By Jacob Gurvis
February 9, 2024
(JTA) — Assaf Lowengart’s introduction to American baseball didn’t go well: A fan accidentally doused him in beer when his family, having relocated from Israel to Milwaukee for a year, attended a Brewers game. Then in first grade, he cried.
Yet Lowengart soon caught the baseball bug, rising in the ranks of Israel’s nascent baseball scene. And despite setbacks and injuries along the way, he’s now making history as the first Israeli-born position player to sign a professional baseball contract in the United States.
Lowengart, 25, is set to join the New York Boulders in the Frontier League, an independent league that’s affiliated with Major League Baseball but not part of the official minor league system. Playing in Rockland County, just north of New York City, he’ll have the chance to win over a heavily Jewish local fan base, as well as the MLB scouts who routinely scope out independent-league talent.
“I’m trying to break as many ceilings as I can for Israeli players,” Lowengart told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Lowengart was born and raised in Timorim, a small village in central Israel, and he primarily played soccer and basketball growing up, “as every Israeli kid does,” he said.
Even today, he said, Israelis remain confused about what baseball is. “Oh, the one with the pads? You hit each other? That’s a very aggressive game,” Lowengart said, imitating exchanges he’s had with fellow Israelis. “To this day, even though we’ve made the Olympics, we’ve played in the European championship, we got second place, all these things, still, people don’t know.”
Lowengart himself caught the bug at around 11, when he saw an MLB game on television and decided to give the sport a try. He began playing in an under-12 little league at Kibbutz Gezer, home to Israel’s first baseball field — the same field where fellow Team Israel alum and MLB coach Alon Leichman got his start.
His rise was uneven. He recalled that on his first day trying out for the Israeli national team as a teenager, the coach told his father, “Don’t bring him back. There’s no reason.”
He made the national team the next year and was on surer footing by the time he headed to the United States after his army service. He played on college teams — five of them in total — while maintaining his spot on Israel’s senior squad. His stint at the University of San Francisco this year makes him likely to be the first Israeli-born position player to play Division I baseball.
Peppered in among the college tour were tournaments: Lowengart played for Israel in the European Baseball Championship in 2019, 2021 and 2023, as well as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In the 2021 championship, in which Israel won the silver medal, Lowengart led the tournament with four home runs and 13 RBIs.
It was during those tournaments that Lowengart met a number of American players who also played for Team Israel, either by obtaining Israeli citizenship or through eligibility rules that enable Diaspora Jews to represent Israel.
One of those teammates was Ty Kelly, a veteran of Team Israel who played parts of three seasons in the MLB along with a lengthy minor league career. For the past three years, Lowengart has visited Kelly in Los Angeles to train during the offseason.
Kelly said playing with Lowengart has added a new dimension to his relationship with Team Israel.
“I think it’s always a good reminder of why we’re playing on the team and what the name on the front of the jersey actually means,” Kelly told JTA. “To have somebody who grew up in the country and continues to live there when he’s not here playing baseball and studying, it’s good for everybody to have that reminder.”
Lowengart acknowledged that being one of the only Israeli natives on Team Israel was a bit odd, but he said the players always bonded over their shared Jewish backgrounds. His own family, he said, celebrated Shabbat and other Jewish holidays and kept kosher; he now considers himself “culturally Jewish.”
“The camaraderie around being Jewish, it’s always a little bit different than any other team you play on,” Lowengart said. “You’re representing a bigger thing than yourself. It’s always fun being in that atmosphere with those guys.”
Team Israel alum Mitch Glasser, a Chicago native who was drafted by the White Sox in 2012 but played mostly in independent leagues, has also hosted Lowengart for offseason training. He said they celebrated Hanukkah together, and called Lowengart “a lifelong friend.”
“He’s the best Israeli-born position player to come out of Israel,” Glasser said. “He’s setting a bar for these young Israeli players that want to be on the national team and want to play in college or play professionally.”
Lowengart actually sat out the 2023 World Baseball Classic, where Team Israel made a watershed showing, following an injury incurred last year as a graduate student at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Lowengart broke his ankle in the fifth inning of the first game of the season. He hit a home run two innings later — then was sidelined for several months.
After Oct. 7, he returned home to be with his family. Lowengart said they haven’t been directly affected by the Hamas attack or Israel’s subsequent war, but he has several friends who are serving in the IDF in Gaza and on the Lebanon border, and his sister’s best friend lost her husband on Oct. 7, just six months after their wedding.
“What happened on Oct. 7 was bigger than just the Palestine-Israel conflict, a Gaza Strip thing, a Hamas vs. Israel thing,” Lowengart said. “It was terrorism against Jewish people.”
