A boy becomes a man in Beijing

Isaac Shapiro managed to fit in a visit to the bimah during his busy Olympic schedule.

After attending a night of competition at the Bird’s Nest, and before seeing American NBA stars blow out world-champion Spain on the basketball court, Isaac was called to the Torah for the first time on Shabbat.

The teenager from Highland Park, Ill., marked the milestone in front of his close family — and a bunch of strangers.

“This shows our children that there is community everywhere,” said Isaac’s mother, Marjie.

Isaac chanted the maftir and haftarah in a loud and confident voice even though he was slightly hoarse from cheering at events all week. His humorous d’var Torah, filled with sports references, made the regulars at the Chabad shul laugh out loud.

His Torah portion reviewed the Ten Commandments, and his talk emphasized not to worship idols, including “sports heroes,” or covet material objects like his friend’s new iPod.

“Instead, I should appreciate my old one,” he said.

While Isaac’s bar mitzvah was a centerpiece of the Jewish happenings in Beijing during the Olympics, it did not play to the packed house that Chabad Rabbi Shimon Freundlich had predicted. Nor did Dini’s, the local kosher eatery that stayed open 24 hours, seven days a week for the Games, find itself overflowing with customers, although business did increase.

Still, for the Shapiro family, the chance to celebrate Isaac’s bar mitzvah was a highlight.

“So many people we have met during our trip to China have told us that what we’re doing is really special,” Marjie said of her family’s decision to stage the simcha during an Olympic trip. “Other tourists, especially Jews, were really blown away when we told them about the bar mitzvah. Lots of people said it was the best story they’d heard yet in Beijing.”

“And for us, even with seeing gymnastics finals and tennis and the U.S. basketball game,” the Shabbat morning service “was definitely the highlight of our trip,” she said.

Her husband, Sam, offered kudos to Freundlich, calling him “really incredible.”

The bar mitzvah wasn’t special simply because of the Olympics or the Bird’s Nest-shaped cake at lunch. Isaac also read from the Torah using a yad, or pointer, from the Chabad House’s new Chinese Jewish artifacts display. The yad was made in 1903 and used by the Jewish community in Tianjin. Its handle is a large open-mouthed dragon forged with intricate details.

The small exhibit contains other similar ritual objects, including a menorah shaped like a Chinese canal boat from the Shanghai community, letters and other communications from Jews in China. There are books about the Jewish communities of China, and even books in Chinese about how to learn Jewish secrets to financial success.

About 50 people attended the Shabbat service and lunch, although more than half were visitors from the United States, Israel and South Africa. Not all the guests came from far away: One woman was visiting from northern China’s Ha’erbin just to feel the Beijing atmosphere during the Games.

The assistant manager at Dini’s said the Friday night dinner on Aug. 15 also was less crowded than usual, with only 70 people, including small children.

Despite the Shabbat dip in attendance, Dini’s business has risen by 30 to 40 percent since the Olympics began on Aug. 8.

“Most of the guests are from Israel or America,” Willy Wang, the assistant manager, said, “but Chinese people have also been coming. Many are locals who read about the place online and think it’s something special, or especially clean and healthy because it’s kosher.”

Wang said they have been making many deliveries to tourists in hotels. The only delivery to the Olympic village was to Bat-El Getterer, an Israeli taekwondo competitor who is observant.

“She knew she could not survive two weeks in pre-competition training on vegetarian airline food,” Freundlich said, so he was able to negotiate a special Dini’s delivery for her.

A kosher-observant bodyguard with the Israeli delegation noticed the service and asked to be included.

“He was just eating rice,” Freundlich said.

The rabbi also doled out 68 challahs in the village for the first week’s Shabbat.

Walking around the village, his Chabad attire alluded to his Jewish status, which he said inspired many Jewish athletes or delegation members to introduce themselves.

“The first question everyone asks is, ‘What’s your event?'” the long-bearded Freundlich joked, grabbing his belly. “I always reply, ‘the marathon.'”

VIDEO: Virtual Rabbi David presents ‘The Jewish Olympics’

Virtual Rabbi (and Olympics fan) David Paskin presents a Shabbat message based on the determination and dedication of Olympic athletes.

David Paskin, or Rabbi David as he is known by his congregants, is an accomplished spiritual leader, singer/songwriter, entertainer and award-winning Jewish educator. For more than a decade, David has served as full-time Spiritual Leader of Temple Beth Abraham in Canton, Massachusetts


Sunday wrapup from Beijing: U.S. swimmer Torres wins two silvers; Israelis lag

BEIJING (JTA)—United States’ swimmer Dara Torres won two more silver medals in Beijing.

Torres won the medals Sunday in the Women’s 50m Freestyle and the Women’s 4x100m Medley Relay.

Jewish-American swimmers Jason Lezak and Garret Weber-Gale both added another gold medal to their collection, joining Michael Phelps and teammates to win the Men’s 4 x 100m Medley Relay.

Israeli athletes did not fare as well Sunday. Alex Shatilov finished last in the Men’s Floor Exercise final, the only apparatus final the Israeli gymnast qualified for in the Beijing Games.

Shatilov fell on his final landing, and received a score of 14.125 after a .400 penalty. The gold medalist in the event was Zou Kai of China, with a total score of 16.050.

Shooter Doron Egozi finished 36th, while Gil Simkovitch finished 38th, in the Men’s 50m Rifle 3 Positions event. Shooters Guy Starik and Simkovich also competed Friday in the Men’s 50m Rifle Prone qualification round, but neither advanced to the final. Starik came in 12th with a score of 594, while Simkovich came in 22nd with 592 points. This finish was an improvement on Starik’s Athens finish of 16th. He joins sailor Yoel Selais as the only Israelis to compete in four Olympics.

Israeli windsurfer Shahar Zubari, who was leading in first place after five races, slipped to third place after his seventh race in the Men’s RS:X competition. Zubari finished 17th in race 5, sixth in race 6, and 19th in race 7. He was able to maintain a first place position after race 5 because he is allowed to drop his worst performance, but after continuing to perform outside of first place, he no longer retains his top rank.

Israeli windsurfer Maayan Davidovitch is 14th in the Women’s RS:X competition after seven races.

Israeli sailing duo Nike Kornecky and Vered Bouskila finished their eighth race in first place, and moved up to number three in the ranking of the Women’s 470 two-person dinghy event. With two more races until the top ten boats in the fleet qualify for the medal race on Monday, the Israeli pair looks solid for advancement.

Mark Spitz: Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympic athlete ever

His hair is gray, the 70s mustache is history, he’s taking medication to control his cholesterol, and depending when you ask, iconic Jewish Olympian Mark Spitz is really pleased with the way the U.S. Olympics swimming team has fared this Summer.

Spitz on Phelps according to Wikipedia:

Spitz told AFP he felt snubbed about not being asked to attend the 2008 Olympics to watch Michael Phelps attempt to break his record of seven gold medals.

“I never got invited. You don’t go to the Olympics just to say, I am going to go. Especially because of who I am….I am going to sit there and watch Michael Phelps break my record anonymously? That’s almost demeaning to me. It is not almost—it is.”

Spitz also says he could have won eight gold medals if given the chance. “I won seven events. If they had the 50m freestyle back then, which they do now, I probably would have won that too,” he said. And Spitz thinks Phelps will succeed, “he’s almost identical to me. He’s a world-record holder in all these events, so he is dominating the events just like I did,” Spitz said. “He reminds me of myself.”

Other than to pose for an odd picture with Phelps, Spitz does not have much interaction with the superstar. “He’s not sitting down with me asking for advice,” he said.

“They voted me one of the top five Olympians in all time. Some of them are dead. But they invited the other ones to go to the Olympics, but not me,” he said. “Yes, I am a bit upset about it.”

