Ex-Australian Maccabi team coach jailed for child sex abuse


A former coach of a Maccabi basketball team in Australia was sentenced to eight years in prison for sexually abusing four girls more than a decade ago.

Shannon Francis, who is not Jewish, was sentenced Wednesday by County Court of Victoria Judge Meryl Sexton. Francis must serve at least 5 1/2 years before he is eligible for parole.

A suppression order surrounding the case had prevented the media from revealing his name or that of Maccabi, the largest Jewish organization in Australia with some 9,000 members across more than 50 clubs, according to its website.

Earlier this year Francis, 37, pleaded guilty to four charges of child sex abuse, including one charge of sexual penetration of a child under 16.

It is understood that at least one incident took place during an overseas trip to the United States. The incidents date back to 1999 and 2000.

Maccabi Australia President Lisa Borowick said in a statement, “Maccabi and its member clubs have never and will never condone or seek to protect their own interests in any case of suspected criminality, especially one involving harm to children. It is our understanding that the officials involved in 2000 acted in full consultation and agreement with the victims and their families.”

Manny Waks, founder of Tzedek, an organization for victims and survivors of Jewish child sex abuse in Australia, welcomed the news.

“It highlights the fact that the scourge of child sexual abuse is not confined to one specific segment of the Jewish community,” he said. “Just as within the broader society, child sexual abuse is prevalent within the Jewish community.”

Two other child sex abuse cases involving Jewish organizations are currently before the courts: one involves a non-Jewish bus driver who worked at the haredi Orthodox Adass Israel School in Melbourne. Reporting on the other case has been suppressed.

L.A. return is true Blu


In the 65 years since Israel’s independence, no sports team there has been more successful than Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club. Along with 50 Israeli championships and 40 national cups, Maccabi first made international history upon winning its inaugural European Championship back in 1977. It has since gone on to win four more European titles, with the dominance, from 2002 until 2012, of Los Angeles’ own David Blu.

Born David Bluthenthal in July 1980, the 6-foot-7 athlete played basketball for the University of Southern California before joining Maccabi for six nonconsecutive seasons until his summer 2012 departure, which caught fans by surprise. He was adored by Maccabi devotees, professionally celebrated when invited to play for the Israeli national team and became one of Europe’s most sought-after talents. 

Following his last season with Maccabi, Blu decided to go back home to Marina del Rey with wife Megan; daughter Bridget, 5; and son Baron, 18 months. (He has an older daughter Hailey, 12, from a previous relationship.) “I learned a lot living alongside Israelis; they are very loyal to one another and made sure I was part of them,” he said in an interview. “But once I came back to America, I felt free. Things are happening for me; I’m making connections, I went back to school, I’m smiling, my family’s happy. I lived in Europe, but this here is my home.”

The son of a Jewish mother, Suzanne, a nurse whom he lost to cancer when he was 14, and an African-American father, Ralph, who converted to Judaism, Blu’s first year off the basketball court saw him digging into his lineage as part of his bachelor’s degree studies in sociology at USC. While his original last name is believed to be derived from a 19th century Jewish-German slave owner on his mother’s side, Blu’s ancestry also includes financier Isaias Wolf Hellman, co-founder of USC, from which Blu, his great-great-great grandson, just graduated. 

Fascinated by his study of genealogy, Blu hopes to maintain a close connection to the Jewish community, the same bond that made his father send David, as a high schooler, to Israel to play with the American basketball team at the 15th Maccabiah Games in 1997. 

“I studied my Jewish side and my African-American side, all the way from Arkansas to California,” he explained, “and it’s interesting to see how both integrated in American culture. I don’t know many people with a similar black-Jewish background.”

What follows is a recent interview with Blu:

Jewish Journal: Was your departure from Israel planned?

David Blu: During my final season, I played every game as if it were my last. I knew it was the end. I thought of maybe one or two more seasons, but it all changed with the birth of my son in November 2011. I used to take my daughter to the playgrounds in Tel Aviv and she couldn’t communicate with other kids in Hebrew. We figured we would be headed back to the U.S. eventually, so we didn’t enroll her in Hebrew kindergarten. And whenever she stared at me at the playground, it broke my heart.

JJ: What was the thought behind changing your last name?

DB: I grew up playing basketball, mostly with other black guys, and I used to get teased a lot for my name. It’s something that sticks with you for life, though it has nothing to do with my religion. I am a proud Jewish man. But I didn’t want my family to endure all that. I didn’t even want my wife to take my last name at first. So we decide to shorten the name four years ago when we were in New York. I live right around the corner from Hollywood, and one of my dreams is to someday be a sports commentator on ESPN. And let’s face it, David Blu sounds more Hollywood, right?