Lowengart said nearly every one of his teammates has reached out since the war started to check in on him and his family, and that the Israel Association of Baseball held a Zoom call for current and former Team Israel players to learn about the conflict and ask questions.
Lowengart also participated in the Maccabiah movement’s online campaign to raise awareness for the hostages, where Israeli athletes shared photos of themselves alongside those who were taken captive by Hamas.
The support Lowengart has felt from the Jewish community is one reason he is looking forward to joining the Boulders, who play in a county where roughly a third of the residents are Jewish, many of them Orthodox.
During their pre-Olympics U.S. tour, Team Israel played an exhibition game against the Boulders. Lowengart recalled that bad weather delayed the sold-out game by a couple of hours — and that 3,000 fans waited out the rain to see Team Israel in action.
“Being able to come back there with the big Jewish community, it’s going to be pretty amazing,” Lowengart said. “I’ve been in many colleges, and the Jewish communities usually weren’t that big. So it’s going to be a pretty cool experience being connected to the Jewish community this time, having them behind me, having them support me and being able to contribute back to them.”
Shawn Reilly, the team’s president and general manager, said the opportunity to have an Israeli player join the Boulders is “very meaningful,” particularly because of the area’s strong Jewish community.
“We have a special relationship with the community, because they’re our neighbors,” Reilly told JTA. “They love the Boulders, and to have the second Israeli-born player playing for the Boulders, it’s pretty special. I think the community will rally behind him.”
The Boulders, whose “Jewish Heritage Day” game last July drew hundreds of Jewish fans, had another Jewish player last season, outfielder David Vinsky, who Reilly said may return for 2024.
Marvin Fier, a dentist and Touro College professor who lives in Rockland County, and his wife are season ticket holders who have supported the Boulders since they were founded in 2011.
“As a NY Boulders fan since they started, it’s great news to hear about the historic signing of Israeli Assaf Lowengart,” said Fier, who attended the 2021 pre-Olympics match and also serves as the team’s dentist. “He’ll be a major asset to the team while representing our Jewish community. He stands on the shoulders of Jewish baseball greats like Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg.”
Beyond the fan support, the Boulders represent Lowengart’s best shot yet to advance his career.
The Frontier League, the oldest independent baseball league in North America, features a 96-game season that runs from early May through early September, followed by a postseason. Pay is limited — as a rookie, Lowengart expects to make roughly the league’s minimum salary, which is $1,200 per month. (For comparison, the minimum annual salary for a Triple-A player was raised to $35,800 last year.)
Reilly said Lowengart is likely to play in the outfield, but noted that his ability to play multiple positions will give him a leg up in the independent league, where rosters are two spots smaller than on MLB teams.
“He seems like just a wonderful person and he’s a really good baseball player,” Reilly said. “We’re doing this because I think he’s going to be a really great player. If he needs a chance to play, this is going to be his shot.”
Though rare, some players — like Team Israel pitcher Robert Stock — have used the Frontier League as a launchpad for a career in the MLB, or at least as a stepping stone to the minors. Some, like Kelly and Glasser, have played in those leagues after an MLB career didn’t pan out.
As Lowengart joins the Boulders, whose season begins May 9, just how historic his signing is depends on whom you ask.
Technically, there has been one other Israeli-born player signed to the league. Shlomo Lipetz, who is revered as an icon in the Israeli baseball community and has kept pitching well into his 40s, joined the now-defunct Bridgeport Bluefish in the Atlantic League for a week at the end of the 2007 season, but he did not appear in a game. (He was one of three Jewish players on the roster.)
But Lipetz says Lowengart deserves his place in the history books.
“You got my full backing to call Assaf the first-born Israeli to sign a professional contract,” Lipetz told JTA via email. “Assaf is one hell of a player and someone who I consider a close friend. That’s all that matters.”
To Jonathan Mayo, who covers prospects and the draft for MLB.com and has followed Team Israel closely for years, Lowengart’s signing signifies an important milestone in the development of Israeli baseball.
“I think it is a step in the direction that everyone has been hoping Israel baseball could head towards, with all the work that’s been done to raise awareness to play in international competition, with almost entirely American-born players,” he said. “The goal has always been to build a baseball association that could produce homegrown talent.”
Lowengart knows he has a tough hill to climb to advance to higher echelons of professional baseball. For now, he’s focused on improving his game and inspiring others.
“I’m trying to create a path for other players,” Lowengart said. “Hopefully I’ll reach a very high level at some point, but then I hope somebody else will surpass me.”