America’s Jewish Olympians head to London with Jewish pride

Jason Lezak—no newcomer to Olympic glory—recognizes the difficulty in returning to the medal stand at the London Games.

“I definitely would hope to … get onto the podium there and win a medal for the USA,” Lezak, a seven-time Olympic medalist, told JTA on Tuesday from the U.S. swim team’s training camp in France. “With Australia, France and Russia, there’s going to be a lot of tight competition, and it’s not going to be easy, that’s for sure.”

The Jewish swimmer, the winner of four Olympic gold medals, will race for the United States in the 400-meter freestyle relay—the event in which he provided one of the most enduring moments of the 2008 Games in Beijing. His frenetic sprint to the finish in the last leg, overcoming world record-holder Alain Bernard, earned victory for the U.S. and kept alive Michael Phelps’ drive for a record-setting eight gold medals.

This year, in his fourth Olympics, the 36-year-old Lezak is one of five captains for the 530-member American squad. Fellow Jews joining Lezak on the U.S. contingent at the London Games, which has its opening ceremonies on July 27, include swimmer Anthony Ervin, gymnasts Alexandra Raisman and Julie Zetlin, rower David Banks, fencer Tim Morehouse and fencing coach Yury Gelman.

(Illinois-born Jillian Schwartz, a pole vaulter on the American team at the 2004 Athens Olympics, will be representing Israel.)

Some touted Jewish athletes didn’t make the cut this time. They include swimmers Dara Torres (five Olympics, 12 medals), Garret Weber-Gale (two gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games), Andrea Murez (2012 NCAA champion in the 200- and 400-yard freestyle relays), Daniel Madwed (2012 Big Ten champion in four events) and Eric Friedland. Also not heading to London to compete are soccer player Yael Averbuch and gymnast David Sender.

For Robert Dover, who won four medals while competing in equestrian events in six Olympics for the United States, the road to Olympic glory began on Grand Bahama Island in 1969, where he celebrated his bar mitzvah. The event became unforgettable when his parents arranged for a horse to be flown in as the boy’s present.

“It was a great first horse for me. His name was Ebony Cash,” said Dover,  who grew up in Chicago and Toronto and is now heading to his seventh Olympics—for the first time as a coach and this time for Canada’s equestrian team.

Like Lezak, Gelman is heading to his fourth Olympics, all as a coach. He taught fencing to elite athletes in his native Kiev, then moved to New York in 1991. He couldn’t find work in America in his field, so Gelman spent a year-and-ahalf selling doughnuts at a flea market along a New Jersey highway.

Gelman would go on to serve 17 years as the fencing coach at St. John’s University in New York, and in 2007 he opened the Manhattan Fencing Center.

Morehouse and three other Gelman proteges qualified for London, where the fencing events will begin on July 29.

Robert Dover. Photo by Mary Phelps Photography

“I’m very proud of our group, and we’ll try our best,” said Gelman.

The Brooklyn resident does not belong to a synagogue or other Jewish groups, which he attributes to the Soviet repression that affected his late parents, Wolf and Malvina. Both were loath to introduce Judaism to their children because of the negative repercussions, he said.

“In the Soviet Union, we weren’t religious. It was prohibited,” Gelman said. “The Kiev synagogue was pretty far from where I lived. My parents never talked about it.”

Wolf and his sister were the only ones in their family to survive the Nazi massacre of Jews in the village of Gaisen, Ukraine. Gelman remembers his maternal grandmother, Esther Krakovitch, bringing matzah to their home for Jewish occasions, but he didn’t know anything about the Passover holiday to which, he later learned, the food correlated.

Dover does sometimes attend synagogue services in Wellington, Fla., the horse country where he lives most of the year. He says he is proud to be a member of the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

“There are many more Jews in the sport than people know of,” Dover said.

In a best-case Olympics scenario, Dover said, Canada’s performance in Greenwich Park’s dressage arena will continue an upswing that saw the country attain seventh place at the world championships two years ago—its highest finish since 1988. Earning a bronze medal in London might take “almost a miracle,” he said, with England, Germany and either Demark or the Netherlands the favorites.