JJ: How do you see yourself involved in Israel in the future?

DB: One of my good friends is Elliot Steinmetz, who coaches back East at the North Shore Hebrew Academy High School and has been working with the USA Youth Men’s Basketball Team for the Maccabiah. [The 19th games concluded July 30.] He is giving me good advice about expanding my Jewish brand, and I’m very interested in contributing with my professional knowledge and experience to the community.

JJ: How is life away from the limelight in Israel?

DB: Back there, I’m a celebrity. No matter where I went I was instantly recognized, and I loved it. On the other hand, it feels great being surrounded by family and friends; I no longer miss out on those precious moments in life. I miss the day-to-day of playing basketball. There’s nothing like that feeling of getting the ball in at the buzzer. Maybe one day I’ll get to see my son do the same.

Australian Jews protest rehiring of men responsible for Maccabiah tragedy


Australian Jews criticized the Maccabi movement for continuing to employ officials responsible for the deaths of four Australians at the 1997 Maccabiah Games.

As this year’s games launched in Israel this week, Peter Wertheim, of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said: “It is hard to believe that a Jewish organization would behave with such callous disregard for the value of human life.”

Yoram Eyal, the chairman of the organizing committee of the 1997 games, was convicted in 2000 of criminal negligence for his role in the disaster that claimed the lives of Warren Zines, Yetty Bennett, Greg Small and Elizabeth Sawicki.

He is now general manager of the Maccabiah village, the headquarters of Maccabi World Union and a nerve center of the so-called Jewish Olympics.

His colleague, Ronald Bakalarz, president of the union in 1997, resigned in 2000 following three years of pressure from Australia and an ultimatum by the Knesset inquiry into the incident. Today, he is chairman of the board of the Maccabiah village.

“It’s disgraceful but hardly surprising,” said Colin Elterman, whose daughter Sasha survived 28 brain operations after ingesting toxins at the Maccabiah. She and others fell into the heavily-polluted Yarkon River when a bridge collapsed.

“There is nothing that the organization will not do to protect its insiders,” Elterman said. “Sadly it’s endemic in their system.”

Maccabi Australia president Lisa Borowick suggested it was time to move on.

“We can’t stop someone from earning a living,” she said. “Why can’t they [the media] focus on honoring those who lost their lives as we did at the memorial service held earlier this week.”

Eyal said he had no “organizational involvement” in the Maccabiah, although he is responsible for all guests, whether or not they are connected to the Maccabiah.

“No day has passed since then without my profound regret and respect for the lives that were lost and for their families, and it will be so to the end of my days,” he said.

Australia has a team of 400-plus athletes at the games, which opened Thursday night in Jerusalem.

Calendar Picks and Clicks: Mar. 2-8, 2013


SUN MARCH 3

PETER YARROW

One-third of the legendary Peter, Paul & Mary, the folk icon and political activist has reinvented himself by authoring children’s books that draw on egalitarian themes. His latest book, “I’m in Love With a Big Blue Frog,” celebrates diversity, following a one-of-a-kind couple that proves unconventionality can be a beautiful thing. Yarrow performs music from the book’s accompanying CD at Barnes & Noble and signs copies of the book this afternoon. Tonight, he performs a concert at Pepperdine University. Barnes & Noble: Sun. 1 p.m. Wristbands required (available after 9 a.m. with purchase of the book). Barnes & Noble, The Grove at Farmers Market, 189 The Grove Drive, Suite K 30, Los Angeles. (323) 525-0270. barnesandnoble.com. Pepperdine: Sun. 7 p.m. $20-$40. Pepperdine University, Smothers Theatre, 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. (310) 506-4522. arts.pepperdine.edu.

“GAME, SET, LAUGH: MACCABI USA COMEDY FUNDRAISER” 

Stand-up comedians Moshe Kasher, Michael Kosta and Jay Larson perform to raise funds for Team USA ahead of this summer’s 19th World Maccabiah Games. Silent auction and raffle prizes include tickets to “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “Chelsea Lately” and “Dancing With the Stars”; gifts donated by Nike; and certificates to Santa Monica restaurants. 21 and older. Sun. 7 p.m. $20 (general admission), $25 (includes two raffle tickets), $45 (includes 10 raffle tickets). Westside Comedy Theater, 1323-A Third St., Santa Monica. (310) 451-0850. westsidecomedy.com.

