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Life Goals   

Snir Gueta traded soccer stardom for Shabbos

Photos: Mendi Kurant

It’s deep into the second half of an Israeli professional soccer game one Sunday afternoon in 2011 when a midfielder takes possession of the ball.

The player’s lithe build marks him out as an athlete, someone to watch; but it’s the way that the ball seems to stick to his boots that makes the spectators sit up.

As the man with the intense, dark face evades one onrushing defender and closes on another, the crowd buzzes.

With another feint, the white-shirted attacker finds himself in open space in the other team’s half, separated from an open goal only by the goalkeeper. There’s a collective holding of breath as he draws back his lethal right foot, and suddenly the crowd roars as the low shot bulges the net.

The show isn’t over yet, though as the bare-headed midfielder wheels away in a celebration that makes for an odd sight in this secular world of pro-soccer.

As his teammates rush to mob him, the goal scorer peels back his team shirt to reveal another layer — a white shirt emblazoned with a large legend: “Ein Od Milvado.”

Unknown to the fans who’d come to see Snir Gueta, the goal scorer that afternoon, they’d just seen something historic. Not because of the setting: the second-tier game was a far cry from the packed stadium and high-stakes soccer that the young star had played just a short time before.

But because the strike — accompanied by its fervent declaration of faith — was Gueta’s swan song in professional sports.

Just a short time later, the Eilat-born midfielder — groomed since childhood for soccer stardom, idol of countless fans — would hang up his boots, walk away from the adulation of professional soccer, and head for the beis medrash.

“I realized that I wasn’t on the right path as a Jew because of the chillul Shabbat,” he says. “I had two choices: either wait till retirement at 35 to be chozer b’teshuvah, or I could be a man and do what Hashem wants from me now.”

In the sports-mad world of secular Israel, Gueta’s decision to quit was a big deal. It triggered a backlash from fans, friends — and most distressing, from close family.

Having sacrificed everything so that their gifted son could play elite soccer and take a shot at international stardom, Snir Gueta’s parents — themselves traditional and Shabbat-observant — were horrified that their son had thrown it all away for the $400 stipend that he would bring home as an avreich.

More than a decade after he left the glare of the television cameras behind, Snir Gueta is back under the spotlight, as one of Israel’s most sought-after kiruv speakers.

Where once he was the subject of breathless commentary, he does the talking nowadays, keeping large audiences rapt with a mixture of Torah, faith, and life-wisdom.

His rags-to-riches take of soccer success has been replaced by a similar meteoric rise as a spiritual influencer as he builds a new shul and heads a community in Sderot, the city under fire on Gaza’s border.

The story of the soccer player-turned-rabbi is far bigger than just one man’s journey. In essence, his is the tale of countless mesorati Israelis, those who — like the young soccer star Gueta once was — live on the faultline between tradition and secularism, making Kiddush on Shabbat but struggling when life clashes with faith.

“Millions of Jews in this country, the amcha who have only love for tradition, are ready to change their lives,” he says. “Soccer was once my life’s goal, but my dream is now to help them do that.”

Gueta’s “Ein Od Milvado” goal celebration was his goodbye to professional sports; and (below) his days as a lethal attacking midfielder

Away Match

The soccer bug bit Snir Gueta young, and bit him hard. Born in Eilat in 1988, he’s the second-oldest of six boys. As a guard at one of the resort town’s hotels, Gueta Sr. occupied a lowly position on the socio-economic ladder. Once his son’s athletic skills became obvious, nurturing them became the family’s goal, as a ticket to a better life for them all, as much as for reasons of soccer fandom.

“One of my earliest memories,” says Snir Gueta, “was when the teacher in gan asked what we liked to do most, and my answer was: ‘To play ball with my father.’

“Then when I was about seven or eight years old, a talent scout responsible for the city of Eilat spotted me, and saw that I was different from the other kids who played soccer; I was very talented.

“My father was told, ‘He’s special — he could be a professional player, and he won’t be able to develop here in Eilat.’ ”

The unique skill that the young boy had was a prized commodity in the soccer world: close ball control, the ability to run with the soccer ball while controlling its movements to an unusual degree.

