It sounds like the set-up for a joke: how many Jewish rugby players are there in America?
But that was the question Menemsha native Jasper Wilson asked himself last fall as he pursued try-outs for the American rugby team traveling to the World Maccabi Games in Israel this July. Casually referred to as “the Jewish Olympics,” the Maccabi Games is the third largest multi-sporting event in the world. Thousands of Jewish athletes from all over the world will spend three weeks in July competing in games held throughout Israel. And 24-year-old Jasper Wilson will be one of these athletes, playing Position 13 on the American men’s rugby team.
A Vineyard kid who began playing soccer at age five, Mr. Wilson credits his childhood coaches Mark Taylor and Ed Sylvia as mentors who led him to embrace the focus, discipline and bond of team sports. Mr. Wilson played basketball and football as a child, but soccer was his main passion. He loved the freedom of not wearing pads and just taking off in a full sprint down the field.
He found his way to rugby after a disappointing mix-up of missed paperwork delayed his chances of playing Division 1 soccer at Stony Brook University. During a late night run around the track, Mr. Wilson caught an unexpected glimpse of Stony Brook’s rugby team. He fell into pace with the team at its practice and soon after joined the team.
Soccer’s loss was rugby’s gain. Mr. Wilson was voted MVP of the Stony Brook University Men’s Rugby team and was team president from 2008-2009. In New York city, where he now lives, he plays for Old Blue Rugby, an amateur team which competed three weeks ago in Colorado at the national finals.
In July, when Mr. Wilson plays on fields in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, he’ll be among 30 American Jewish men who have played together as a squad only once up to this point. Most of the players maintain professional careers while playing rugby on the side for area clubs organized by associations such as USA Rugby. Individually, Mr. Wilson and his teammates have been training since being chosen in January after tryouts that included conditioning with Navy SEALs and workouts at the Olympic training center in San Diego. Players use the Insanity Workout series for conditioning and keep track of repetitions such as jumping on one leg while holding a ball and conducting vertical jumps.
Coach Shawn Lipman is a South African rugby player and member of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Each player sends Coach Lipman daily updates, which the coach uses to proclaim accomplishments and inspire all the players. Mr. Wilson calls Coach Lipman an inspired and gifted orator. His communications creates a community for the players, making them feel as though they are together all of the time even though they won’t all reunite until July.
Mr. Wilson looks forward to returning to Israel, which he visited after graduating with an MBA from Stony Brook. He has always felt a connection to being Jewish and feels that the standards he sets for himself personally embrace Jewish values such as respecting yourself and others. He was bar mitzvahed through the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, where he studied with Avi Lev.
Mr. Wilson is one of three American athletes selected to arrive early in Israel as an ambassador. He looks forward to the opportunity to experience Israel on a deeper level and interacting with Israeli communities before training with his teammates and the games begin.
In the meantime, he barely has time to catch his breath. Rugby practices, games and training for the Maccabi Games are just one part of his life. He is also settling into a new job on the staff of New York Senator Chuck Schumer, accompanying the senator on his travels around New York state and handling logistics and communication in the home office.
This hasn’t left much time for fundraising for the Maccabi Games. Each player is charged with raising $5,000 towards expenses. With just a few weeks to go, Mr. Wilson still has a way to reach his goal. He is grateful to his parents — Taylor Wilson of Oak Bluffs and Sean Roseman of Vineyard Haven – for helping to spread the world in the Vineyard community. Mr. Wilson is also touched to see some unexpected names show up as he scrolls through the list of donors: fraternity brothers, rugby friends, alums from Stony Brook and friends from the Vineyard.
Donations can be made by calling Sara Glassman in the office of the Maccabi Games at 215-561-6900, ext. 114 or at Jasper Wilson’s fundraising page on the Maccabi Games website: http://friendraising.towercare.com/Markslist/campaign/viewDetails.do?campaignId=13599