 

MON MARCH 4

“JEWISH MEGATRENDS”

Rabbi Sid Schwarz, a social entrepreneur in various sectors of American-Jewish life and a consultant to synagogues and Jewish organizations, appears in conversation with Rabbi Sharon Brous, spiritual leader of egalitarian congregation IKAR. Their discussion highlights ideas expressed in Schwarz’s book, “Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future,” a collection of essays, to which Brous contributed, that sets out four guiding principles that can drive a renaissance in Jewish life, with an emphasis on Millennials who are engaged on the margins of the Jewish community. Jumpstart, IKAR and the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University co-sponsor. Mon. 3-5 p.m. Free (RSVP required). American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 424-3670. ikar-la.org.

 

“INTERROGATING THE INDEX” 

Jeffrey Shandler, a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University and a senior fellow at the USC Shoah Foundation, discusses how the consideration of form — not just content — allows for an against-the-grain reading of survivor testimony. Exploring issues that impact how Holocaust survivors tell their stories, Shandler examines how the incorporation of live performance and other media shape survivor narratives, the role language choice plays in shaping the interview process and humor’s part in Holocaust remembrance, among other topics. Mon. 6-8 p.m. Free. USC Campus, University Park Campus, Doheny Memorial Library 240, Los Angeles. (213) 740-6001. sfi.usc.edu.

“GUNS: A PANEL DISCUSSION”

Experts weigh in on the debate over gun control during a discussion at Temple Israel of Hollywood. Panelists include Charlie Beck, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department; Marc Cooper, contributing editor with The Nation magazine; Gene Hoffman, director and chairman of the Calguns Foundation; and Laurie Saffian, a board member of Women Against Gun Violence. Adam Winkler, a professor at the UCLA School of Law and author of “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” moderates. Mon. 7 p.m. Free (RSVP required). Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 876-8330. tioh.org.

 

WED MARCH 6

AMY EPHRON: “TIME, PLACE, (TABLE) SETTINGS”

The renowned novelist, screenwriter and journalist appears at Skirball for a reading and discussion of her critically acclaimed memoir, “Loose Diamonds … and Other Things I’ve Lost (and Found) Along the Way.” Ephron reflects upon the many aspects of a woman’s life — from childhood through young adulthood, marriage, divorce (and remarriage), and everything in between. A Q-and-A and book signing follow. Wed. 8 p.m., $8 (general), $6 (members), $5 (full-time students). Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org

 

FRI MARCH 8

JEWLICIOUS FESTIVAL 9

Jewlicious returns to the RMS Queen Mary for a weekend of music, culture and learning for young adults (ages 18-36) of all backgrounds. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach delivers the keynote speech on “Kosher Lust,” and an eclectic mix of bands and DJs perform aboard the art deco cruise ship/hotel. Other highlights include a Q–and-A and discussion with the filmmakers of the documentary “Craigslist Joe”; lectures on topics such as “Jewrotica,” careers in social media, urban animal rights activism and diversity in Israel; yoga classes; a Shabbat dinner and more. Fri., 1 p.m.-Sun., 4 p.m. $50 (full-time student), $85 (young adult, under 36), $149 (festival package, includes four-person hotel room), $169 (festival package, includes two-person hotel room). The Queen Mary, 1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach. jconnectla.com.

Maccabiah tryouts coming to L.A.


While hundreds of American athletes are eagerly anticipating the beginning of the Olympics in London this month, another Team USA is preparing for a different international competition.

Tryouts for the 19th Maccabiah Games, which will be held in Israel in July 2013, are already beginning across the country—including several in Los Angeles.

Held every four years in Israel, the all-Jewish Maccabiah Games prides itself on being the third-largest international sports competition—behind the Olympics and the Pan American Games—with more than 50 participating countries.

The United States will send 79 teams in approximately 40 sports to the 2013 games, including seven basketball teams. Basketball teams will compete at different age levels, from 15 to 45, and up.

Basketball Chairman of Recruitment and Outreach Brian Schiff pointed out that the U.S. delegation has fared well in recent years, earning four gold and two silver medals in the 2009 games.

Splitting the masters’ team into a 35-and-up team and a 45-and-up team will give the United States another chance to go for gold, Schiff says.

“We’re not looking for the 12 best athletes on every team,” Schiff said. “We’re looking for the 12 players who will make up the best team.”

Past Team USA participants included a number of college and professional players, such as Davidson forward Jake Cohen and Big 5 Player of the Year Zack Rosen, who is currently playing summer league with the Philadelphia 76ers.

Tryouts for the Men’s Open Team (18 and up) will be held at Milken Community High School on Aug. 4 and 5. The Men’s Youth Team (15 and 16) will hold tryouts at Milken on Aug. 19.

Schiff says tryouts are open to anyone interested.

“We’re hoping to get as many people as possible to try out,” he said. “This is an unbelievable opportunity to represent the country, and you get a lot more out of the games than just athletics.”