“It was as if the ball stuck to me,” he smiles. “Like a person who is gifted with a good voice, I was given good feet.”

The Guetas had to wait until their son was 12 years old to begin his career in earnest. That year, he was sent away from home to distant Haifa, whose soccer club — one of Israel’s biggest — had the country’s leading youth academy.

What his coach at Haifa, Itai Mordechai, discovered was that the youngster didn’t just have phenomenal athletic skills — he also had the drive needed to make it to the top.

“Training that early is a tremendous risk,” explains Snir Gueta. “Most of those who enter the academy never make it through the stages of youth teams needed to break into the Over-21s and Israel’s Premier League. They are winnowed out along the way, either because of lack of skill or less than total commitment.”

But for the youngster from the modest home in Eilat who wanted to make the big leagues, failure was never an option.

“I had a dream which I was 100 precent committed to — I wanted to be on the soccer cards that the kids collected. I wanted to have enough money to buy my family a house. I wanted to be an attacking midfielder like the legendary French soccer captain Zinedine Zidane — and I absolutely knew that I would make it.”

For a soccer-mad Israeli youth, there was one obvious idol who had blazed the path ahead.

It was Eyal Berkovic, an Israeli player who went on to achieve renown in England’s top clubs — a point that provides an early icebreaker for the interview.

“When I was growing up in North Manchester,” I tell Snir Gueta, who proves interested in the snippet of soccer trivia from a previous life, “we kids knew that in a very posh house nearby lived this Israeli soccer star who played for Manchester City. We never saw him, but he was this legendary figure.”

ITwas Scotland — on England’s northern border — that provided the teenage Gueta his first taste of international action, and the lure of a career beyond Israel’s shores.

“At 16, I went to a tournament abroad in Glasgow, Scotland against the best European youth teams. Our side won, and I was picked as the star player in the final. That led to an offer for a transfer to Everton, then a leading English team, where I would have had the chance to star on one of the sport’s major stages.”

Maccabi Haifa didn’t want to release their young prodigy for foreign service, but it was IDF duty that led Gueta to his next destination — Netanya, where he was eventually to fall in love with Torah learning.

“Given my sports career, the army placed me in a back-office job at a base in Netanya, and I joined Maccabi Netanya, under coach Motta’leh Spiegler.

“Motta’leh was famous for being Israel’s only goalscorer in a World Cup match, and seeing a kid away from his family, he took me under his wing. ‘I want to be his second father,’ he told my own father.”

Ultimately, the Gueta parents would give up their jobs, take their other five sons out of school, and upped and left to Kfar Yona, near Netanya, to be with their second-oldest, whose star was rising.

The move was a sign of the parents’ utter dedication to their pride and joy son — a fact that would turn sour when the boy himself decided to chuck it all overboard.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT In the battle for hearts and minds, free hot dogs are a great tool to get youngsters into shiurim

Red Lines

Due to a quirk in Israeli soccer rules, players still in IDF service couldn’t be paid a large wage. But in Netanya, workarounds meant that both Snir and his family started to live like kings.

“The club paid for a villa for my family to live in, plus car, gas, catering, restaurants — a complete package. That, plus a few thousand dollars a month spending money. It was a dream life.”

By the time Snir was 20 years old, he’d broken into the club’s first team — a massive achievement given the experience of the older players that he was up against in a strong squad.

The media were taking notice as well. There were TV and newspaper interviews. He was featured on a reality television show which featured veteran celebrities coaching up-and-coming stars in their respective fields. For soccer, Snir Gueta was chosen as the breakout star.

All of that added up to a growing fame. Fans would stop Gueta and ask for his signature. It felt good to be recognized wherever he went.

In secular Israel, where sport — especially international success — was a ticket to celebrity, the young player was becoming what he’d always wanted: a “celeb,” in the Ivrit slang.

“People were totally obsessed, almost sick with soccer fever. That was the culture that I grew up in.”

It was a heady time, as the young man was sucked into a world of fame, money, and success. But at the same time, it was a world that presented a very dark side.

“The nisyonot of being a celebrity are very difficult. It’s very secular, very immoral, relationships don’t mean much, but I didn’t want to get sucked into the ugliness.”