On August 14, Spitz appeared on NBC’s Today Show where he clarified his statement and his pride in Michael Phelps:

It’s about time that somebody else takes the throne. And I’m very happy for him. I really, truly am…I was working with a corporate sponsor who elected not to bring their US contingent over to China, and they piled on more work for me here in the United States, which was great. So I wasn’t able to get to the Olympics and watch Michael in the first couple of days. And they thought, some of these reporters, that I was supposed to be invited by some entity, and I told them that that wasn’t really the case, that doesn’t happen that way. And so, I’m sort of disappointed that I wasn’t there, but, you know, that interview somehow took a different turn, and I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of them and I’ve been true to form about the way I feel about Michael, and he’s doing a great job for the United States and inspiring a lot of great performances by the other team members.

Also on August 14, 2008, in an interview aired on Los Angeles KNBC-4’s morning news show, Today in L.A., Spitz was quoted saying he does believe that, “Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympic athlete ever.”

On August 15, 2008, as part of an interview on NBC, Spitz said that he felt Phelps’ performance in the 100 fly in Beijing was “epic”. Spitz paid this compliment to Phelps just two hours after his record-tying seventh gold medal during a live joint interview with Bob Costas:

You know, Bob and Michael, I wondered what I was going to say at this monumental time, when it would happen and who I would say it to, and of course I thought I was going to say it to you for some time now. But, it’s the word that comes to mind, “epic”. What you did tonight was epic, and it was epic for the whole world to see how great you really are. I never thought for one moment that you were out of that race and contention, because I watched you at Athens win the race by similarALTTEXT margins, and 18 months ago at the World’s by similar margins. And, you know, that is a tribute to your greatness. And now the whole world knows. We are so proud of you Michael here in America, and we are so proud of you and the way that you handle yourself, and you represent such an inspiration to all the youngsters around the world. You know, you weren’t born when I did what I did, and I’m sure that I was a part of your inspiration, and I take that as a full compliment. And they say that you judge one’s character by the company you keep, and I’m happy to keep company with you. And you have a tremendous responsibility for all those people that you are going to inspire over the next number of years, and I know that you will wear the crown well. Congratulations, Mike.

Spitz’s remarks came after another record-breaking anchor sprint by Jewish gold medal winnner Jason Lezak (photo, right) helped Phelps win his record-breaking eight gold. Lezak had earlier earned a bronze in his first individual medal win.

The NY Daily News wrote:

You just wonder how the Olympics will go on now without Michael Phelps. He leaped into the water one last time Sunday morning – the third, butterfly leg of the 4×100 relay. He started in third place and clambered out in first, after 100meters of flapping and kicking and swimming the lights out. Phelps grabbed the lead and then his old wing man, Jason Lezak, did the rest again.

Another American Jewish swimming star, Los Angeles-born Dara Torres, a 41-year old mom, was edged by .01 second and garnered a silver—the same margin that kept Michael Phelps on course to break Mark Spitz’s record, wrote the Los Angeles Times:

The five-time Olympian and the oldest American swimmer ever, settled for a silver when Germany’s Britta Steffen nipped her at the wall in the 50-meter freestyle to complete a sweep of the women’s sprint events in Beijing.


USA’s Dara Torres wins silver in the Women’s 50m freestyle. Image courtesy LATimes.com


Net losses for Israelis at Olympics

BEIJING (JTA)—Israel’s tennis players were eliminated from the Beijing Olympics.

Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram, the third-seeded men’s doubles team with perhaps the best chance at a medal among the Israelis on the court, were upset Tuesday by the unseeded tandem of Arnaud Clement and Llodra Michael of France, 6-4, 6-4, in their first-round match.

Erlich and Ram had beaten the Frenchmen in January in the Australian Open final to give Israel its first Grand Slam title.

Also Tuesday, Tzipora Obziler fell to Mariya Koryttseva of Ukraine, 5-7, 7-5, 6-4, in a grueling three-hour women’s singles match. The deciding set lasted an hour, 6 minutes.

That same evening, Obziler and Shahar Peer dropped a women’s double match, 6-3, 6-2, to Gisela Dulko and Betina Jozami of Argentina.

Peer, the 24th seed in women’s singles, was eliminated in the second round Monday by Russia’s Vera Zvonareva, 6-3, 7-6. The second set took 1:11.

Peer had won her first-round match, 6-3, 5-7, 6-0, over Sorana Cirstea of Romania.

Report from Beijing: Swapping old Jewish swim records for new ones

BEIJING (JTA)—Jewish-American swimmers Garret Weber-Gale and Jason Lezak, along with Cullen Jones and the unstoppable Olympic champion Michael Phelps, made history in the pool on Monday, August 11.

The US relay team won the Men’s 4 x 100m Freestyle Relay and smashed the world record by nearly four seconds on their way to the gold.

In a strange Jewish sports irony, the gold for this half-Jewish team may come at a price to the legacy of an iconic Jewish sports figure.

Phelps needed this gold medal to help him on his quest to break legendary Jewish swimmer Mark Spitz’s 36- year-old ” alt=”ALTTEXT” width=”432″ height=”441″ />

Mark Spitz, sports icon

Irvine’s Jason Lezak anchors 400-meter relay swim team for the gold

“I can’t even explain it, it was unreal. I’ve been a part of the two teams at the last two Olympics that came out behind, and I think I wanted it more than anybody, not just for myself, but to show that we are the nation to be beat in that relay, ” Jason Lezak told the Los Angeles Times

Lezak swam the final lap for the 400-meter team (including Michael Phelps), which won another gold for the U.S. That makes three Jewish medallists to date; Americans swimmer Dara Torres, swimming relay, and Sada Jacobson, fencing, have both earned silver.

Lezak, born in Irvine, has four Olympic medals. He was on a gold-medal-winning medley relay team, and won gold as a member of the medley relay team in Sydney.

He also has a silver medal from swimming on the 4×100 freestyle relay in Sydney and a bronze in the same event from Athens.

Lezak and another Jewish swimmer, Garrett Weber-Gale, comprised half the U.S. squad with Michael Phelps and Cullen Jones. The Americans finished Monday’s race in 3:08.24, erasing the world mark by about 4 seconds.

Lezak swam 46.06 seconds in managing to overtake world record-holder Alain Bernard of France. Lezak, who picked up his third career gold medal, trailed by nearly a second heading into the final lap. His time would have beaten his American record in the 100 freestyle.

Weber-Gale followed Phelps’ opening leg with a time of 47.02.

The U.S. team had beaten the world mark in the qualifying round with a team that did not include Lezak or Phelps but did have Ben Wildman-Tobriner, another Jewish swimmer.

Phelps has now earned two gold medals in his bid to win eight and break the mark of seven set by Mark Spitz, also a Jewish swimmer, in the 1972 Games in Munich.

VIDEO: History will be made in Beijing

Director Oren Kaplan (Miriam & Shoshana hardcore gangstas) offers this 60-second ‘commercial’ for the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Activists champion Darfur in pre-Olympic vigil at Chinese Consulate in Koreatown

” title=”JWW”>JWW, including activists and representatives from 60 Los Angeles area synagogues, rallied today to ask the Chinese government’s to help stop the ongoing genocide in Darfur.

Organized by JWW Co-Founder and President Janice Kamenir-Reznik, the event featured speeches from U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters (35th-CA), Rabbi Joshua Grater of Pasadena Jewish Temple,  Haig Hovespian of the Armenian National Committee of America, Pastor Samuel Chu of Immanuel Presbyterian Church and Rabbi Ari Leubitz of Bnai David Congregation.  To open and close the ceremony, Rabbi Ahud Sela of Sinai Temple blew the shofar to signify a call to action. 