Tryouts for Juniors Boys’ Baseball will be held Aug. 5 at Simpson-Hartunian Field in Encino. Masters Tennis (35 and up) tryouts will be held Sept. 10 at MountainGate Country Club in Los Angeles. 

To register for tryouts in basketball or in other sports, visit maccabiusa.com, click on “Sports,” and then click on “Sports Explorer.”

Brad Greenberg to coach Israel’s Maccabi Haifa


Brad Greenberg, the former general manager of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, has signed on to coach the Maccabi Haifa basketball team.

Greenberg, who is Jewish, will coach the team for the next two seasons, the team announced Monday on its official website.

Greenberg, 58, becomes the first head coach in Israel to have served as an NBA assistant coach, NBA general manager and NCAA Division I head coach, according to the team. His contract starts on Aug.1, and the team opens its regular season on Oct. 8.

Maccabi Bazan Haifa finished last in the Israel Basketball League this past season.

“It has been a dream of mine to coach professionally in Israel,” Greenberg said in a statement on the team’s website.

Greenberg served as head coach this past season for Venezuela’s Bucaneros De La Guaira, leading the team to a playoff appearance. He will return as assistant coach of the Venezuelan National Team competing this summer for a chance to participate at the 2012 London Olympics.

He served as assistant coach for both the Los Angeles Clippers and the New York Knicks. As general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, he drafted top first-round pick Allen Iverson.

Faltering Maccabi Tel Aviv sack coach Iwanir


Maccabi Tel Aviv sacked coach Motti Iwanir on Monday after he failed to improve the fortunes of Israel’s biggest club having been in the job for almost a year.

“In view of the run of recent bad results (owner) Mitch Goldhar has informed coach Iwanir that his contract with the club will be terminated,” Maccabi said in a statement on their website.

Maccabi are Israel’s richest club but Canadian owner Goldhar’s investment of some $35 million on players has failed to yield the desired results against major rivals under Iwanir.

The club’s 2-0 defeat by Hapoel Haifa on Sunday was a fifth consecutive outing without a league win. They lie ninth in the 16-team Premier League, 10 points behind leaders Hapoel Tel Aviv.

Iwanir, a former Israel under-21 coach and midfielder for Maccabi, was appointed in January.

Maccabi finished third in the league last season and qualified for the Europa League but have no chance of advancing from Group E as they are rooted firmly to the bottom with four defeats and a draw.

Experienced Yitzhak Shum, a former coach of Maccabi Haifa who also led Greece’s Panathinaikos to a league and cup double in 2004, has been mentioned by local media as a leading candidate to succeed Iwanir.

Editing by Sonia Oxley; To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com

Israel soccer team playing in Turkey, despite tensions


An Israeli soccer team arrived in Istanbul to play a Turkish team, despite tensions between the two countries.

The Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer team landed Wednesday night amid heavy security. Turkish protesters waved Palestinian flags and chanted anti-Israel slogans outside the hotel in which the Israeli team is staying ahead of Thursday evening’s Europa League game against Besiktas at İnonu Stadium in Istanbul.

The team was instructed to remain inside the hotel and wait for armed escorts to take them to practice and the game.

Hundreds of Israeli fans had been expected to attend the game before rising tensions between Israel and Turkey came to a head in recent days. Only a handful of fans reportedly arrived in Turkey with the team.

Nets’ Jordan Farmar to play with Maccabi Tel Aviv


Jordan Farmar of the New Jersey Nets has signed to play for Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Farmar, a 6-foot-2 guard who is Jewish, will play for the Israeli champions as long as the NBA lockout continues, according to reports. He will be eligible to play as an Israeli, not counting against the limit of four foreign players per team in the Israeli league.

The Los Angeles native averaged 7.4 points and 2.7 assists last season, mostly coming off the bench for the Nets. Farmar had played four seasons for the L.A. Lakers before coming to New Jersey.

L.A. teen athletes going for Maccabi gold three-peat


Winning a second consecutive gold medal at the JCC Maccabi Games in Omaha, Neb., last year brought with it both excitement and disappointment for Michael Totten and his teammates on Westside JCC’s 16U boys’ soccer team.

“We had two gold medals already, and we were pretty sure we could win another, given the chance,” he said. But much of the team, including Michael, would be too old to compete in the 2011 tournament, as competitors must be between 13 and 16.

Yet Michael, who turned 17 earlier this month, and his teammates will get their chance at a third gold medal. First-time host Israel joins Philadelphia and Springfield, Mass., as a site of the 2011 JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest, and the age range for the Israeli component was raised to between 14 and 17.

“The kids were very emotional last year, realizing it was their last Maccabi together,” said co-head coach Dan Sulzberg, whose team also won gold in San Antonio in 2009. “The change made it possible for all my kids to have one last Maccabi together.”