Raised in a traditional home, Gueta was determined not to cross his own boundaries. At that stage, that undertaking was less about religion than about his own integrity.

But the self-discipline and moral character he showed would be a good predictor of a change that was bubbling beneath the surface.

“In Haifa, I moved into an area in which all my friends were partying and smoking narghile. When I was first offered, I said, ‘No. That’s not for me.’

“One of my friends scoffed, ‘You won’t last two weeks.’ Yet he was wrong — I had my red lines and I didn’t cross them, because I wasn’t drawn to bad places.”

Snir Gueta was living the dream in Netanya, intent on having it all — sporting success with a satisfying side of tradition.

“I grew up with a connection to Hashem, and I loved talking to Him. We kept Shabbat, and went by foot to the beit knesset. I put on Tefillin.

“Even though I didn’t know religious people, from a very young age I had some idea that one day I would become religious. I loved Hashem — it was something innate that’s difficult to explain.

“Even when I went to night clubs as a soccer player, I felt strange and out of place. At age 18, I told someone — out of the blue — that one day I would be chareidi. Later, there was the goalkeeper on one of my teams who spied my direction of travel and said to me that soon I would leave soccer to pursue my religious quest.”

But it was a teammate from Maccabi Netanya who showed the midfielder the door out of the sport. The player was attending a shiur given by Rabbi David Kalaf, and he invited his colleague along.

“It was like a light had gone on for me. The rabbi was very friendly and when he talked about the parshah, told stories, spoke about faith — it all made so much sense. It was like being in a bubble there.”

The weekly meeting became an island of spirituality in the middle of a very materialistic world of sports and fame. Slowly, Snir began to explore Torah learning on his own, even at a very basic level.

Chovos Halevavos — a difficult work for a beginner, even one with Hebrew skills — became an early favorite, as did the Ramchal’s Mesillas Yesharim.

But the world of elite Israeli soccer where Shabbos games are the norm led to a growing sense of discomfort for Gueta. He would wake up in the morning and go to the beit knesset, keep Shabbos strictly until mid-afternoon, when he would regretfully get in a car to travel to his game. Once the match was over, Shabbos would start again.

And to offset his debt, he would “compensate” G-d by doing an extra mitzvah to balance the lapse on Shabbos observance.

“It was really hard to be in this twilight zone. I loved Shabbat, but I also loved playing soccer, and I couldn’t give up either. I turned to Hashem and said, ‘You understand me and why I’m doing this.’ ”

It’s precisely because of that struggle that today, as Rabbi Snir Gueta, he advises others to go step-by-step in their spiritual growth. If a person is used to smoking a dozen cigarettes on Shabbos, he tells them to cut it down by one or two a week — not to go too fast.

That slow-burn approach meant that it took three years for Gueta to make the final breakthrough in his journey.

By then married to his wife, Michal — herself from a secular home, who understood that her husband was on an inner journey — his professional and spiritual careers were taking off simultaneously.

“I was scoring goals, and at the same I wanted so much to know all the Torah that the avreichim knew. I didn’t want just to listen to shiurim.”

At that stage, though, the two loves of his life coexisted.

“I can’t forget one line that I told an interviewer, which became a newspaper headline,” he says. “From when I started to keep the Torah, life has smiled at me.”

“Like a Torah celebrity” Rabbi Snir Gueta uses his star power and passion to bring messages of faith to audiences up and down Israel

Hanging Up His Boots

It was his Netanya teammate who — unwittingly — destroyed Snir Gueta’s uneasy equilibrium. Enjoying the weekly shiur so much, Gueta tried to convince his colleague — the one who’d introduced him to the weekly session — to join him for a second slot as well.

The response was a no.

“He told me that if he were to go the second time, then he would have to be chozer b’teshuvah — he would have to change his life.”

That proved an astounding revelation for Snir Gueta. “He opened my eyes. I thought to myself, ‘If it’s true, then how can you stay away? Like a sick person who doesn’t want to go to the doctor for fear of having to listen to his treatment plan — what’s the sense in that?’ ”

Underneath the surface, says Snir Gueta, in a metaphor from his hometown, a process was underway that led to his surprise move to put Shabbos first.