The gathering at the Koreatwon facility aimed to call attention to the responsibility China has to the world as a country, world leader and Olympic host.  “We can’t transcend national boundaries while hundreds of thousands of people are killed. It becomes a sham,” Reznik said.

China is currently the chief diplomatic sponsor and largest foreign investor to the Sudan.  It is also reportedly supplying arms to Sudan, for use in Darfur, in breach of a United Nations arms embargo.

Since 2003 close to 400,000 civilians in Darfur have died as a result of violence, disease and malnutrition.  As one of Sudan’s largest oil exporters and closest allies, China has opposed continuous efforts to enforce international sanctions on Sudan.

Addressing the consulate directly, Hovespian said “You have an opportunity to take pride in yourselves in your nation for doing the right thing.” As the speeches concluded and marching began, protestors repeated, “Never again; never again.”

For the past six months, Jewish World Watch has held monthly vigils outside the Chinese Consulate as part of the four-year-old organization’s efforts to bring attention to the problems in Darfur. Other projects include helping fund medical clinics to aid Darfurian refugees, sending backpacks with educational, health and hygienic supplies, and providing solar cookers to minimize trips for firewood outside refugee camps.  Reznick told the group that the Torah tells us “not to stand idly while blood of others is shed.”

Israel comes to Beijing with its largest team, high hopes

BEIJING (JTA)—The largest contingent in Israeli Olympic history is eyeing its biggest medal haul as the Olympics get under way here.

Two of the five medal winners in the country’s Olympic history are among the 43 athletes—nearly half females—competing in the 2008 Games here. Plus there are hopes for several others.

Michael Kolganov, who won a bronze medal in kayaking at the 2000 Games in Sydney, was designated the flag-bearer for the opening ceremony Friday evening.

Israeli President Shimon Peres, who composed a poem about the Olympics, joined Kolganov and others from the Israeli delegation in Beijing.

Arik Ze’evi is back after taking the bronze in judo at the 2004 Games in Athens. With third-place finishes in the 2007 and 2008 European Championships, expectations for him are high.

Gil Fridman, who won the gold in men’s windsurfing in Athens, is not on this year’s squad.

But the 470 men’s sailing duo of Udi Gal and Gidi Kliger is coming off three straight bronze medals in the World Championships and a bronze in the European Championship.

Israel, which has never won more than two medals in an Olympics, is also looking for hardware from its men’s doubles tennis team of Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich. Ranked No. 5 in the world, Ram and Erlich captured their first Grand Slam title at the Australia Open in January, and reached the quarterfinals last month at Wimbledon.

While the expectations are high, most of the athletes are making their Olympic debuts and are relatively young.

“Many will continue on to the next Games,” predicted Ephraim Zinger, the Israel Olympic Committee secretary-general and mission chief.

Zinger told JTA that Kolganov was chosen as the flag bearer for his “personality.” A native of the former Soviet Union, Kolganov made aliyah as a teenager, eventually moving from Haifa to a Jordan Valley kibbutz. He served fulfilled his military obligation by serving in the army’s program for sporting excellence.

“He is a kind of role model, as someone who made aliyah when he was young and became a successful part of Israeli society,” Zinger told JTA.

Kolganov won the bronze in the K1 500 meters in Sydney and finished fourth in the 1000-meter race, falling just short of becoming the only Israeli to earn two medals in a single Olympics.

Not all the Israeli athletes will be on hand for the opening ceremony. The Israel Olympic Committee is flying in the competitors according to the date of their events and a formula for calculating the amount of time needed to acclimate to a new time zone.

Zinger says the Israelis do not have any extra security accommodations in China. Eleven Israelis were murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Games in Munich.

“We live in the Olympic Village like all the other athletes, and we rely on the experience and expertise of the local authorities to do their best so we can compete peacefully and go back safely,” said Zinger, who noted that the Israel Olympic Committee has invested some $20 million over the past four years in preparation for the Beijing Olympics.

“The Olympic Security Department made an assessment and drew up a list of countries with the most sensitive security issues, and I can tell you we aren’t the only ones, and we aren’t at the top of the list either.”

Israeli swimmer’s Olympic dreams marred by father’s death

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israeli swimmer Alon Mendel realized his father’s dream when he qualified for the Olympic team.

Sadly, his father won’t be there to see his son compete after an accident at the family’s Netanya home claimed Costa Mendel’s life.

In a tragic irony, Alon, 20, was in Beijing preparing to vie for a medal when he learned that his father suffered fatal head injuries after falling off a ladder outside the family home Wednesday night while trying to hang up a banner honoring his son’s Olympic bid. Costa was also Alon’s longtime coach.

“How do you say ‘semifinals’ in Chinese?” read the hand-painted banner, a testament to Costa’s optimism about the prospects of Alon, who joined the Israeli delegation after another swimmer was disqualified.

For the Mendel family, the loss was made more acute by the dilemma of whether to recall Alon from the Games. He is scheduled to compete Monday in the 200-meter butterfly race.

Alon’s mother, Rina, decided that the best way to honor Costa’s memory would be for her son to compete. His sister Maya joined him in Beijing, while another sister remained in Netanya to help arrange the funeral.

“You have to stay there and be strong,” Rina told Alon by phone Thursday in a conversation recorded by Israel’s Channel 10 television.

“You know your father waited for this moment. Your parents waited for this. We will be among 42 sets of parents watching,” she said, in reference to the size of Israel’s biggest-ever Olympic delegation.

Judaism places great importance on honoring the dead by attending the burial and, in the case of next of kin, giving up all activities to sit for the seven-day shiva.

Not everyone agreed with the Mendels’ thinking. Reams of comments on Web sites disapproved of Alon’s staying in Beijing.

Channel 10 quoted Alon as saying that when he swims Monday, he will imagine his father sitting in the audience, cheering him on along with the rest of his family and the State of Israel.

“I intend to muster all my strength and compete,” he said.

According to Ha’aretz, Alon will fly back to Israel after competing to take part in what remains of the shiva week.

Welcome to the Orwell Olympics

Now that every dissident within a hundred miles of Beijing has been intimidated, jailed or internally exiled; now that the Chinese communist party has shut down formerly legal means of citizen redress, like petitioning the government; now that free assembly has been banned, unsightly small businesses have been bulldozed, hotel computers have been bugged, and the foreign press has been bamboozled, the “quiet diplomacy” favored until this week by President Bush and International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge has given way to Mr. Bush’s “>Washington Post, spokesmen for Beijing’s Olympic Organizing Committee and for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said at a recent press conference that “reporters did not actually need to visit blocked Web sites to do their jobs.” Sure enough, journalists arriving at the Olympic media center last week found that their Web browsers could not connect to sites like Western news outlets, human rights organizations, Wikipedia and Chinese dissident groups like the Falun Gong and Free Tibet.

Ever since Beijing won the venue for the games, M. Rogge has been telling everyone who’ll listen what a swell development this will be for free speech and human rights in China. Instead, foreign news crews have found their access to Tiananmen Square sharply curtailed – lest those images remind viewers of the tank crackdown of dissidents in 1989 – and thousands of non-violent protesters across China, according to a new Amnesty International report subtitled “Broken Promises,” have been persecuted, punished and jailed.

Last week Sen. Brownback (R-Kan.), whose rages I have previously not shared, released documents showing that international hotel chains have been required by the Chinese Public Security Bureau, under threat of harsh punishment, to install Internet spyware designed to capture Beijing’s hotel guests’ Web browsing history, their Googling, even their keystrokes, which means their e-mail.

