Former sportscaster, now Israeli broadcaster set to return to NOLA
By ALAN SMASON, Exclusive to the CCJN
Surrounded by sports figures who demonstrated their athletic prowess on American fields of green and atop courts of woods, Mike Wagenheim has led an entire life of serendipity. Along the way, the award-winning sportscaster spent nearly a decade here in New Orleans and in nearby Thibodaux as a top college broadcaster, but even he could not have imagined the improbable play-by-play call his own life would have taken these last three years.
Fortuitously and with no real explanation behind the decision, Wagenheim, a mostly secular Jew, left behind a successful sportscaster career and made aliyah in 2015, landing in Israel single and with no job prospects. “I have a fairly unique personal story about making aliyah. I really wasn’t in touch with Judaism much for a number of decades after my bar mitzvah,” he related in a CCJN telephone interview. “I hadn’t been to synagogue at all and wasn’t practicing.”
Initially, he decided that he wanted to make a difference in the world and opted to shelve his successful sports career and volunteer as a member of the Peace Corps. He was slated to move to an assignment in Ukraine when Russia attacked its former Soviet partner. The downing of the unarmed Malaysian airliner during that summer also made him think twice about relocating there.
The process of change had him reconsider where he wanted to spend his time and energy. “It led me to Israel,” he continued. “I had no connections here. I didn’t know Hebrew. I didn’t know anyone.” But, as fate would turn out, there were unseen forces at work. In only a few short weeks, he found an Israeli woman who helped set him on a new path. The two fell in love and Wagenheim learned the meaning of at least one Hebrew word – besheret (“destined”).
Today, he is a married man with a newborn who no longer covers sports figures, but instead reports on the interplay among Israeli politicians from the noisy chambers of the Knesset for i24NEWS, an English-speaking Israeli TV station.
“Wags,” as his fellows sports cronies dubbed him, returns to New Orleans this week to make two speaking appearances as a well-informed member of Israel’s media. The first will be a talk on the differences in perception of President Donald Trump by Americans and Israelis. Titled “Trump, Israel and American Jews: What’s to Come,” the talk, which is sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Community Relations Committee, will include a lunch on Wednesday, November 30, at the JCC from 12:00 noon to 1:00 p.m.
But more on that later. The reasons behind Wagenheim’s appearances here can only be explained by delving back into his storied sports career.
Growing up in his native Philadelphia, Wagenheim was exposed to all manner of professional and college level sports. “I was a sports fan since the day I came out of the womb,” he exaggerated. There was little doubt in his mind that his love of sports, a talent for writing and his gifted voice would predestine him for a career as a sports broadcaster, possibly in a coveted role as a play-by-play announcer.
After picking up a mic at the University of West Virginia, he studied broadcast journalism securing a bachelor’s degree first in news reporting and followed with a master’s degree in sports management. In his final years at student radio station WWVU, he was named sports director and called his first games for the baseball and women’s basketball teams. Around the same time, he was tabbed to announce the action for both men’s and women’s soccer over the Mountaineer Sports Network.
An award-winning broadcaster of the year at the top of his game in college, he embarked on a professional career with two brief stops in San Bernadino and Battle Creek, Michigan, before arriving at the University of New Orleans, where his broadcasting star began to ascend even higher.
Wagenheim was hired by UNO to be the school’s director of broadcasting and he became the play-by-play announcer for all of the baseball and men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball games. He also started working with the local Cox Cable sports channel as the host of the coaches’ shows and regularly appeared over local radio as the voice of the Privateers. His broadcasts helped him earn spots to call other games and he received the inaugural Sun Belt Conference Sportscaster of the Year Award nine years ago.
While working with UNO, Wagenheim had several opportunities to befriend a fellow sports enthusiast, Arnie Fielkow, who was initially working as executive vice-president with the New Orleans Saints before his election to the New Orleans City Council. Fielkow, now the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans CEO, worked with Wagenheim on a committee to prevent the school from moving from NCAA Division I to Division III. Once a baseball standout himself, Fielkow also originally hailed from the area of Wisconsin where Wagenheim called games for several teams as Northwoods League Play-by-Play Announcer of the Year. The two maintained a friendship even after Fielkow left the city to become NBA Retired Players Association CEO.
Wagenheim had his own career change in 2010, moving to Thibodaux to become the voice of the Nichols State University Colonels as its director of communications. In short order, he became responsible for creating internships with the Communications Department, in essence teaching students how to do many aspects of his own job. Within two years of his arrival, Wagenheim was named assistant athletic director at the college.
All of this would seem to have made him very happy. But the restless nature of his character seemed to be calling him away from sports. He no longer had the same fire that drove his passion during college and at the start of his career. The prospect of moving to Israel took on greater urgency and he reached out to Fielkow to draft a letter of recommendation to the Jewish Agency, which was required for him to make aliyah. In July of 2015, he traveled on a plane full of American and Canadian olim (new immigrants) to begin a new life there.
To get a foot in the door, he accepted work as an intern at i24News and was pleasantly surprised when a paid position became available and he was offered it. How an olim who barely spoke Hebrew could find a place on an Israeli TV network within a few short months of arriving is a tale that seems more like fiction than reality. “I was always a political junkie with my minor in college, but I didn’t know anything about Israeli politics when I got here,” he admitted. “I honestly didn’t know Bibi from Ben Gurion. I didn’t have a clue. I had to catch up fast.”
But catch up he did. These days Wagenheim is constantly on guard for his viewers, letting them know about Diaspora Jewry and what other nations are saying about the Jewish State. He promises his talk on President Trump will cover the divide between American Jews and Israelis. “I’ve kinda seen a split here between how Israelis feel about Trump and American initiatives now, especially in regards to the peace process,” he explained. “Even though some of his promises have been broken or put on hold, it still seems like he’s viewed positively here in Israel, especially by the government, while American Jews, generally speaking – because they don’t speak with one voice – have a fairly dim view of him.”
Meanwhile, Wagenheim has gotten involved with sports again in a peripheral way. This past summer he served on the umpire staff for the Maccabi Games held in Israel. Along the way he is also becoming more immersed in speaking and understanding Hebrew. Wagenheim indicated it is very important for his job. “I have to think in two different voices when it comes to government politics here, because oftentimes the message that is given to the rest of the world is not the same message that’s given to the base back home,” he pointed out.
The JCC lunch talk is open to the public, but RSVPs are requested to Rachel Ruth or call 504-897-0143.
Wagenheim’s second speaking engagement will be as part of the Hall of Fame Lunch program at the 2017 Louisiana Business Women Leaders Business Conference being run by the Louisiana Center for Women in Government and Business, an organization that was created under the aegis of Wagenheim’s former employer, Nicholls State University. The all-day conference will be held this Saturday, December 2 at the Marriott Hotel, 555 Canal Street. Tickets are $75.00 each or $100.00 for those that want to join the champagne-flowing patron party at 2:30 p.m. that follows the lunch.
Wagenheim will be joined on the panel via a teleconference link with Israel Knesset Member Sharren Haskell, the second youngest member of the Knesset and the youngest member of the Likud Party. The two will contrast the different opportunities for women in government that exist in Israel. and the U.S. “She’ll be the star of the show,” he said. “I’m just going to lead the question(s) and answer(s).”
“There are many more women in power here in the Israeli government than there are in the American government,” he noted. “I think it’s a really inspirational story to tell.”
And that inspirational remark comes from a man whose own story is itself no less inspirational.