“Next to the marina in Eilat is a protected beach where there are massive fish and no fishing is allowed. Imagine that two people go, and one puts on goggles, puts his head underwater and sees these beautiful tropical fish, and the other refuses to put his head in, saying that there’s nothing to see.

“The same is with Torah learning — it opens your eyes to see beauty where those who don’t have the goggles can’t see it at all.”

Gueta’s newfound interests outside soccer was starting to become obvious to those around him. One day, he turned up for training wearing a kippah.

In a world in which until 2014, wearing headgear at a professional game was banned, it was a dramatic statement.

Seeing Gueta’s wavering focus, Lothar Matthaus, a famous German soccer player who’d been drafted into Maccabi Netanya as coach, asked his protégé: “Do you want to be a rabbi or a soccer player?”

In parallel, Gueta had finally moved out of his parents’ home. Seeing their son’s shrinking interest in soccer, the parents had begun to worry about his open displays of spirituality.

“Despite the fact that they appreciate tradition, when I would sit down for ten minutes with a Chok L’Yisrael, my mother would say, ‘Why are you studying all day?’ ”

So he applied for another high-level club, Hapoel Ashkelon, and moved into the peace of his own apartment, there to continue an intensified schedule of shiurim.

Torah study and the world it had opened up for him meant that fence-sitting was no longer an option. But he saw no reason to leave behind his trade and source of income.

Since it was only the Premier League that played on Shabbos, he applied for a transfer to a lower-division club whose playing schedule didn’t require him to violate his principles.

The money wasn’t as good, his dreams of stardom were over, but at least he could keep on doing what he enjoyed without compromising his burgeoning religiosity.

The reaction from his parents was grief-stricken disbelief. They cried and blamed his fiancée, the rabbi, and anyone who they possibly could as they saw their son throw away years of hard work at a mere 23 years old.

The dismay from family and friends made life very difficult — as did the fact that playing in the lower league felt pointless.

“It was amazing. Whereas in the top division I was a star, in the divisions below I couldn’t even manage a basic pass against players who were far worse than me. Without a large crowd and the drive of the top league, there was no spark.

“It was also difficult to continue just for the money. I was by then in kollel all day until five, in an atmosphere of holiness, doing something meaningful. And then suddenly, I had to come to a different world: of dressing-room curses, fans screaming, immoral sights. I couldn’t take the dichotomy and I wanted out.”

Weaning himself off the adrenaline and adulation of the soccer world proved hard. In his new setting, Kollel Ner Meir in Ashkelon, his star didn’t shine as bright. For a year, Snir Gueta had no chavrusa as he struggled to adjust to the mental demands of studying halachah.

No less difficult was the sudden drop in income. “Overnight, I went from tens of thousands of shekels a month, plus a car and house, to 1,500 shekels take-home pay. Instead of supporting my family, I suddenly had to rely on their handouts.

“Instead of fame, I was subject to embarrassment as people — those I knew and even strangers — criticized my choices. The only thing that kept me strong was that I knew, with 100 percent certainty, that I was doing the right thing for Hashem.”

But as the years of learning went by, a new dream grew in place of the old. “Given the fact that I understand the world of so many traditional Jews, I determined to see whether I could start to influence people with my own clarity about life.”

A few years after his own change of course, Snir Gueta — by then dressed in the black and white of an avreich, a large black kippah on his head — received a call from an old teammate called Chen Ezra.

“Can you give a group of us a shiur?” he wanted to know.

“I can’t,” said Gueta, “but I’ll bring a rav to do so.”

But Ezra insisted that it was either his former teammate or nothing, so the soccer player-turned-avreich went to speak at his friend’s house in Netanya to a bunch of athletes and friends.

The reaction told the speaker that he’d found his calling. “People are in shock about what you said,” Ezra texted his friend. “We’re thirsty for more.”

Thus, “Rabbi Snir Gueta,” charismatic kiruv speaker extraordinaire, was born.

Jotting down an idea from the parshah, woven together with a story, a sharp observation about life and a joke, his unique style developed.

“I understand their world, the spiritual and life problems they deal with,” says Snir Gueta. “That’s why I can talk to them.”