It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the keystrokes of foreign tourists, athletes’ families and NBC executives were being captured today by the Chinese security apparatus. Nearly 30 years ago, soon after the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing, I went to China as part of the highest-level official U.S. visit to date. The Chinese housed us in a campus-like compound of guesthouses, where we took walks between events. One member of our delegation, a National Security Agency staffer, pointed out to me a picturesque bridge where Henry Kissinger had often paused to chat privately with aides during his visits. Turns out that bridge, like all the places we stayed, was bugged. The upside of this was getting to go to a meeting in the new U.S. embassy in Beijing, where confidential conversations were enabled by entering a floating clear-sided room-within-a-room that totally reminded me of the cool cone of silence in the television series “Get Smart.”

China has come quite a distance since 1979. Economically its story is breathtaking, and freedoms like travel and property ownership have made demonstrable gains. But China’s human rights record remains depressing, its tolerance of dissent and minorities is minimal, its environmental damage to the planet is terrifying, its intransigence on the genocide in Darfur is unconscionable and its cheap exports are candy to American consumers.

The $900 million that NBC paid for the rights to broadcast the Olympics, like the billions that China spent to get ready for the games, have created a Potemkin village for the world to admire.

From Rupert Murdoch’s kowtow to the Chinese police state, which enabled him to crack the Chinese market by eliminating BBC News from his satellite television programming; to the complicity of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco with Chinese Internet censors, the rationale has always been the same: The more we engage with China, the more free their people will be. Once those 1.3 billion people develop a taste for openness, there’ll be no stopping them.

Why do I have the feeling that if hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese imports and of American business investments in China were not at stake, “quiet diplomacy” wouldn’t have become the slogan du jour?

President Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!” wasn’t particularly quiet. President Bush doesn’t have to ask Mr. Hu Jintao to tear down the Great Wall of China, but the least he can do—now that the opportunity represented by the years running up to the Olympics has been squandered—is to use in public, in China, some of the lovely human rights language he claims he’s been saying in private.

Our president never let the bully of Baghdad crimp his freedom-agenda rhetoric. Why did it take him so long to send some public pro-democracy love to the Big Brothers of Beijing?

Marty Kaplan has been a political speechwriter, a movie studio executive, a screenwriter and producer, a radio host and a blogger. Today he directs the Norman Lear Center for the study of the impact of entertainment on society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears here weekly and

Key dates in recent Chinese Jewish history

BEIJING (JTA) — The following are key dates in Chinese Jewish history:

  • 1920 Ohel Rachel Synagogue is established in Shanghai (still standing).
  • 1928-49 The first Lubavitch rabbi in China, Meir Ashkenazi, leads Shanghai’s Congregation Ohel Moshe. Built in 1927, Ohel Moshe is now the site of the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum.
  • 1938-45 20,000 Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria escape to Shanghai.
  • 1939-40 Approximately 1,000 Polish Jews escape to Shanghai, including about 400 teachers and students of the Mir Yeshiva.
  • 1941-45 Japanese occupying powers intern recent Jewish immigrants from Allied countries in Hongkou ghetto for “stateless refugees.”
  • 1949 Communists win civil war; by now most of 24,000 Shanghai Jews and other Jewish populations across the country leave China.
  • 1978 Deng Xiaoping announces China’s “open door policy” with the West.
  • 1980 First community seder in Beijing is led by founders of the liberal Kehillat Beijing minyan.
  • 1992 Israel and China establish diplomatic relations.
  • 1995 Kehillat Beijing begins regular Friday night services in permanent home, Beijing’s Capital Club.
  • Oct 25, 1996 The first community bar mitzvah is held in Beijing for Ari Lee, the son of community founders Elyse Silverberg and Michael Lee.
  • 1998 The “Jewish Shanghai” guided tour begins; it is currently being run by Israeli journalist Dvir Bar-Gal (” title=”Dini’s”>Dini’s
  • May 2008 Israel donates 90 tons of medical supplies, more than $1 million, for Sichuan earthquake relief.
  • Your guide to Jewish Beijing

    BEIJING (JTA)—Dror Poleg, an Israeli who has lived in Beijing for three years, says being Jewish is “easier in China than in Israel.”

    “In Israel there is lots of politics, what school you go to, what yarmulke you wear,” Poleg says. “Here you can just be you.”

    Beijing has had an organized Jewish community since China’s open-door policy of the late 1970s. The city’s Chabad-Lubavitch and liberal congregations cooperate well, notably on education.

    And Jewish visitors coming to the Chinese capital for the Summer Olympics will find plenty of choices for davening on Friday night and Saturday morning.

    While Judaism is not among the five world religions recognized by the Chinese government, foreigners are basically free to observe, as long as they are diligent about keeping in touch with authorities and registering any activities.

    The lack of official recognition, however, does not put a damper on Jewish activities in Beijing.

    Some 1,500 Jewish residents and a regular flow of Jewish tourists can pray at the liberal Kehillat Beijing and Chabad services at multiple locations.

    Two New Yorkers established Kehillat. Roberta Lipson and Elyse Silverberg, both Long Islanders, met in Beijing in 1979 when a Chinese colleague told Silverberg there was “another Jewish girl just like you” across town, and handed her Lipson’s business card.

    Lipson and Silverberg became friends and in 1981 founded Chindex International Inc., a successful health-care and medical equipment company now listed on the Nasdaq exchange.

    For more than 25 years, they have lived with their families and practiced Judaism in China. The women hosted their first seder in 1980, with more than 25 guests at a Beijing hotel and matzah brought over from Taiwan.

    Over the years they have organized regular Shabbat and holiday services, adult classes and a Hebrew school. By 2000, Kehillat Beijing had a home, a Torah and a core group of congregants. The egalitarian, lay-led community blends Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative beliefs and traditions.

    So when Chabad Rabbi Shimon Freudlich came to Beijing in 2001, he understood that Chabad wasn’t the first outpost of Jewish life here. Still, he knew that Chabad could provide services that Kehillat did not.

    “I came to Beijing because it was my dream always to come to a place where the Jewish infrastructure was limited and expand it, where there was no Jewish day school or kosher restaurant, and no mikvah, and to build it,” Freudlich says.

    Many Beijing Jews now rely on Chabad for their religious needs.

    Chabad’s Mei Tovah mikvah opened in 2006 with spa facilities and a Chinese-inspired design. It is used about 15 to 20 times a month and is a welcome convenience for women who otherwise would fly to Hong Kong or use a lake to fulfill the practice of family purity, or “taharat hamishpachah.”

    Its Ganeinu day school for preschoolers and elementary-age students makes Beijing an attractive relocation option for some Jewish expats.

    French native Gilles Perez says that when he was offered a job in Beijing, “the first thing I did was open the Jewish travel guide to find if there was a day school.”

    If not, Perez says, he would not have come. His son Raphael attends the Chabad school.

    Kehillat’s Hebrew school, Ahavat Yitzhak, uses the Ganeinu building and even shares some teachers. Twenty-six students and four recent bar/bat mitzvah teaching assistants attended Ahavat Yitzhak in the 2007-08 school year.

    As an expat Jewish community nestled in a region with few native Jews, many children in Beijing’s Jewish community are of Chinese and Jewish backgrounds.

    Chabad and Kehillah schools both have an open enrollment policy. Freudlich says the two schools will accept the same students.

    “Anyone who considers themselves a member of the Jewish community can attend Ganeinu,” he says, “but they have to sign on the application a paragraph we write that states regardless of us accepting you to the school, it does not affirm your halachic Jewish status.”

    Meanwhile, Chabad can teach prospective converts in China, but conversions cannot be performed in the country because of rules against proselytizing.

    Chinese citizens, even those who come with a Jewish friend, may be turned away at the door from Chabad events.

    Chabad’s Web site states, “All foreign-passport holders are welcome to join.”

    In contrast, Kehillat Beijing members frequently bring Chinese friends to services without concern.
    Some find the mere existence of such an active and diverse Jewish community in Beijing reason enough to participate regularly.