Sulzberg’s team members are among 900 athletes from across the country and Canada, including 177 from Southern California, who will compete in the Jewish homeland July 24-Aug. 5. When the annual athletic and artistic showcase continues Aug. 14-19 in Philadelphia and Springfield, 216 Southern Californians will be among 1,800 participants.

“Knowing we would be playing in Israel motivated us to train even harder,” Totten said.

Goalie Ari Simon called Israel the “best place” to go for the three-peat.

“It’s the epitome of the JCC Maccabi Games,” said Ari, who with his twin brother, forward Asher, turned 17 in May.

Dan Deutsch, director of the JCC Maccabi Experience, said that holding the JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest in Israel was a goal of the program since its inception in 1982.

“It’s been a dream from the beginning and demonstrates our commitment to bringing as many teens to Israel as possible,” Deutsch said. The program will provide participants the opportunity to immerse themselves in Israeli culture.

“It’s always important to keep our roots,” said Shay Diamant, the Israel delegation head for the JCC at Milken who will oversee 44 athletes on two boys’ and two girls’ soccer teams. “It’s a great opportunity to meet new kids and have fun.”

The JCC at Milken’s Team Los Angeles will have 55 competitors in Philadelphia and 45 in Springfield across baseball, basketball, soccer, swimming, table tennis, tennis, and track and field.

The Westside JCC is sending 80 athletes total to all three sites, including 23 to Israel, comprising baseball, basketball, soccer, swimming and tennis teams. The ArtsFest participants from Westside JCC are joining the Orange County delegation in Israel.

Many Westside JCC and JCC at Milken teams are favorites to three-peat, including Sulzberg’s soccer team.

“I feel like the Lakers, going for three in a row,” Ari said. “We want to live up to expectations. We’ll come together as a team and handle everything the way we always do.”

Team Westside’s 16U basketball team is also looking to live up to expectations, going for a third consecutive gold medal in Philadelphia.

“We play better under pressure,” said JoJo Fallas, a 16-year-old shooting guard from Shalhevet. “We believe that we’re going to win. Our goal is always to win gold, and we’re expecting no less.”

JoJo, one of four core returners, said East Coast basketball features a more aggressive, attacking style, but his team’s success comes from its finesse.

The golden legacy isn’t limited to the Westside.

The JCC at Milken’s baseball team will be pursuing a third win in Philadelphia, following gold medal campaigns in San Francisco and Denver.

“We play the best baseball in the country,” said catcher Trevor Weiss, a Calabasas High junior. He attributes the team’s success to familiarity. “We know what to expect from each other.”

Newcomers to the JCC Maccabi Games experience also will be making cross-country treks.

“I’m really excited to be in a new place,” said Dani Klemes, a 14-year-old swimmer competing in four events in Springfield for the Westside JCC along with twin sister Allison.

The Beverly Hills High sophomores have high hopes for the competition but value the experience above all.

“I’m looking forward to staying with [my host] family to see what life in Springfield is like,” Dani said.

Being first-timers doesn’t mean that competitors won’t be contenders.

Adam Bobrow, a JCC Maccabi baseball, soccer and table tennis alum, will be accompanying two table tennis talents, Sam Bernstein and Isaac Halfon, to Springfield.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Sam takes the gold,” Bobrow said. “He’s an exceptional player.”

Both Sam, 14, and Isaac, 15, who has taken lessons at the Westside JCC’s Gilbert Table Tennis Club for only a few months, will compete for the JCC at Milken, despite living on the Westside.

Bobrow, a professional table tennis player and actor, took over coaching the JCC at Milken table tennis team as a last-minute replacement, just as he did in 2008.

“It would’ve been the first year that there wasn’t a team at all,” said Bobrow, whose late father, Jerry, was a JCC Maccabi Games delegation head for 18 years. “In the past, kids used table tennis as a back-up [sport] to make the trip, but I want to build the team. I would like table tennis to be their first choice.”

The JCC Maccabi Experience mission is “bringing together Jewish teens from across North America and internationally, and giving them an opportunity to explore their Judaism through a lens of their own special interest,” Deutsch said. “The experience gives a sense of klal, of Jewish peoplehood. They experience being Jewish together.”

Or, in the case of Sulzberg’s co-head coach, Neil Sadhu, what it means to be Jewish at all.

Upon meeting Sadhu four years ago, the Westside soccer players thought he was a Sephardi Jew; actually, he’s Indian.

“Kids have wrapped tefillin with him and taught him all about Jewish culture,” said Sulzberg, who added that Sadhu’s jersey will have “Sadhustein” printed on the back. The team considers Sadhu an “honorary Jew.”