Even while coaching Canada’s three equestrians, Dover’s heart will remain stateside. His parents, who live in Austin, Texas, are ailing. So before heading overseas, he will visit his father, Herbert, 89, who lives in a treatment facility for Alzheimer’s patients. His mother, Jean, 84, has seen her body ravaged by the breast cancer she first fought four decades ago.

Dover believes that his mother, who lives nearby with his sister, is hanging on to watch her son compete one final time—this time on television instead of in person.

“My mom—I believe it will be the last time I will see her,” he said from his summer home in Fire Island, N.Y. “She’ll watch on TV. It’ll be live-streamed. That’s why she’s still here. She’s here until the Olympics.”

He adds, “It’s probably the hardest time in my life right now. They’ve both been quite amazing for me. They came to all but one of my Olympics and all but one of my world championships.”

Dover, who served as U.S. equestrian captain at each of his six Olympics, recalled meetings with captains of the sports teams to select the country’s flag bearer for the opening ceremonies.

“The stories you hear about the various people and what they’ve done and their hardships—it’s something that leaves your mouth hanging open,” he says. “They are extraordinary people.”

For his part, Lezak also is one of many Jewish Olympians – including nine-time gold medalist Mark Spitz – who have competed in Israel’s Maccabiah Games.

A member of Temple Isaiah in Newport Beach, Cal., Lezak lit the torch to start the 2009 Maccabiah near Tel Aviv. He has followed reports of the International Olympic Committee’s refusal to honor the memories of the 11 Israeli Olympians murdered at the Munich Games 40 years ago with a moment of silence.

Lezak is still hopeful that the IOC will make what he called the “right decision” in London.

“It would be nice, in my opinion, to have that moment of silence, but there are also people out there who would hate for that to happen,” he said, adding that the IOC “would have to weigh all the positives and negatives of both sides. I cannot make that decision. [The IOC is] in a no-win situation.”

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


Maccabiah Games Bring Golden Times

When amateur soccer player Michael Erush went to Israel in July to play for Team USA in the 17th World Maccabiah Games, he was hoping to come home with gold. But following the Israeli team’s victory, Erush was content with the American silver-medal win.

“I always want to do the best,” the 22-year-old said. “We had one of the best Maccabiah men’s soccer teams, and we lost to a very good Israel team.”

However, his Maccabiah experience didn’t end with the medal ceremony. Erush extended his stay after an Israeli soccer franchise was so impressed with his level of play, that he was offered a 10-month contract for the following season.

He is currently shopping around for other offers, but his dream of turning pro could eventually become a reality in Israel — due to the Maccabiah Games.

“I’m still looking to different career paths,” said Erush, a research assistant for an private firm. “I might go back to school and get my MBA, or I might go play soccer…. I just want to keep my options open.”

Erush was one of more than 7,000 Jewish athletes from 55 countries, stretching from Brazil to India and Australia to Finland, who gathered this past summer in Israel to compete in the Maccabiah Games. In the first games in 1932, 390 athletes from 14 nations participated. Now, the games are the third-largest sporting event in the world, outside of the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games. Held every four years, this summer’s Maccabiah Games, which took place July 10-21, were the largest since its founding.

Competitions took place in approximately 30 categories, including track, tennis, swimming, baseball and even chess. The most dominant countries were Team USA and Israel. The American medal count was 222, with 71 gold, while Israel won 593 medals, 227 gold.

The hope of the organizers is that the games foster a sense of Jewish unity, awareness and pride among the athletes from around the world. In that spirit, this year’s games were the first to feature delegations from China, Macedonia and Grenada.

More than 90 athletes from Southern California were represented in such sports as track and field, basketball, volleyball, soccer, rugby and water polo. Among 20 medalists from the Southland, six won gold; nine, silver; and four, bronze. Some athletes took home multiple medals.

It was “an unforgettable experience, absolutely breathtaking,” said Danielle Arad, 17, of Yorba Linda who won four silver medals in the open swimming competition. “The hospitality and open arms that we received from the common citizens and Israeli athletes competing in the games allowed me to feel at home.”

For Shirin Lisa Golshani, 17, a Beverly Hills resident, walking into the packed stadium with Team USA during the opening ceremonies in Ramat Gan and being surrounded by Jews who had come from all corners of the world “was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had in my life.”