    “The comfort I find in these weekly gatherings is astounding,” says Leo Lazar, 25, who is in Beijing on a six-month rotation for GE Healthcare. “Maybe it’s the sense of community, the sense of an adventurous—as opposed to a painstaking—Diaspora.”

    Recalling Shanghai’s Jewish past

    SHANGHAI, China (JTA)—Uri Gutman had more than parades and picnics in mind a couple of years ago when the Israeli government allotted funds to its Shanghai consul general for an Israel Independence Day reception.

    Gutman wanted to make a bigger impact with a service project in the community.

    So he devised a three-step plan to give back to elderly residents of the Hongkou neighborhood, the area made into a “stateless refugees” ghetto during the Japanese occupation during World War II and home to more than 20,000 European Jews fleeing the Nazis.

    While the world’s eyes are trained on Beijing for the Summer Olympics, which start Friday, Shanghai’s Jewish history has been spotlighted recently as well.

    Many of the refugees reached Shanghai through the heroic efforts of Ho Fengshan, a Chinese diplomat in Vienna who issued thousands of visas to Austrian Jews. Ho was honored with a special tribute in June.

    He came to be known as the “Chinese Schindler,” in reference to the German industrialist who saved Jews. Oskar Schindler’s life became the story of an Academy Award-winning film, “Schindler’s List,” by Steven Spielberg.

    The consulate and 27 Israeli companies joined to raise approximately $87,000 for Gutman’s project detailing Shanghai’s Jewish past.

    The first step was completed in June, a renovation of the Hongkou Elders’ Activity Center in Huoshan Park, around the corner from the site of the former Ohel Moshe synagogue, now the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.

    The funds also were used to set up a database, to be housed at the refugees museum, of names and addresses of Shanghai’s Jewish residents. Gutman wants the database to be interactive and eventually include multimedia and information on the whereabouts of descendants.

    “Here, after the war, Jews spread all over and there is nothing left, no community, no archives,” Gutman lamented.

    Also at the museum in June, the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad honored Ho, dedicating a marker in English, Chinese and Hebrew. In cooperation with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, the commission also opened a photo exhibition about Ho’s life and work.

    After Austria’s annexation by Germany and Kristallnacht in 1938, many of its 185,000 Jews, most of whom lived in Vienna, needed safe passage out of Europe. Acquiring the necessary documentation proved especially difficult after the 1938 Evian Conference at which 32 countries, including the United States, made it clear they would not stand up to the Nazis.

    As the consul general in Vienna from 1938 to 1940, Ho at his own peril sometimes issued as many as 900 visas a month to Jews trying to escape Nazi rule.

    Ho’s daughter, Manli, was on hand for the ceremony along with American, Chinese and Israeli officials.

    She recalled that one visa recipient, Eric Goldstaub, visited 50 foreign consulates in Vienna before obtaining from her father 20 Chinese visas for himself and his family.

    “On Kristallnacht, both Goldstaub and his father were arrested and imprisoned, but with the Chinese visas as proof of emigration, they were released within days and embarked on their journey to China,” Manli wrote in the event’s program.

    Not all of the Chinese visa holders from Austria, Europe’s third largest Jewish community, went to China. But those who did entered predominantly in Shanghai, where the open ports enabled them to immigrate with minimal hassle.

    Other recipients of Ho’s life-saving visas included those arrested and sent to the Nazi concentration camps Dachau and Buchenwald.

    His work was motivated by humanitarian reasons.

    “I thought it only natural to feel compassion and to want to help,” Ho once wrote.

    Ho acted in defiance of direct orders to desist from his superior, the Chinese ambassador in Berlin, and incurred a subsequent demerit from his own government.

    In early 1939, the Nazis confiscated the Chinese consulate building in Vienna, but Ho continued his efforts issuing visas from a smaller facility for which he paid all the expenses himself.

    Ho continued his diplomatic career after leaving Vienna in 1940 and moved to San Francisco following his retirement in 1973. In 1990, he published a memoir, “40 Years of My Diplomatic Life.”

    His heroism in Vienna mostly went unrecognized during his lifetime. The Republic of China ignored his legacy for many years because he was a member of the KMT Nationalist Party. Meanwhile, he was denied his pension by the nationalist government in Taiwan because he was accused of embezzling a small sum of money.

    The accolades would come after his death in 1997. In 2001 he was named “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. In June, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution honoring Ho.

    At the Shanghai ceremony, Martin Gold, a member of the U.S. preservation commission, praised Ho by pointing out that 70 years ago most nations, “including my nation, rebuffed the Jews.”

    Gold noted that all the Jewish recipients of Chinese visas lived, with many eventually settling in America.

    “Dr. Ho’s life was itself a bridge between China and America,” he said in his speech. “No relationship in the world is more important.”

    VIDEO: What do the Chinese think of Jews?

    Olympics 2008: Swimmers lead U.S. Jewish contingent

    NEW YORK (JTA)—For Jason Lezak, Ben Wildman-Tobriner and Garrett Weber-Gale, the marketing possibilities are endless—perhaps “The Three Chaverim” or “Jews in the Pool.”

    All three Jewish sprinters are hoping to make a splash as part of the U.S. men’s swimming team heading to Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

    Not only will they be competing as individuals, but they are expected to make up three-fourths of the 4×100-meter freestyle relay team.

    “We joke about going to the Maccabiah Games and setting a world record,” Lezak tells JTA, referring to what is known as “the Jewish Olympics.”

    Toss in 41-year-old Dara Torres, another Jewish swimmer and sprinter who will be competing in her fifth Games, and the possibilities rise even higher.

    The swimmers are among the seven Jewish athletes believed to comprise the American Jewish contingent headed to China. They are a mix of veterans and newcomers, all with a realistic chance of acquiring medals at the Games, which begin with the opening ceremony Aug. 8.

    Already, Wildman-Tobriner and Weber-Gale have their nickname: the “hyphenated Jew crew.” That makes for some good-natured fun around the pool, Wildman-Tobriner says, adding that he is proud to represent his heritage—along with the United States—in China.

    Another Jewish athlete eyeing water-related success for the Americans is kayaker Rami Zur, who is in his second Olympics for the United States after representing Israel in the 2000 Games.

    Some Jewish land lubbers also will wear the red, white and blue in Beijing: fencer Sara Jacobson and marathoner Deena Kastor. Both won bronze medals in ’04 in Athens.

    Lezak is competing in his third Olympics and has garnered four medals on relay teams, including a gold in the 4×100 medley in ’04. At 32, he is the oldest male to qualify for an Olympic swim team.

    “That’s an accomplishment in itself,” says Lezak, of Irvine, Calif.

    At the recent U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb., the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder broke the American record in the 100-meter freestyle with a semifinal time of 47.58, setting himself up as the probable anchor on that relay team.

    “Winning medals in the relays is such an amazing feeling, being a part of a team,” Lezak says, speaking to JTA by telephone.

    In part, it was his disappointment as an individual competitor in Athens that spurred Lezak to keep his Olympic dreams. He failed to qualify for the finals in the 100-meter freestyle, though Lezak says he had a “great opportunity” to win an individual medal.

    “I took the preliminaries too lightly,” he admits. “I was thinking about how many races I had to swim and I saved too much energy.

    “I learned a horrible lesson, but it kind of got me going another four years. I kind of felt like I had unfinished business.”

    Now Lezak, who will be competing in relays and in the 100-meter race, wants to mount the podium by himself.

    “I’m a team-type player,” he says, “but to do something on your own feels pretty good. I have a lot to prove to myself. I know I’m capable, I just haven’t done it yet.”

    He’ll have plenty of competition from Weber-Gale, of Milwaukee, and Wildman-Tobriner, a fellow Californian. Weber-Gale, 22, edged Lezak in the 100-meter finals in the trials.

