Two Jewish soccer players from Southern California are on the U.S. team facing England during America’s first World Cup match, in Rustenburg, South Africa, on June 12. Jonathan Bornstein and Benny Feilhaber, both 25, along with Chicago’s Jonathan Spector, 24, a defender for London’s West Ham United and the grandson of NBA star Art Spector, comprise one of the largest Jewish contingents on a single team in the U.S. squad’s history.
Friends since high school, Bornstein and Feilhaber have been on a shared journey to the World Cup, which includes stints with the UCLA Bruins and the U.S. Men’s National Team as well as a silver medal win during the 2005 Maccabiah Games.
With the clock counting down to the first U.S. kickoff in South Africa, Feilhaber says the excitement is building.
“The World Cup is so close now that I start to get anxious when I think about it,” he said. “It’s as though there’s not enough I can do to fully prepare for this event. It’s the biggest event in sports in the world.”
Feilhaber, who plays for Denmark’s successful AGF Aahurs, traces his love for soccer back to his native Brazil. When he was 6, Feilhaber’s family moved to Irvine, where he became a standout midfielder at Northwood High School.
Born in Torrance and raised in Los Alamitos, Bornstein first kicked a soccer ball at age 3. He played varsity soccer at Los Alamitos High and today is a defender for L.A. MLS team Chivas USA.
Playing together is nothing new for Feilhaber and Bornstein. In 2002, the duo helped the Irvine Strikers club win its first Under-17 National Championship. Two years later, they were reunited at UCLA and became college roommates, which cemented their already close friendship.
Feilhaber said that he and Bornstein “definitely had a special connection” because of their religion. Plus, he said, “it was easy being friends with him because he scored all the goals so I passed him all the balls.”
For his part, Bornstein, who still rooms with Feilhaber while on the road with the U.S. Men’s National Team, said, “When a Jewish holiday comes up, we recognize it and talk about it, but we don’t celebrate too many holidays together.” That is because Feilhaber spends the High Holy Days with his family. “My father is Jewish, and I have a connection with Judaism through my father and my grandparents. I know our history as a people and embrace being Jewish myself,” Feilhaber said. “Of course, my proudest moment as a Jew was having my bar mitzvah in front of all my family and friends.”
Feilhaber’s close relationship with his paternal grandfather, who fled Austria in 1938 to avoid Nazi persecution, has strongly affected his identity as a Jew and his connection with Judaism.
“My grandfather was 14 years old when he and his family had to leave all their things behind in Austria. He boarded a ship to Brazil and left everything he ever knew,” Feilhaber said. “I talk with my grandfather, who still lives in Brazil, often. His story affects my religion as well as how I see the world and my life.”
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