Charlie Cohen, head coach of the Beit Shemesh Judean Rebels of the Israel Football League, doesn’t mince words when reliving his Judaic upbringing during the 1980s in Sharon, Mass.
“I was thrown out or asked to leave Hebrew school as a kid,” recalled Cohen, who, following his bar mitzvah, admittedly had “next to zero” involvement with Judaism, which, in the predominantly Jewish suburb of Sharon, left him feeling isolated at times.
And so, as a high school upperclassman, he tried his hand at coaching youth sports, first in the town’s youth basketball league and later for the local Pop Warner football team. Indeed, it was on the gridiron sidelines that Cohen found his true calling, initially as an assistant coach, and then as a head coach for a winless Pop Warner squad that he turned around and led to a shocking 13-12 upset over a juggernaut of a North Attleboro team.
“I found acceptance on the football field,” said Cohen.
Apparently, he also found his renewed faith in religion there as well.
Added Cohen about the football coaching experience, “It had such a profound effect on me, I became more committed to being a better Jew.”
This meant, among other things, re-enrolling in Hebrew school and eventually settling in Ramat Beit Shemesh, which is where he still resides as the second-year head coach of the Judean Rebels, whose 2023 season kicked off last week.
“I could not be any more pumped,” said Cohen in anticipation of his sophomore season at the helm of the Rebels. “As a coach, and you are as old as me, you appreciate all the hurdles and things a team has to overcome during the season to get to the final team dream.”
Prior to Cohen taking over last winter, the Rebels had established themselves as one of the legacy franchises of the IFL, a league that was founded in summer 2005 and eventually sponsored by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his family, who funded the Jerusalem-situated Kraft Family Stadium that hosts many games. After joining the IFL as an expansion team in 2009, the Rebels, in merely their second season of existence, won IsraBowl IV over the Tel Aviv Sabres, while also prevailing in IsraBowl VIII and IsraBowl IX.
During the pre-COVID era, Cohen served as the team’s offensive line coach. When the games resumed last winter, there was a vacancy at the top and Cohen, a salesman by day, was invited to be the head boss.
“The greatest pleasure I had in my life before I became more observant was winning a big game with a team,” he said. “To be able to assist and contribute to that experience is priceless. This team is special to me because there is a core of men that I have been with and grown with since before Corona times. I have watched them work and improve and just grow and I love to be around that, I love the team for that. When you see that the experience of winning with a team, and having to invest yourself to attain it, can have such a positive impact, how could someone not be invested in them?”
The IFL schedule is a condensed version of the NFL’s full-season slate of games. Eight teams grind through an eight-game schedule, with the top four finishers entering a single-elimination playoff bracket. After falling short in the semis last winter, the Rebels, behind clutch quarterback Tsvi Goldstone, the IFL’s reigning offensive player of the year, who, according to Cohen, “doesn’t look very imposing without his equipment and uniform, but he is very scary in his equipment for opposing defenses,” and a veteran coaching staff, are primed to be in the running for their fourth IsraBowl title as the new season dawns.
No matter what transpires between the hash marks, the IFL remains a work in progress, as the league is trying to bolster its endowment to $30 million to incorporate new teams and feeder programs, and Cohen’s upstart team has made a concerted effort to run youth and women’s flag football clinics and leagues as a means of igniting enthusiasm among citizens of Beit Shemish, many of whom are transported Americans who already have an affinity for football…but are also wary of the sport’s propensity for jarring and potentially life-altering collisions.
“When I think of the league, I think of American tackle football in Israel,” noted Cohen. “I think if tackle football here attracts people, teaches good fun football, and becomes successful, people want to play and watch, the league will be fine. My goal for the league would be [for it to be] good enough to be able to be ambassadors to the Jews back at home.”