    Weber-Gale, who won the World Championships in 2005 and 2007, will be making his Olympics debut after narrowly missing a spot four years ago. He expects to compete in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle and on the 4×100 freestyle and medley teams.

    The University of Texas All-American predicts an outstanding Olympics for the U.S. squad.

    “I think this is the best Olympic swim team ever assembled,” Weber-Gale told the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. “There are several events where we could get multiple medals, and we could win all three relays.”

    Wildman-Tobriner, 23, also is making his Olympic debut. The Stanford University All-American will compete in the 50-meter freestyle and the relay.

    “To finally be able to participate is going to be really exciting,” he told the j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California. “It still hasn’t really sunk in yet.”

    Lezak, who has been coaching himself the last two years, says he met his younger Jewish colleagues at the ’05 World Championships.

    “They were in a different stage of their lives,” he says. “They were in college, and the international scene was more important to me.”

    Lezak says they mostly talk to each other about their common Jewish identity.

    “You don’t see that too often,” he says of three Jewish Olympians in the same events. “They’re both nice guys and we all get along.”

    The younger duo hasn’t yet picked the brain of their more seasoned colleague, Lezak says.

    “Once you start getting to the Games, to the Olympic village, people are more curious of the type of things to expect, more questions come up,” he says.

    They can all learn from Torres (photo), a member of the Jewish International Sports Hall of Fame.Dara Torres

    Despite having a 2-year-old daughter, the Los Angeles native who now works out in southern Florida qualified in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle, though she will compete in only the former in Beijing.

    Torres, who graces the cover of Time Magazine’s Olympics preview, which touts “Dana Torres & 99 More Athletes To Watch,” is a nine-time Olympic medalist, including four golds. She established an American record at the trials finals in the 50-meter freestyle with a time of 24.25; Torres broke her own mark set in the semis.

    “That she’s doing her best times is phenomenal,” Lezak says. “She’s pretty inspiring to all the athletes out there.”

    Her success at an advanced age for athletes has brought suspicions of doping, but Torres has passed every drug test.

    “I’ve gone beyond the call of duty to prove I’m clean, but you are guilty until proven innocent in this day and age, so what else can I do?” she told Time. “It’s a real bummer.”

    Zur, the kayaker, is seeking his first medal in his third Olympics. He has failed to reach the finals as an individual in the 500-meter event or in the two-man 500- and 1,000-meter events.

    The 5-foot-9, 160-pounder is considered a contender as he vies solo in the 500, despite a severe spinal injury that jeopardized his career.

    “I want to go there and come back with some hardware,” Zur, 31, told the j.

    The native of Berkeley, Calif., was adopted as an infant by a kibbutz couple near the Sea of Galilee. His proximity to the sea helped develop his love of water sports.

    “Kayaking was the first sport where I could go wherever I wanted to,” he says.

    The Israeli Olympic Committee cut back on funding for his training following the Sydney Games and he left the Jewish state for the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., where he lived for free.

    Zur says the Israelis were understanding of his choice to wear U.S. colors.

    Kastor, 35, is another Jewish Californian bound for Beijing. A two-time Olympian, she holds the American records in the marathon and half-marathon. In April, Kastor won the U.S. Olympic trials in Boston with a time of 2:29:35.

    Her bronze in Athens was the first medal for an American marathoner in two decades.

    Jacobson, 25, of Dunwoody, Ga., brings a No. 1 world ranking in sabre to China. Her sister Emily was on the ’04 Olympics fencing team; her father, David, was a member of the ’74 national squad.

    Jacobson, who attends Yale University, is a two-time winner of the U.S. women’s sabre championship.


    Garrett Weber-Gale

    Jews in China roll out red carpet for Olympics

    Gold medalists won’t be the only ones climbing podiums in Beijing once the 2008 Olympic Games are under way. Isaac Shapiro will be stepping up to celebrate his bar mitzvah.

    Isaac of Highland Park, Ill., will be called to the Torah at the Chabad House in Beijing on Aug. 16. Isaac and his family are among the hundreds of Jewish tourists, athletes, dignitaries and media expected to converge on the Chinese capital for the 2008 Olympic Games, which begin Aug. 8.

    While most visitors probably don’t even realize there is a local Jewish community in Beijing, the resident Jews of China’s capital are getting ready to welcome anyone who seeks them out.

    The Shapiro family was already planning a trip to Shanghai and then to the Olympics, motivated by Isaac’s love of sports and his older sister, Chloe’s, previous career as a competitive gymnast.

    When Isaac’s bar mitzvah tutor in Chicago, a photographer for the Games, suggested that he have his bar mitzvah in Beijing, it all clicked. Isaac’s father, Sam, said the family didn’t feel the need for a “big American bar mitzvah.”

    Shapiro offered many reasons for the offbeat choice of his son’s bar mitzvah location.

    “It will give Isaac a wonderful sense for the Jewish Diaspora,” he explained. “We also wanted to give our kids a better understanding of China, since it is rapidly becoming one of the most important countries in the world.”

    While the bar mitzvah will make the second Shabbat during the Olympics an especially lively affair (in Chinese, they would say “renao”) at the Chabad House, the local rabbi expects a big crowd the prior Shabbat, as well.

    Rabbi Shimon Freundlich of Chabad Beijing said he expects a packed house in the already squeezed villa living room of the main Chabad House, which weekly is converted into a shul with mechitzah (partition) separating men and women.

    He said he has been contacted by tourists from all over the world, including Australia, Israel, the United States and Europe, and even by some athletes directly. Without naming names, Freundlich did divulge that “there will be athletes at services.”

    “It will be packed wall to wall, no question,” he said, noting that a larger hall could not be found because everything else was booked

    Chabad will offer services three times a day every day during the Games, Freundlich said, at both the main Chabad house and at a central business district location.

    The main Chabad house will also display a special Sino-Judaic exhibit of artifacts belonging to Jews around China in the last 200 years, including books, photographs and religious items like a Chanukiah from Shanghai.

    While the Chabad community will be bustling, all signs indicate that the egalitarian, lay-led Kehillat Beijing minyan will have its share of visitors. Almost one-fifth of the total 18,000 hits on the Kehillat Web site,

    Hot pot dinner bonds two very different ‘believers’ in China

    Being treated to a hot pot meal is one of my most dreaded social situations in China.

    Hot pot is like Chinese fondue. A large pot of meat stock bubbles in the center of the table, and fresh meat, fish, vegetables and tofu are dropped inside. You dip the cooked foods in a sesame sauce and drink the flavorful soup.

    This is problematic for someone like me, since I’m not only a vegetarian but also kosher. I don’t eat meat or seafood, and I can’t eat vegetables cooked in a meat broth.

    Traveling in America, Europe or the Middle East, I always was more comfortable saying I was vegetarian than saying I was kosher. Yet living in China, where vegetarianism for the sake of animals or the environment is rare, most people ask if my eating habits are religious. After all, they know that some observant Buddhists not only refuse to eat meat, but also eggs and milk.

    If I am with friends who know I keep kosher, we will find a restaurant with individual hot pots and I can keep my meal vegetarian.

    But at a recent dinner in Beijing, a colleague was introducing me to several people in the Chinese movie business. I wanted to make a good impression. That meant eating and drinking — a lot.

    When I saw the communal hot pot in the center of every table in the restaurant, I groaned. Not only was I about to inconvenience my host, but a religious discussion was close at hand.

    Our dinner host was the owner of a Beijing sound studio, and I told him I was a vegetarian. His first question, as expected, was if I was religious.

    Then something happened I hadn’t encountered in China.

    Zhang Qun, a Mandarin voice-over actress also at the table, gave me a sympathetic look.