Golshani, who brought home silver and bronze from the girl’s youth karate competition, said that it “made it all the more greater of an experience because I was able to share it with my second family from karate.”

For USC graduate and businessman Ari Monosson, this year marked his second trip to the Maccabiah Games. During his first games in 2001, the 27-year-old runner won both a silver and a bronze medal. And while his dreams for gold this year were did not come true, his silver-medal win with the U.S. 4×400 relay team in no way diminished the experience. Monosson said there is nothing quite like the Maccabiah Games, and he recommended that Jewish athletes try out for the next games.

“Participating in them will be a life-changing experience,” he said. “There are moments and memories that you will cherish for the rest of your life.”

For rugby player Kevin Armstrong, 26, the long journey began with a discouraging setback. He broke his arm in the first 20 minutes of the first game. However, he still enjoyed both watching his team take a silver and being surrounded by Jews from around the world.

“On the field, it was business as usual, but off the field, it made the world seem very small, [especially] when you realize how people from across the world are very similar to you,” said the Angeleno.

Injuries and illness nearly kept Santa Monica residents Melody Khadavi and Fran Seegull from the games. The volleyball players each missed a month of practice in the United States due to different maladies, and when they landed in Israel, the combination of jet lag, hot temperatures and long days spent touring before the games caught up with them. But perseverance and antibiotics pulled the pair through the competitions to beat Canada for the bronze.

In the junior competitions, the gold-winning junior baseball team included Los Angeles resident Noah Michel. Alexander Hoffman-Ellis of Santa Monica High School helped the boys junior basketball team cruise to a gold. The girls junior soccer team brought home the gold with the help of coach Wendi Whitman of Long Beach.

For Erush, the next move is still up in the air. The soccer player said that may include the next games.

“Who knows,” Erush said. “I would love to win the gold and have silver, too.”


Jew Jokes Not a Joke

A Jewish teenager in Ventura County has filed a federal lawsuit against the Conejo Valley Unified School District (CVUSD), alleging that his high school coach and teammates repeatedly made anti-Semitic remarks to him and that school officials were indifferent to his complaints.

In U.S. District Court papers filed May 26 in Los Angeles on behalf of Samuel Goldstein, 16, the former Newbury Park High School (NPHS) student alleges that for the past two school years his teammates made repeated anti-Semitic jokes and taunts around him.

The lawsuit states that teammates made jokes to Goldstein such as, "What’s the difference between a Jew and a canoe? A canoe tips," and, "How do you fit 500,000 Jews in a car? Two in front, three in the back, and the rest in the ashtray."

The lawsuit also states that Newbury Park High baseball and football coach John Marsden in March 2003 allegedly, "told Sam that ‘God didn’t like him, because he was a Jew.’"

At a January 2003 birthday party with other athletes, Goldstein had to endure a "concentration camp" game in which, the lawsuit alleges, "his teammates from baseball and football pressed him against a fence and told jokes about how, unlike pizza, Jews scream when placed in an oven."

"In or about June 2003, Sam saw a group of students on the school campus saluting Hitler and drawing swastikas," the lawsuit said. "Altercations between this group and other students resulted."

Last fall, the Anti-Defamation League wrote to and met with the high school’s principal. "In meetings with NPHS, the ADL offered to arrange for Holocaust survivors to speak at a school assembly," the lawsuit stated. "NPHS rejected the offer on the asserted basis that the students’ curriculum was already too full."

ADL Pacific Southwest Region spokeswoman Allison Mayerson confirmed this week the ADL’s involvement, but told The Journal that there would no further ADL comment since the incidents now involve litigation.

After he complained to school officials about Marsden, Goldstein alleges that his teammates called him "kike," "faggot Jew" and "dirty Jew," according to the lawsuit, which names the school district and Marsden as defendants. It claims the defendants violated Goldstein’s civil rights, were negligent and intentionally inflicted emotional duress.

Along with seeking an end to further harassment, the lawsuit asks the federal court "to require defendant CVUSD to implement religious tolerance education for faculty and students and a civil penalty of $25,000 and attorneys fees."

Goldstein had played on the school’s basketball, football and baseball teams, but he quit the baseball team in February. His parents have taken him and his younger brother out of the school district and moved. The high school is in an unincorporated part of Thousand Oaks.