Bobrow, who was involved in the recent 40th anniversary celebration of “Ping Pong Diplomacy,” likens the JCC Maccabi Games to the way table tennis united American and Chinese players.

“They’re learning how to balance friendship and competition,” he said of the athletes. “It’s on a smaller scale, but it’s making and improving relationships between these kids. The concept is very much the same: strangers being friendly with each other.”

For native Austrians, a symbolic swim ‘to show the Nazis’


When he come to the 13th European Maccabi Games in Vienna, John Benfield didn’t return to his native Austria for any medals.

“I’m not a competitive swimmer,” said Benfield, 80, of Los Angeles. “But when I heard that the European Maccabi Games were being held in Vienna, I knew it was something I needed to do.”

Sitting next to him on a sofa off the lobby of the Austrian capital’s elegant Hotel Imperial, Benfield’s lifelong friend Arthur Figur, also 80, nodded in agreement. “It’s a symbolic return to a country that could have annihilated me if I hadn’t escaped,” said Figur, of New Rochelle, N.Y.

Benfield and Figur are members of the U.S. swim team in the masters, or over-35, category of the 13th European Maccabi Games being held here July 5-13—the first time the Games are being hosted by a German-speaking country since the Holocaust.

“I’m doing really a symbolic swim,” Benfield said. “I need to show the Nazis that we’re still around.”

Benfield and Figur both were born in Vienna in 1931, and both escaped to the United States as children in 1938—the year that Adolf Hitler rode triumphantly into the city and addressed cheering crowds after the Nazi regime’s annexation of Austria. Hitler stayed at the Hotel Imperial and spoke from its balcony.

Benfield and Figur were friends as children, and both were taught to swim in 1936-37 by Benfield’s uncle, who was the coach of the swim team of Hakoah, the famous Jewish sports club founded in Vienna in 1909 in response to a law that barred Jewish athletes from Austrian sports clubs.

Benfield’s aunt, Hedy Bienenfield-Wertheimer, was a popular fashion model and Hakoah swimmer who won a bronze medal in the European swimming championships in 1927. Her story is recounted in the 2004 documentary “Watermarks,” which tells the story of the Hakoah women’s swim team.

Hakoah, which had grown into one of Europe’s most important sports clubs, was disbanded by the Nazis in 1938.

“The day the Nazis marched in, my mother, who was Dutch, put me on a train to Holland,” Figur recalled. “My parents got out six weeks later.”

The Benfield and Figur families arrived in New York as refugees in July 1938 and shared an apartment there. Benfield’s father joined the U.S. Army after World War II broke out. He died in 1945 in the China-Burma-India theater, though not in combat.

Benfield and Figur both went on to have distinguished careers in the medical field and still lead active professional lives. A thoracic surgeon, Benfield is professor emeritus at the UCLA Medical School and the recipient of many international awards. One facet of his current work is helping researchers and scientists whose native language is not English.

Figur, a hematologist and internist, is the associate medical director at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. The striking Figur, who in Vienna wore a cowboy shirt and sported an earring dangling from his left ear during his interview with JTA, has maintained an enthusiastic involvement in sports. He has traveled the world on adventure treks and taken part in Ironman competitions. This summer, he is planning to participate in a relay swim around Manhattan island.

Figur says he feels little connection with Vienna. “I don’t feel comfortable here,” he said. “If my mother were alive she’d be upset—she was Dutch and she never felt comfortable here, either.”

Benfield, who has been back to Vienna a number of times since 1938, says he has grown more comfortable over the years but was still “wary of the history and wary of the significant faction of fascism” in Austria.

He said he had reclaimed his Austrian citizenship so he could vote here—and vote against the far-right nationalist parties that have made gains in recent Austrian elections.

“My advice to the Austrians is to please recognize that diversity is a good thing,” he said. “Diversity can contribute to the strength of society.

“The events of the past are real, awful and inexcusable. But we have a responsibility to never let it happen again.”

Thoughts on basketball and Israel


Early Sunday morning on Mothers Day, as my brother and I prepared breakfast for our mom, I also prepared myself for the special day ahead. In addition to celebrating my mom, my family would also gather in our den to watch Maccabi Tel Aviv play Greece’s Panathinaikos for the Euroleague’s Basketball Championship. Proudly wearing my Maccabi t-shirt, I thought how strange it felt that on the day we are watching Maccabi compete for the European basketball championship, that night, we would attend the Israeli Consulate’s Yom Hazikaron ceremony.