    “I have the same problem,” she said, “because I am Muslim.”

    Zhang Qun is ethnically Han Chinese, so I was surprised when she told me she was from a Muslim community in Tianjin. She did not look like the stereotypical Chinese Muslim, whom I figured to be from China’s Western Xinjiang autonomous region, where the locals look more like they’re from neighboring Kazhakhstan — a country that is nearly 50 percent Muslim — than from China.

    At first I was nervous that she might have a negative opinion about my being Jewish. Most Chinese are complimentary of Jews, saying how clever and rich Jews are without meaning to be at all anti-Semitic. Yet I had never had any extended interaction with a Chinese Muslim before. Would she have a different stereotype in mind?

    Luckily, I had nothing to worry about. She even helped solve our food problem by taking charge and ordering a smaller hot pot containing only hot water, not chicken broth. It would be kept meat free.

    Although the food problem was solved, there was still the matter of alcohol. As a Muslim, Zhang Qun could not drink alcohol. At each of the evening’s dozens of toasts, she clinked her water glass with our beer and baijiu, a strong distilled Chinese alcohol.

    When she excused herself early, many of the men at the table complained. Why wouldn’t she drink with them? They felt it was impolite.

    But the owner of the sound studio, Zhang Yong Mou, looked at me earnestly.

    “I think out of everyone at this table, these two have the most in common,” he said. “If anyone can understand Zhang Qun, Alison can because they are both religious believers.”

    The comments hit home for me. I rarely meet someone in China with dietary restrictions that exceed mine.

    That night, fresh news from Israel about tensions between Muslims and Jews seemed far away. I felt an understanding with Zhang Qun. It was refreshing to find this interfaith connection in Beijing over a dreaded hot pot dinner.

    Israeli women gymnasts train long and hard for Beijing games

    NETANYA (JTA) — On one side of a cavernous gym in Netanya, halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa, six members of Israel’s first Olympic rhythmic gymnastics team warm up in a circle, chatting softly in a mix of Russian and Hebrew while stretching their legs in effortless splits on the mat.

    Nearby, Irina Risenzon, a fellow gymnast competing in the individual category, is trying to master a leap in which her head must tilt backward to meet a bent leg.

    It’s late afternoon, and the young gymnasts, ranging in age from 17 to 22, have been practicing for much of the day. In black T-shirts and black shorts, they appear to be in uniform, reinforcing a feeling of discipline and order that marks their training and routines.

    “There are harder workouts and easier ones,” says Risenzon, 20, her auburn hair pulled into a bun. She sits on a wooden bench on the edge of the gym, watching the team begin its routine. The gymnasts practice about 10 hours a day.

    “But you know why you are here,” she says. “For me, it’s my goal: the Olympics.”

    Like every Olympian, her ultimate goal is the gold.

    “That’s the dream,” Risenzon says, breaking into a smile, a marked contrast from the grimace she’s been wearing for the past two hours while trying to perfect her leaps and pivots before her hard-driving coach, Ira Vigdorchik.

    Risenzon has been training with Vigdorchik since she was 9, the same year she and her family immigrated to Israel from Ukraine.

    The language in the hall is predominately Russian. Six of the eight rhythmic gymnasts are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The two Israeli natives are the daughters of immigrants, including Neta Rivkin, who at 17 is the youngest member of the Israeli Olympic team.

    This large contingent of rhythmic gymnasts is why the Israeli squad has nearly as many women as men this year in its 39-member delegation to the Olympics in China.

    The sport combines ballet, theatrical dance and gymnastics and is divided into individual, pair and team event categories. Ropes, hoops, balls, clubs and ribbons are used in the routines.

    About 3,000 girls are training in gyms across the country, according to Rachel Vigdorchik, who oversees 300 of them at the gym she runs in Holon and at another branch in Jaffa for Arab girls.

    Vigdorchik, who moved to Israel in 1979, was scheduled to perform in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, her hometown, but she stayed home when the Israeli team boycotted, along with other countries, in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

    Looking around the gym at the team members she has coached, most of them since they were little girls, Vigdorchik says they’re like family. She says this year’s Olympic Games are “closing a circle.”

    Vigdorchik says she’s proud that rhythmic gymnastics, a sport brought to Israel by Russian immigrants in the early 1970s, has caught on.

    “It’s very popular, but we need more government investment and more sponsors,” she says, echoing a common complaint of Israel’s sporting community.

    For those who grew up in the Soviet system, where cultivating sports and athletes was a top national priority, the contrast in Israel can be jarring.

    Ela Samotalov, the coach for the team event, came in 1991 from Minsk, where she helped coach the Belarus national team. She says she is still getting accustomed to Israel’s more spartan sports culture.

    “There is no status to being a coach here in Israel,” she complains.

    The Soviet-style training, with its strict discipline and demands, can seem off-putting to native-born Israelis, Samotalov says. This is part of what unites the Russian-born gymnasts — a shared understanding of the dedication needed to excel that comes from growing up in families versed in a more intense approach to sports.

    “But the sabras are learning well; it will just take time,” Samotalov says of the Israelis. “Sports is not a miracle. It’s hard work.”

    Samotalov is encouraged by the homegrown talent of one of her longtime charges, Neta, who has improved consistently at competitions this year.

    “My goal is to do the best I can,” Neta says of Beijing. “It’s so special, going out there in front of that huge audience.”

    Not far away, Risenzon laughs as she recalls her introduction to the sport when she was a little girl living near Kiev.

    “I was considered sickly, always getting the flu,” she recalls. “So my parents were told that to strengthen my body, I should do sports, and the closest gym to our house was for rhythmic gymnastics.”

    When she was 4, Risenzon’s Olympic career was nearly derailed by coaches who deemed her too pudgy to excel in the sport. Her baby fat long gone, she finished seventh last September in the World Championships.

    Risenzon talks about the deep concentration she tries to maintain during her routines — tuning out the clapping crowds, the cameras and the competition. Relief and satisfaction come only after a successful routine is completed.

    “Then I think about everything,” she says. “In the midst of it all, I’m focused on the next move.”

    “But I love to perform,” Risenzon says, her deep-brown eyes shining as she describes her Olympic routines, which include a playful number set to Indian music and another with a samba tune.

    Despite her immigrant origins, she has no identity dilemmas, she says. “I’ve felt deeply connected here,” Risenzon says, “and when I see the Israeli flag flying I get goose bumps.”

    Timing is everything in the Olympics — and in Darfur

    Next week, people the world over will be riveted to the TV set as the spectacle of the Beijing Olympic Games unfolds and athletes go head to head in the competitions for gold medals.

    Many of the races will come down to a matter of milliseconds. Finish-line results may be determined by momentum generated at the starting gate.

    In other words, timing is everything.

    The same thing could be said of the movement to stop the genocide in Darfur.

    The Olympics is a time of celebration, human achievement, civility and a respite from the violence and chaos that fills our daily news. The Olympics are steeped in history, and the torch provides a symbol of hope for all of humanity. Like many people, I eagerly await the excitement of the Olympic Games.

    However, I also live with the images of the many people I have met in Darfur and Chad who have seen their communities and lives torn apart. These vulnerable, precious human beings also yearn for the world’s attention. They are not anticipating medals; they simply want to know that the world cares and that we have the resolve to act.

    A few months ago, southwest China was rocked by a massive 7.9 earthquake that left nearly 70,000 people dead. As China struggled with the enormous human and economic toll, the world responded with an outpouring of sympathy and relief. Many human rights advocates, including many Jewish organizations that had been aggressively pressuring China to take a more principled position on Darfur, temporarily suspended their efforts.

    That was then. This is now.

    With the Olympic Games fast approaching, it’s time for advocates to gear up once again and urge the Chinese government to act responsibly. The stakes are simply too high to hold back any longer.