Conejo Valley School District Superintendent Robert Fraisse did not return calls for comment, and the district has declined to discuss the case’s specifics, because it involves personnel matters.

Marsden had been a part-time baseball and football coach at the high school since 1987. He was not involved in teaching classes. His last day at the school was Jan. 22, according to a school district official.

Asked if Marsden would be returning this fall, the official said, "I don’t believe so."

In April 2003, the lawsuit states, the coach asked Jewish students on the basketball team who would not be at practice because of Passover. Although Goldstein arranged to attend practice and also observe the holiday, another Jewish player did not, and the coach allegedly stated, "Next year, I won’t have to worry about the boys missing practice, as I’ll cut all the Jewish players from the team."

The lawsuit filed by Goldstein’s parents claims that for two years, his mother and father repeatedly contacted school district officials about Marsden.

"Sam and/or his parents wrote letters to, sent e-mails to, made telephone calls to, and/or had in-person meetings with CVUSD personnel," the lawsuit states. "Despite its knowledge of the facts, CVUSD did little or nothing to remedy the discrimination experienced by Sam."

The lawsuit claims that Goldstein was a leadoff hitter and played first-string outfield on the baseball team, plus was a first-string defensive player in football. In spring 2003, the lawsuit states, Goldstein’s mother met with Marsden, who allegedly, "retaliated against Sam by benching him for most of the remaining baseball season…. Marsden then proceeded to tease Sam in front of his peers about the fact that Sam’s mother came to speak to him."

Honoring Dedication

That joke about the world’s shortest book being “Great Jewish Athletes” was finally put out to pasture last week. On Jan. 20, the West Valley Jewish Community Center hosted the Ninth Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Bob “Super Dave Osborne” Einstein emceed the dinner, which lauded the efforts of 15 Jews whose achievements have had an impact in the world of sports, both on the field and off.

While the first Jewish Sports Hall of Fame was founded in 1958 in Ohio, the concept didn’t take off nationally until the ’80s and early ’90s. The international Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Israel, which recognizes athletes and sports professionals worldwide, was established in 1981.

Director Eli Sherman and co-chair Joe Siegman founded the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1989 to support individuals and the Jewish community through sports. The local Hall of Fame also works to promote the World Maccabi Games in Israel, Jewish Community Centers of North America Maccabi Youth games and the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles’ sports programs.

Athletes inducted into the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame included Shawn Green of the Los Angeles Dodgers; Lenny Krayzelburg, Olympic gold-medal winner in swimming; golfer Carol Heiser Altshiller; gymnast Deborah Mink; water polo ace Robert Myman; softball star Beth Silverman Kaminkow; and tennis player Milt Nemiroff.
Inducted sports professionals included Martin Denkin, a legendary boxing official, and Andrew Bernstein, Alan Epstein,
Richard Levin and Ephraim Moxson for their exceptional work in sports media.

Three people were awarded the special Pillar of Achievement award: Robert Breitbard, former president of the San Diego Chargers responsible for building Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego; the late Eugene Klein, president of the Chargers (1966-1984); and the late Harry Ornest, former owner of the St. Louis Blues.

Nevin Barich, a journalism major at CSUN and Daily News sports writer, received the Allan Malamud Scholarship, established in honor of the Los Angeles sport writer. “Maybe I’ll never get to round the bases after hitting a home run,” noted Barich, “but through sports writing I’m still able to play.”


The Journal will regularly feature coverage of sports in the Jewish community in these pages.

We will feature profiles of local athletes and major sports figures, standings and news for local Maccabi, school and intramural teams, and stories that focus on issues surrounding sports in the community.

Please send your team scores and news to Ari Morguelan, who will coordinate our sports coverage.

To submit story ideas, scores, team news and suggestions for “Athlete of the Week,” contact Ari at (213) 368-1661 ext. 107, fax him at (213) 368-1684 or e-mail him at .

Now play ball !

Fern Milken Sports & Youth Complex

If anyone doubts the popularity of the new Fern Milken Sports & Youth Complex at the West Valley Jewish Community Center, just show up on any given weekday. The center, which used to attract primarily seniors, is now a hangout for youth of all ages, especially those with a love of shooting hoop.