As we watched Maccabi fight valiantly on the court, unfortunately coming up short, I thought how incredible it is that a team from a small Jewish country in the Middle East was playing in the European championship for an amazing 14th time, trying to win it’s sixth championship. What is it about Israel that drives it to succeed against all odds? How does such a small country continue to achieve global success in so many fields? The answer to my question would begin at the Yom Hazikaron ceremony, and would continue throughout the week, on an emotional journey from LA to Washington, D.C.

At the Yom Hazikaron ceremony, I listened to incredible stories of courage and self-sacrifice that took place on battlefields where the stakes were much higher than a basketball championship. That night, images of Israelis battling on a basketball court were replaced with images of Israelis fighting on the Golan Heights.

The next morning, my Hebrew language teacher at YULA spent class talking about childhood friends who were killed in wars. At our school’s Yom Hazikaron ceremony, the Bnei Akiva shaliach, and my father, spoke about the painful experiences of attending military funerals. Listening to all of this, I thought how incredible it is that a society that has experienced so much pain nevertheless has the strength to move on and succeed.

The transition to Yom Ha’atzmaut helped strengthen my understanding of things. At school, in the same room where we observed Yom Hazikaron, we now celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut with Israeli food, music, and dancing. Our school held an “Israel Talent Show,” where I sang an Israeli pop song from the 80’s called “Milim Yafot” by Gazoz. I won! It felt great to win, but this contest was more than about winning. By singing an Israeli pop song whose Hebrew lyrics are pure fun, it was my way of celebrating a society that – despite her many wars – still has the spirit to develop a cool and hip music scene.

Straight from the talent show, I rushed to the Skirball Museum for the Israeli Consulate’s Yom Ha’atzmaut reception. I arrived early for the final rehearsal of a medley of Israeli songs that I would sing together with Hedva Amrani and Noa Dori. As we took the stage, with Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and 800 others watching, I looked out at the crowd and recognized so many smiling faces that were weeping just two nights earlier.  I opened the medley with the words “Ein Li Eretz Acheret” (I Have No Other Land), a song that represents a deep connection to Israel no matter what the circumstances.

From the Skirball, my father and I went to the airport and boarded a plane for Washington, D.C. Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., invited my father to attend the Israeli Embassy’s Yom Ha’atzmaut reception, and my father took me along. The reception was Thursday night, and we spent all day Thursday visiting the Holocaust Museum. We journeyed back to the dark years of Auschwitz, when anti-Semitism and genocide ruled the world. I saw what it looked like to be a homeless and defenseless Jew. I touched bunk beds from Auschwitz, walked through a train car used to transport kids my age to death camps, saw displays of hair, glasses and shoes, and looked at gruesome photos of death and destruction.

From this haunting experience, we went back to our hotel room, changed into dressy clothes, and went to the Andrew Mellon Auditorium. Located in the heart of Washington, D.C.’s national monuments, just minutes from the White House and Capitol Hill, the Mellon Auditorium would host over one thousand diplomats, military attaches, members of congress, administration officials, honored guests – and me(!) – all there to celebrate Israel’s 63rd birthday. I contemplated where I was all day, and where I stood that night, and I remarked to my father, “Who could have imagined that just sixty-six years after the end of the Holocaust, a crowd of over one thousand of some of the most powerful people in the world would gather in Washington, D.C. to celebrate a tiny Jewish state’s independence?” When Michael Oren spoke, he compared the downing of Osama Bin-Laden with Israel’s daring rescue operation in Entebbe.

With Ambassador Oren’s words, everything became crystal clear to me. Whether it’s straight out of the ashes of the Holocaust, on the battlefield defending Israel, in rescue missions to save Israelis, in humanitarian efforts in Haiti, in science labs that produce Nobel prizes, film productions that lead to Oscar nominations, in the streets of Tel Aviv, or on the basketball court, there is one character trait that Israelis share in common – persistence. It is this persistence that built the Jewish state, and it continues to drive Israelis to succeed against all odds. It is this Israeli persistence that inspires my own goals, and can serve as an inspiration to all young people my age.

While waiting on line to greet Michael Oren, my father bumped into the Greek Ambassador, who he had just met in Los Angeles a week earlier. My father congratulated him on Panathinaikos’ victory, but looked at him and said: “We’ll beat you next year.” Persistence.

Omri Casspi could rejoin Maccabi Tel Aviv


Sacramento Kings forward Omri Casspi said he might rejoin his former Israeli pro basketball team if the NBA imposes a player lockout next season.

Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the National Basketball Association, told Israel’s Army Radio Thursday that that he would consider rejoining Maccabi Tel Aviv if the league and the players’ union do not come to a new agreement by the June 30 expiration of the collective bargaining agreement, which could lead to the cancellation of the 2011-12 season.