    A web of economic, military and diplomatic ties binds China to the Sudanese government’s systematic program of terror, rape and murder in Darfur. Over the past decade, China has invested more than $10 billion in commercial and capital investments in Sudan. Today, China is Sudan’s biggest trading partner, importing about two-thirds of all Sudanese exports and providing one-fifth of Sudan’s imports.

    It is also Sudan’s number one small arms dealer, accounting for 90 percent of the small weapons imported into the country since 2004. These are the same weapons used by Janjaweed terrorists and other rebel forces to slaughter thousands of people .

    Given these interests, it’s not surprising that China has been Sudan’s staunch ally in matters of diplomacy, steadfastly opposing sanctions proposed by the U.N. Security Council and other resolutions aimed at holding the Sudanese government accountable for the genocide of more than 400,000 people and the displacement of 2.5 million more.

    Since the May 12 Chinese earthquake, the situation has only grown more dire.

    For example, in mid-May, an estimated 50,000 people were forced to leave their homes in Abyei, a border region between north and south Sudan after fighting broke out between Sudanese government forces and south Sudan ex-rebel forces.

    U.N. officials have warned of a major food crisis in the region, the result of a perfect storm of mounting violence, poor harvests and overcrowding in refugee camps. Since May, cereals, sugar and other essential rations have been reduced by half. Hundreds of thousands of lives are being threatened by the lack of food and disease. Each and every day, including the Olympic days, more and more human beings in Darfur and Chad will be affected by this growing regional crisis.

    On July 14, International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo asked the court to issue a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Lt. Gen. Omar al-Bashir, charging him with several counts of genocide and many other war crimes. This is the first time the ICC prosecutor has prepared a case against a sitting head of state.

    On July 8, a peacekeeping patrol in north Darfur state was ambushed. Seven African Union-U.N. peacekeepers were killed and several were wounded. These reasons and more are why advocates must turn up the heat on China. We are urging the Chinese government to do the following:

    • Publicly condemn the violence in Darfur. China’s silence on this issue has been deafening. Taking a hard-line position against the continuing genocide is an important first step.
    • Agree to end the sale of all small arms to Sudan. China sells small arms to Sudan with full knowledge that Khartoum continues to violate a U.N. arms embargo prohibiting the transfer of weapons into Darfur.
    • Call on Sudan to stop the genocide and comply with all existing U.N. Security Council resolutions. This includes pushing for the rapid deployment of African Union-U.N. Mission in Darfur forces to Darfur. Currently only 10,000 of the approved 26,000 are on the ground. Without their presence, the Janjaweed will continue to pillage the region.

    China’s inaction to date is especially galling, given the theme of this year’s Olympics: “One World, One Dream.” According to the official Web site of the Beijing Olympics, the theme is meant to convey China’s commitment to “peaceful development, harmonious society and people’s happiness.” These words will ring hollow unless they are backed by real commitment on China’s part to end the violence in Darfur.

    Now is the time to celebrate the achievements of the Olympic athletes; much more importantly, now is the time to celebrate the Jewish imperative to pursue justice in an active, passionate and strategic way. Our acts will make a difference; they are our legacy.

    As the world’s leading athletes race for the gold this month, concerned citizens of the world — including many people of Jewish faith for whom Darfur has tragic, historical resonance — will be racing, too, to turn the Olympic spotlight on China’s track record in Darfur. The world will be watching. Timing is everything.

    Rabbi Lee Bycel is American Jewish World Service Western Region executive director. Since 2004, he has made several trips to Darfur and Chad. To learn more about efforts to stop the Darfur genocide, visit www.ajws.org.

    Attempt to pressure China on Darfur loses to the Olympics

    Sudan’s president may soon be the target of an arrest warrant for the killings in Darfur, and Iran was blasted by the United States and Europe for testing the missiles it threatens to fire at Israel. But the international player accused of complicity in both developments appears to be getting a pass.

    China has used its veto powers in the U.N. Security Council to block strong international action against the regimes in Tehran and Khartoum and has thrown them lifelines by continuing oil and arms trade, despite Western attempts at isolation.

    Jewish groups have taken lead roles in drawing attention to China’s policies and specifically sought to spotlight the country’s record in advance of this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing. Yet it appears as if China will suffer no significant international sanction when the games open Aug. 8.

    President Bush will be on hand for the opening ceremony, despite calls from the American Jewish World Service and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs that he stay home. Joining Bush will be Israeli President Shimon Peres, who has said that a nuclear Iran would be “a nightmare” and that international unity, which China has played a key role in blocking, could make military action unnecessary.

    Calls for boycotts of the Olympics, some with comparisons to Nazi Germany’s hosting of the 1936 Berlin games, also have been rejected by mainstream Jewish organizations. The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee both warned that challenging Beijing during the Olympics would not produce the anticipated results.

    “The only thing that can affect China is the big Western powers in unison, but they will never do that,” said Raphael Israeli, a professor of Islamic and Chinese history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “Only then would the Chinese do something as a gesture. They can absorb a lot if they don’t have to do anything practical.”

    Just a few months ago, the value of the Olympics as a showcase for China’s exploding economic power seemed in danger of running aground. In addition to reports questioning the quality of Beijing’s air for elite athletes, some tried to brand the games the “Genocide Olympics” because of Chinese ties with Sudan.

    Jewish filmmaker Steven Spielberg withdrew as an artistic adviser to the games, saying “conscience will not allow me to continue with business as usual.” Riots in Chinese-occupied Tibet led Elie Wiesel to organize fellow Nobel laureates to protest China’s brutal crackdown. In addition, a group of 185 Jewish leaders, mostly rabbis, called on Jewish tourists to stay away from Beijing.

    As the Olympics draw closer, however, even activists are quietly admitting they are likely to go off without much of a hitch.

    “It’s been frustrating,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, “because it doesn’t appear we’re being listened to.”

    Twin Triathletes Go for the Gold

    The U.S. may have the Hamm brothers, but Israel has the Alterman brothers. Like their American counterparts, these 24-year-old twins have their eyes on Olympic gold.

    Ran and Dan Alterman are Israel’s reigning triathlon champions. For the past four years, they have dominated the sport in their native land. Now, they look to bring their success to the international arena.

    To qualify for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the Altermans must compete in six races abroad annually. On Sept. 12, they will bring their speed and power to the Los Angeles Triathlon.

    “It’s very exciting to come to Los Angeles and represent Israel in the race. And to know that people here are so proud of Israel that they wanted to help us make the trip, that’s just great,” said Ran Alterman, who along with his brother, had his trip to Los Angeles sponsored by Factor’s Deli owner Marvin Markowitz, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles. The brothers, who were born in Tel Aviv and grew up in Netanya and Even Yehuda, began competing in triathlons at 13. A decade later, the brothers have a healthy competition going between themselves.

    “Racing against Ran is like racing against myself. We have the same training schedule, diet and ability, so to beat him is to better my own performance,” said Dan Alterman, who as the Israel Triathlon Association’s youth chairman, helps run camps, clinics and a boarding high school for young triathletes in training.

    When it comes to major races, the Altermans run against each other but also pull for each other.

    “It’s most important for the family to come in first and second. As to which of us comes in first, it depends on the day,” said Ran Alterman, who, with his brother, is enrolled at the college of management at Rishon LeZion.

    While both Altermans served in the Israeli army, they believe it’s through their sport that they contribute most to their country.

    “There will always be good Israeli soldiers, but there aren’t many great Israeli sportsmen,” Ran Alterman said. “We’ve been given the chance to travel the world, talk to people and show them that Israel is about more than war, and that Israelis are strong.”

    The Los Angeles Triathlon will be held on Sunday, Sept.
    12. For more information, go to