It is a sight Eli Sherman, health and physical education director for the West Valley JCC, had dreamed of for years. He said the $4.5-million facility has increased participation in all areas, especially basketball. The 12,000-square foot auditorium is the setting for not only camp but ongoing classes, adult and youth leagues and open play times throughout the year. The Rita Room multipurpose room has given the center space to offer classes in fencing and table tennis. The interior lobby of the gleaming facility is home to the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame with tributes to Jewish athletes, coaches and sports writers. Although not new, the pool and fitness areas continue to attract a daily round of regulars, mostly older adults, while high school students enjoy playing air hockey in the new teen lounge.

“We now have something for everybody,” Sherman said. “For a long time the center had the reputation of attracting either the very young or the older population. What has been missing is the young adults and the young families which are now coming in much greater numbers because of the variety programs we’re able to offer. It’s very exciting for us because the young families represent the future of the Jewish Community Centers in Los Angeles.”

According to West Valley JCC officials, the community center has experienced a 28 percent increase in the number of “member units” or paying members since the Sports & Youth Complex opened in December. Currently about 1,500 adults pay the additional fees on top of their JCC membership to belong to the Fitness Center; an estimated 200 children are signed up to take classes and participate in camping programs this summer.

The expansion of the JCC’s summer program is one of the biggest changes brought about by the new facility. This year the WVJCC will launch an ambitious program of specialty sports camps in five categories: basketball, gymnastics, soccer, tennis and dance. The dance camp will be taught by Laker girl Hope Wood and the basketball camp by former Harlem Globetrotter Sterling “Smooth” Forbes and Kelvin “Special K” Hildreth.

Another area the center staff hopes to promote with the new space is gymnastics. The WVJCC recently received a $25,000 grant from the Amateur Athletic Foundation – the folks behind the Olympics – to purchase equipment. Sherman said he has already hired three gymnastic instructors and on Sunday, July 9, at 10 a.m. the center will host a gymnastics demonstration to showcase the new equipment which includes balance beams, tumbling mats and uneven parallel bars.

As participation in the center continues to grow, so does the need for services. Additional adult classes being offered this summer for the first time include Israeli folk dancing and Krav Maga. Center officials also plan to offer babysitting services for infants and children up to age 3, so parents of young children can swim or participate in classes and league activities. “We are able to offer a lot of new activities, a lot of nice things that could never have been possible without the new Fern Milken Sports & Youth Center,” Sherman said.

Sherman should know – he has been with the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles for 45 years. Some of the kids he coached on his first job at the Westside JCC are now middle-aged men with children of their own. He has seen many changes over the years in the Jewish community’s attitude toward fitness, the most dramatic concerning women and sports. As Sherman recalls, in the 1950s girls might participate in one of the popular swimming programs at the “J” or take gymnastics, but never team sports.”The girls back then were the cheerleaders,” he said. “Now as many girls as boys participate in sports. It’s partly a change in attitude, but I think it’s mostly because of television. Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past four decades, it’s hard not to be affected by the marketing push to get sports into everybody’s life.”

Sherman said that talking about a sports hero in years past was like discussing “some biblical figure as far removed as Samson from real life.”
“Now every kid can talk about Kobe Bryant or the women of the WNBA,” he said.Although pleased with the new facility, Sherman said he wishes the center had the space to match some of the more impressive Jewish community centers in other parts of the country, such as the one in Cleveland that boasts running tracks, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and baseball fields.”Sadly, in Los Angeles, where we have the second largest Jewish community in the nation, we have never come near having the recreational facilities like you have back East or in the Midwest,” Sherman laments. “Plus in L.A. there’s a bank, a gas station and a fitness center on every corner, so we are in constant competition with the commercial clubs.”

The WVJCC is a part of the Bernard Milken Community Campus in West Hills, which also houses the Jewish Federation/ Valley Alliance. The new Sports & Youth Center was a collaboration of the two entities, which joined forces to raise the money necessary to finish the project, although fundraising will continue, according to Rhonda Wilkens, director of the West Valley JCC.

“We are continuing the campaign as an endowment fund so that any time the center needs something, the money is there,” Wilkens said, adding that building maintenance is a high priority. “We want the center to continue to look and feel as beautiful, with state-of-the-art equipment, 20 years from now as it does today.”