By Matt Eisen
It was a balmy Thursday night in early August 2006 when Moshe Sarfaty, back in his native Israel, received the call he has been expecting for some time. He knew the voice on the other end well and hastily accepted the man’s request. Compliance, he understood, was part of his duty.
By Saturday evening Sarfaty was on his way north, his old unit reassembled and prepared to cross the precarious Lebanese border. This was his obligation as a member of the Israeli Reserve Forces, though it was a far cry from the elm-lined streets and squash courts Sarfaty has grown accustomed to in New Haven.
Sarfaty, now a Yale junior and a member of the University’s nationally-ranked squash team, had served his country before. Military service is compulsory in Israel for Jewish youth over the age of 18. Men serve three years in the Israeli Defense Forces and women serve two. Approximately 100,000 Israelis reach military age annually, and nearly 80 percent of those who are summoned serve. Few question the conscription; it is merely a fact of life for those living in a nation that is often embroiled in violent conflict.
“People know and understand the meaning of serving in the army,” Sarfaty said. “It keeps the country alive. There are people who ask out, but most know that if they don’t do it, there is no one else who will. Unlike [the United States] if you don’t go, you are the one who is different.”
Just several weeks before the start of fall semester, Sarfaty could be found patrolling a battle-ravaged town near the Israel-Lebanon border looking for small Hezbollah units of three or four men. The dangerous ground work sometimes left Sarfaty and fellow soldiers facing difficult decisions, as attacking Hezbollah fighters often jeopardized Lebanese civilians. He said the Israelis were often forced to think and act quickly in order to minimize casualties and still complete missions.
After his service in the Israeli army, Sarfaty wondered how his experiences would affect his play and how he could transition from the battlefield to the Brady Squash Center courts. Ultimately, he decided he could do nothing but move forward with his life.
Sarfaty attended Shimon Ben Zvi High School in Givatayim, Israel, a small city of about 50,000 located just east of Tel Aviv in a metropolitan area known as Gush Dan. It was here that Sarfaty watched his father play squash, and it was here, at age nine, that he too began to play at the local racket club.
Sarfaty boasts a distingushed early career on the squash courts: Junior National Tournament Champion at age nine, member of Junior National Team at age 13, captain of Junior National Team at age 16 and Israeli Junior National Champion for eight consecutive years. But you would never know that this humble, albeit loquacious, athlete had amassed such an impressive record.
Diffidently, Sarfaty describes the angst he felt when it came time to serve his country and he faced the prospect of giving up his pursuit of the sport. He decided he would try to balance both — a difficult task, especially during a demanding military tenure. He applied for special athletic standing in the IDF, a designation generally granted to only one squash player per year. The program, established as a way to give prominent Israeli athletes the ability to continue their training, allows the individuals to practice several times a week and attend tournaments.
“I knew I wanted to keep playing squash,” Sarfaty said, “A committee looked at my achievements to make sure I was qualified and I was put into the program.”
Sarfaty started in human resources as a commander of the blood donor unit, ensuring there was a constant flow of blood to civilian hospitals. In his first year on the job, Sarfaty managed to increase the supply by nearly 40 percent. Impressed by his work, the Israeli Army promoted him to an elite, five-man intelligence unit where he drew up battle plans and discussed them with members of the IDF’s highest echelon.
All the while Sarfaty continued to play squash. He practiced during down time, often in the early mornings or late at night, maintaining his fitness and constantly retooling his game. But he never allowed his sport to get in the way of his military duties and would sometimes forfeit days of practice when he had a heavy workload for the army. In a testament to his deferential and self-effacing demeanor, Sarfaty demanded no special treatment. His superiors held him accountable for his job, and Sarfaty made it his top priority.
After his three years of service, Sarfaty received an honorable discharge and began to consider options for his future.
Squash is not among the most popular sports in Israel, a nation consumed by basketball and soccer, and few Israelis earn a living wage playing the sport professionally in their native country. But surviving on squash alone had never been Sarfaty’s plan. Since the age of 12, he had dreamed of attending an Ivy League school and taking his squash to the United States.
“When I was recruiting him, he worked really hard to get into Yale,” squash head coach Dave Talbott said. “He called me up and said ‘I want to go to Yale, how do I do it?’”
To achieve his goal, the 21-year-old spent a year perfecting his English, preparing for his SATs and compiling the necessary parts of his application. He was accepted at the University and committed to play for Talbott’s nationally-renowned program.
Sarfaty did not matriculate as a typical freshman, but instead brought with him a unique collection of experiences that would help to guide him at Yale and on the court. He was also four years older than almost everyone in his class, an interesting dynamic for an international student and a varsity athlete.
Talbott said Sarfaty is extremely mature and has great leadership capabilities, describing him as one of those special kids you don’t usually get a chance to recruit.
“People say when I’m on the court, I’m in battle mode,” Sarfaty said, “When you’re doing something, you have to do it as best you can, no matter what the activity. You would hate to do something and then afterward feel like you gave less than 100 percent.”
Teammate Francis Johnson ’09 said Sarfaty is always upbeat and team-oriented. Chris Reid ’10 agreed that Sarfaty is energetic and caring presence in the clubhouse.
“When I first came in he acted like a fatherly figure,” said Reid. “He told us to call him, told us to ask him for advice, he really helped me adjust to a change in environment”
In his three seasons at Yale, Sarfaty has demonstrated skills he acquired in the IDF. Composed under pressure and unyielding to stress, he now approaches squash, and life, with a particularly mature perspective. But Sarfaty makes sure he keeps his military mentality separate from almost all of his activities, even squash.
“I don’t think, ‘Oh I was in the army, whatever I’m doing doesn’t mean anything.’ You can’t compare everything to the army or everything will seem insignificant,” Sarfaty said.