Five years on from that encounter, “Snir Gueta” has become a household name in the world of Israeli kiruv, drawing hundreds to shiurim from Haifa and Nahariya to Nes Tziona and Netivot. His live talks are turned into video clips that draw thousands of views.

Celebrity Rabbi

The secret to the broad appeal of those talks, says Ma’or Elbaz, the 50-something gabbai of Meirosh Snir, the shul that Rabbi Snir Gueta heads in Sderot, is that the speaker is so genuinely inspired by what he says.

“He’s like a Torah celebrity — he can draw in 1,000 people because he uplifts them, without scolding. I’m from a traditional home, and over the years started to keep Shabbat, but I didn’t wear a kippah. But since I met the rabbi, he’s inspired me.

“When I see that he and his wife the rabbanit are prepared to do anything to bring other Jews closer, how can I not volunteer to help?”

Aiding the cause, for Ma’or, means everything from fixing the air-conditioning (as an Israel Electric Company worker, he’s well qualified) to manning the food truck.

The latter is the bright-yellow hot dog truck parked outside the shul. Emblazoned with cartoons of franks on the outside together with the contact details of Snir Gueta’s organization, it opens to reveal a large flatscreen which projects shiurim, and a serving counter from which the rabbi himself dishes out free hot dogs and pareve ice cream — a potent recruiting tool for Torah lectures.

More than a decade after he left behind his sports career, Snir Gueta’s journey has left a lasting imprint on parts of the Israeli soccer world. As the Nachshon, a trailblazer, he has made it easier for other players to speak up about their wish for greater Shabbos observance.

In a 2019 interview with Yedioth Ahronoth, Tzachi Gigi, a goalkeeper for Maccabi Petach Tikva who was forced to retire early due to injury, spoke about Gueta as a source of inspiration.

“I started to keep Shabbat a few years ago, and would book hotels for my whole family near the match venue to minimize the Shabbat desecration. I love this world of values, faith, and disconnecting on Shabbat.

“But I wish that I could take a small step along the road that Rav Snir Gueta, who played with me in Ashkelon, has taken. It’s impossible to fathom how far he’s gotten. He’s an example for many people, including not a few soccer players.”

Elite soccer is not the only arena that forces traditional Jews to choose between career and Shabbos, says Snir Gueta. Strangely, for a Jewish country, secular employers everywhere pressure workers to work on weekends — and not all are strong enough to make the right choices.

“The pressure groups on behalf of a small number of alternative lifestyle adherents have forced every government document to change traditional gender definitions,” he says, “but here millions of traditional Jews are faced by a choice of keeping Shabbat or working. Why is this still the case?”

A decade on from his final break with the secular world, Snir Gueta is thankful for the clarity that led him to make the leap early in life.

“No one but a soccer player knows what a cruel world it is. When you hit 30, your body betrays you, you’re not as fast, you get injured. The fans who cheered you now ignore you, you get left on the bench during games.

“I see my friends broken, searching for a new life. It’s a terrible feeling. But Hashem led me out early, and for years I’ve had a new purpose. I’m convinced that in this country, the 80 percent of people who are torn between the different worlds could follow my journey.”

As he and his wife have stayed the course, raising their children in the chareidi path that Snir dreamed of early on, parental opposition has faded.

“Two years ago, my father said to me, ‘I didn’t think it would come to this, but you make me so happy with the path that you’ve chosen.’ ”

A round-the-clock schedule as rabbi, community builder, and spiritual mentor doesn’t leave much time for sports, but as his trim frame suggests, Snir Gueta makes time for the soccer pitch.

“I play weekly with avreichim, for health reasons and because deep down, you can never simply disconnect from a love that deep.”

With the years has come perspective. His journey from elite sportsman to rabbi leads many young people — men and women, aspiring athletes, singers, or special forces soldiers — to come to him with their dilemmas of career advancement versus spiritual values.

“Each person thinks that their nisayon is the greatest, and it’s true. What I tell them is that if there is no way to stay true to the Torah and advance in their career, then that’s the test that they were given in life — not to advance.

“Everyone has their unique test, what they were created for. Mine was to leave at the height of soccer success, and try to bring others back with me.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 962)

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