus No. 195.

It’s not the first time that Birthright has included an Asperger’s bus — this one is a project of Shorashim/KOACH, the college organization run by the Conservative Movement — but for many of the participants, who range in age from late teens to mid-20s, it’s been a while since they’ve spent so much time with their own “population.”

“It’s an interesting dynamic — very enlightening to connect with one’s roots,” said Jason Shatz, who is studying at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and had a tough time deciding whether to go on Birthright with the Asperger’s group or with the Wesleyan bus. “In some ways it’s quite nice to be with such a population, even though I’ve developed socially in a significant way ever since I went to college.”

Birthrighter Jason Shatz (right) praying at the Western Wall (photo credit: Courtesy Birthright Bus No. 195)

For the bus’s “other” Jason, Jason Cohen, a 21-year-old sports management major at Ithaca College, the trip felt like an opportunity to return to his “Asperger’s roots,” something he hasn’t done since his high school days.

Funny, smart and personable, and sometimes amusingly out of context, the Birthrighters and one of the three soldiers traveling with them sat in the lobby of their hotel on the last day of the trip last week, speaking about the “quirks” of fellow Asperger’s sufferers, favorite highlights of the trip and what it will be like to say goodbye at the end of their journey.

“It was great to be around other people I can identify with,” said Lauren Katz, a 19-year-old from Eureka, California, who is studying art at College of the Redwoods. “I’ve always been the kind of person who’s never really fit in; I never interacted with people I could really communicate with on the same level.”

Lauren Katz hails from Eureka, CA, where she has never had a large group of friends (Courtesy Birthright Bus #195)

Gathering together a sizable group of young people with Asperger Syndrome was one of the ideas of the trip, said group leader Howard Blas, who has run similar Birthright trips in the past. Despite the high-functioning level of many of the Asperger’s participants, they often feel socially bereft back in their home settings; this was one place where they could experience a particular social bond.

“It’s not common for me to meet other people with Asperger’s or higher-functioning special needs people in Albany,” said Beth Katzer, 25, who works as a teacher’s assistant and part-time administrative assistant. “This trip was so important for me, to make friends I could see myself being friends with for the rest of my life. Even though we all have challenges, we could all come together.”

The Birthright trip was much like any other, including camel rides and orange-picking, trying out Israeli snack foods, floating in the Dead Sea and jeep rides in the Golan Heights. But they also met with Israelis with Asperger’s at Shekel, an umbrella organization for Israelis with special needs. The two groups bonded over favorite television shows and the Birthrighters’ first tastes of peanut-flavored Bamba and chocolate-covered marshmallow Krembos, and there was comfort in the ingathering of fellow Asperger’s sufferers, agreed the Birthrighters.

“There are kindred spirits in this population, and we share the same zeal for sharing the things in which we have expertise and same enthusiasm,” said Shatz. “Regular life has been good to me and my experience with Asperger’s is somewhat of a moot point although I do visit it now and then…. I struggle socially more than other people, but I think I’m getting there.”

Tomer Daloomi (far right), was amazed by the forthright outlook and conversation on the bus (Courtesy Birthright Bus No. 195)

It was that kind of disarming honesty that charmed and humbled Tomer Daloomi, one of the three soldiers who joined Bus No. 195. Told just four days before the trip that he would be placed on a Birthright bus, he didn’t know what to expect, but has unexpectedly found himself seeing Israel through a very different prism.

“I’m usually cynical, like most Israelis, but these guys are just not sarcastic,” he said. “They were saying how they felt with no masks on at all. They’re just always themselves.”


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