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.”
Bornstein’s relationship with Judaism also stems from his father, a Jew born into an Orthodox family in New York. While Bornstein did not have a bar mitzvah and doesn’t consider himself observant, he did grow up celebrating Rosh Hashanah and Passover with relatives. And he credits his experience representing the United States in the Maccabiah Games in 2005 with reinforcing his Jewish identity.
“It was an amazing experience. I loved it, and not just because I got to play soccer in Israel. It made me realize how fulfilling and enriched Jewish culture really is, ”
Bornstein said. “I was able to explore my Jewish identity in the Old City, at Masada, at the Dead Sea. I definitely want to return some day.”
Feilhaber said playing during the Maccabiah Games was an unbelievable feeling.
“I competed with the best Jewish players in the world in a great environment and I was able to visit places that I had only previously heard about. Because of my family’s history, the Holocaust Museum [Yad Vashem] was the most memorable moment of the trip for me,” he said.
More memorable moments could well be in store for the duo in South Africa.
According to Mike Woitalla, who has covered the United States for Soccer America Magazine since its first of six straight appearances in the 1990 World Cup, “Both Feilhaber and Bornstein could make valuable contributions to the U.S. World Cup campaign. Feilhaber is a skillful, creative midfielder who is capable of dictating the rhythm of the game and making defense-splitting passes. Bornstein is an outside back who contributes to the attack with his blazing runs down the wing.”
Overall, soccer experts think the United States has a good shot — at least in the first round.
“The U.S. is in a very favorable first-round group, so they should at least advance to the round of 16,” said Steve Goff, the Washington Post’s soccer columnist. “Beyond that, however, we can’t expect the U.S. to reach the quarterfinals as they did in 2002, which was the exception rather than the rule. But another first-round failure, as happened in 2006, would be a huge disappointment and a big setback for the program.”
Feilhaber and Bornstein hope to prove the skeptics wrong.
“I think we have a good chance in the World Cup if we are playing our best football at the time,” Feilhaber said. “I think our team is good enough to beat anyone on any given day. England will be a very tough team to beat.”