Casspi has been sitting on the bench lately for the Kings. He has averaged 9.2 points and 4.7 rebounds per game this season. 

Although Casspi is under contract with the Kings, he would be allowed to play abroad in the event of a lockout, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Local teens to compete for gold at Maccabi Games


At the same time Southland Jewish Olympians like Jason Lezak and Dara Torres medaled in Beijing, the next generation of local athletes was preparing to compete in events of their own.

More than 200 teens with Maccabi teams from the Westside Jewish Community Center, Milken JCC in West Hills and Alpert JCC in Long Beach will join an additional 300 athletes in Detroit to compete in 25 Olympic-style tournaments Aug. 17-22.

The JCC Maccabi Games, held each summer at several locations around the United States, will feature 14 sports categories, including track and field, swimming and tennis. The athletes, ages 13 to 16, will share the field with teens from Canada, Great Britain, Hungary, Israel, Mexico and Venezuela.

While students hope to medal in their respective events, the games also emphasize charitable programming, as well as the importance of teamwork and building strong Jewish identities.

For many adults, including Milken’s girls basketball coach Bruce Lang, these games demonstrate something beyond athletics. Maccabi shows that there’s more to being a Jewish teen after becoming bar or bat mitzvah, Lang said.

“There is a misconception — a lot of people think it’s just a sporting event,” he said. “That’s 40 to 50 percent. The rest is doing what kids want to do: They want to socialize with other kids. They want to play rock music…. This is a wonderful program that keeps kids in touch with their heritage and their culture. Not all kids get it.”

Lang said one player who gets it is Danielle Bush, one of two returning players who took silver medals last year. He said that Danielle uses the games to quench her desire for more Jewish knowledge, asking questions of coaches, athletes and Israelis.

“That was rare,” he said.

During recent team meetings at the Westside and Milken JCCs, parents and teens talked with coaches about what to expect at the games.

For several parents, the concern was how much or little access they’ll have to their children in Detroit. An information packet given out at the Westside meeting revealed several nights devoted to youth-only activities — no parents allowed.

Lang, who has coached at 16 Maccabi Games, said he understands the plight of parents who travel to Detroit and want to spend as much time as possible with their youngsters.

“For the week that they are gone, they are not your children,” he said. “They are my children.”

For the Westside girls basketball team, the meeting meant receiving their uniforms and bag. When 15-year-old guard Shoshanna Seidenfeld saw the matching cardinal-and-gold and blue-and-white jackets, shirts and tops, she shrieked.

“I love these! They are so cool,” she said. “We didn’t have jackets and bags [on other teams], so I feel I’m part of something bigger.”

The Maccabi games were first established in the United States to act as a feeder to the World Maccabiah Games in Israel, with the first North American Youth Maccabi Games taking place in 1982 in Memphis.

Three cities hosted the JCC Maccabi Games this year, including San Diego, Aug. 3-8, and Akron, Ohio, Aug. 10-15.

Given Los Angeles’ proximity to San Diego — and rising travel costs — it left some wondering why the Southland teams are going to Detroit.

Alan Goldberg, vice president of the JCC Association’s Mandel Center for Excellence in Leadership and Management, said several factors, including when school begins, what sports the teams are competing in and where the contingent requests to go determines which team plays in which city.

“It’s a very complex process,” Goldberg said.

Detroit will welcome 60 athletes participating in basketball, soccer, swimming and tennis from Team Westside.

“We’ve gone from zero to a full-fledged program in three years,” said Brian Greene, Westside JCC’s executive director.

But the numbers at Westside JCC and Long Beach JCC, which have less than two dozen athletes this year, are a far cry from Milken’s 140 athletes in baseball, softball, basketball, track and field, tennis and table tennis.

Snejana Evans, Milken’s Team L.A. organizer, said the West Hills center will have the largest delegation in Detroit. It’s likely the team will bring some medals back to Los Angeles.

Lang said the success of his team, which did not win medals on only two occasions, is renowned. During the 2005 games in San Antonio, he recalled, the crowd rooted for the Israeli squad, shouting, “Beat L.A.”

He said there’s nothing like being on the receiving end of such a cheer.

For the Kids


Maccabi Madness

The Maccabi Movement began in 1895 when the first all-Jewish sports club was formed in Constantinople, Turkey. While the Maccabiah games take place in Israel, the Maccabi games are always in North America. This two-week Olympic-style competition for Jewish teenagers from around the world takes place every four years and has featured many world-class Jewish athletes, including Mark Spitz (swimming), Mitch Gaylord (gymnastics), Ernie Grunfeld and Danny Schayes (basketball), and Brad Gilbert and Dick Savitt (tennis). This year the games take place Aug. 15-20 in Boston.