On a warm summer evening in 2015, the adult basketball league of East Binyamin played in the town of Eli. Kochav Hashachar faced off against Givat Harel in the opening rounds of league play. The league is composed of recreational teams from east and west Binyamin, who play each of the teams within their division before the top teams face off in the annual championship tournament.
The shining star of the team from Kochav Hashachar was Malachi Rosenfeld. His teammate Shai Maimon recalls, “From the moment I joined the team, it was clear that Malachi was a leader, on and off the court, despite being one of the youngest guys on the team. On the surface he was quiet and reserved, but with the team he was a dominant player and really stepped up.” Malachi regularly took initiative to organize the roster, schedule practices, and generally boost morale.
The day of the game, Malachi was stuck in bed, feeling under the weather. Despite telling his parents that he planned to rest, when he found out that his team was down a player, he insisted on being at the game. That’s the type of man he was – he put the team first, suited up and joined his teammates on the court.
It was a tough game, but with Malachi at the helm, Kochav Hashachar narrowly won by two points. The guys were ecstatic, and after wrapping up in Eli, Malachi and his teammates – Shai, Chananel, and Yair – piled into a car to drive home. As Shai tells it, “I was sure that my buzzer-beating three-pointer would be the highlight of the game that we would remember the rest of the season.” But something far more dramatic awaited them on the ride home.
At the junction of Alon Road, a terrorist opened fire on their car, emptying a full magazine at the men, critically injuring Malachi, and wounding his three friends to varying degrees. First responders rushed to the scene, and immediately did what they could to keep Malachi alive. After fighting for his life for a full day, Malachi succumbed to his wounds. His loss was a shattering blow to the Kochav Hashachar community, to the Binyamin basketball league, and to his brothers on the court.
For his family, and his friends on the team who’d grown up with him in their tight-knit community, it was especially crushing; thirteen years earlier, Malachi’s older brother, Yitzchak, a pilot in the Israeli Air Force, was killed in a jeeping accident. The whole community felt the depth of this tragic loss.
At first, the team wasn’t sure they would be able to continue. Not only had they lost the man who held the team together – the team had lost its heart. Malachi’s smarts, dedication, work ethic, and friendship, on and off the court, could never be replaced.
On the other hand, the guys knew that if they were to stop playing now, if they were to let the terrorists win, they would be letting down Malachi’s legacy. So, with support from his family and from the Binyamin community center, Malachi’s teammates stepped up to dedicate their season to Malachi’s memory.
With that commitment, the team played better than ever their next season, making it to the league finals for the first time. That same season, Shai, who had been in the car on that fateful night, accepted a temporary role as the coordinator for athletic programs in the region, including the basketball league. Since then, all of the teams have played under the banner of immortalizing Malachi, and his commitment to the league, and more broadly to the Jewish people’s return to the heart of Israel.
To Malachi, this was more than just a basketball league. It was the realization of a millenia old dream to resettle the land of Israel, and live normal, peaceful lives in the land of his ancestors. The tight-knit communities of the Binyamin region, who have seen more than their fair share of loss, have proved endlessly resilient in making that dream a reality.
Since the attack, the league has grown tremendously. The men of Binyamin refuse to be broken. They are pioneers, and the children of pioneers, veterans of elite units and officers in the army reserves, farmers, builders, doctors, politicians, rabbis, programmers. And every summer, they come together from across the region to celebrate life, to live normal lives, not just as brothers in arms, but as brothers on the court.
“In the background, we’ve always got Malachi on our minds, and what we’ve been through as a team. We play for the settlement of the land, the reason Malachi was killed, and for the people who live here.”
Just a couple months ago, one of Malachi’s teammates stood in front of his closet, facing a tough decision. It had been a few seasons since he’d stepped onto the court, but Malachi’s memory still burned in his heart. As he reached into his closet to pull out the jersey from that fateful season, he froze – the bloody stains from that terrible night streaked across the uniform as the memories flashed in his mind.
At that moment, he knew that he had to suit up. Like the eternal words of the prophet Ezekiel, “and I said to you, you shall live through your blood, and I said to you, you shall live through your blood.” But this season would be a new season – not of pain and loss, but a season of growth and life. He decided that the team needed new uniforms, and called his friend A.Y. Katsof, a first responder at the scene of the attack eight years earlier, and today, the founder and director of “The Heart of Israel.”
A.Y. was similarly inspired by the team’s resolve and immediately began making calls. He had recently been in touch with a supporter in Florida, who was looking to contribute to a local project. Within just a few hours, the generous donor excitedly agreed to dedicate a set of new uniforms for the whole team, in Malachi’s memory and in support of the team’s vision.
The season just opened, and we have yet to see how Kochav Hashacher will perform this year. But one thing is certain – with their flashy new uniforms, the team will be stepping onto the court in style to keep the flame of Malachi’s memory alive, and to make this a season they’ll never forget.
If you would like to take part in a project supporting the Heart of Israel, click here!