Thoughts on the Maccabiah games from local star athletes


Madeline Aibel, 14

Santa Monica

Rhythmic gymnastics

“My experience has been an eye-opening, unforgettable adventure. This is my first time in Israel. When I first found out about the Maccabiah Games, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to visit this amazing country and experience a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete in the games.”

Aidan Blain, 15

Santa Monica

Track and field

“Meeting new people from different countries who are all connected by Judaism and athletics is amazing, and it has been one of the best experiences of my life. The Maccabiah Games is one of the best opportunities I have ever come across, and I’m overjoyed that I was able to take advantage and compete in these games.”

Joseph Leavitt, 43

Santa Monica

Basketball

“Competing in the Maccabiah Games allows me to experience a full spectrum of emotions, from the joy of walking into the stadium at opening ceremonies to the thrill of victory to the agony of defeat. … Not many people my age get an opportunity to leave their desk job in the U.S. to go to Israel to compete again at a high level.”

Elijah Lichtenberg, 22

Beverly Hills

Soccer     

“My experience has been nothing but incredible. Meeting athletes from each delegation has been a unique experience, and competing in athletic competition in the land of the Jewish people has been very special for me.”

Steven S. Davis, 64

Beverly Hills 

Tennis

“Nothing is better for me than being in Israel, being able to play tennis every day and meeting wonderful Jewish people from both Israel and around the world.”

American participants in this year’s Maccabiah Games include rhythmic gymnast Madeline Aibel, left.

Embodying the ‘Spirit of the Jewish Athlete’ at Maccabiah Games


Samuel Telanoff is only 14 years old, but he already knows what it means to represent his country in international swimming competitions.

On July 6, he and his teammates marched behind the American flag at the opening ceremonies of the 20th Maccabiah Games in Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem.

The Maccabiah Games, an Olympic-style event held every four years during the year after the Summer Olympics, have connected Jewish communities from around the world since 1932, with athletes competing in four divisions: junior, open, masters and paralympics. Since the first gathering, more than 62,000 athletes have competed. This year’s events continue through July 18.

“There is no way to describe just how awe-inspiring it was to walk out with Team USA in front of thousands of cheering people,” said Telanoff, a sophomore at Santa Monica High School. “It was overwhelming, and I was grinning the whole time.”

Telanoff is one of 1,100 American athletes competing at the games, also known as the Jewish Olympics.

Nearly 10,000 athletes from 80 countries are participating in 47 events in such sports as basketball, fencing, archery and wheelchair tennis. 

Among the American athletes is Emily Surloff, a Los Angeles native who plays basketball for Columbia University. On July 9, Surloff helped her team, which competes in the open women’s basketball division, defeat Russia, 101-71. 

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience and opportunity to represent my country,” the 20-year-old said. “I am extremely excited to be connected to my faith and religion and meet other athletes like myself. We came here to win gold and that is our ultimate goal.”

Israel defeated the American team the next day, 68-62. The final game of the preliminary round was scheduled for July 12 against Australia.

Justin Greenberg, 49, the assistant coach and co-chair of the youth men’s soccer team, said he views participating in the games as a way to support Israel.   

“Many of our players had not been to Israel, and to witness their absorption and understanding of this country’s need for survival is compelling,” said Greenberg, who attends Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Greenberg grew up in Jerusalem and lived there during the Yom Kippur War. In 1972, his father was on a plane from Vienna to Tel Aviv when it was hijacked by a Palestinian terrorist group.

“Sharing some of my own story with them has been a treat,” said Greenberg, who moved to the United States in 1977. “Witnessing our young group of 20 men come together as a unit has been an absolute highlight. As a young boy knowing little English, soccer was my main form of communication. I run a soccer business now, and appreciate the connection between sport and spirit of the Jewish athlete.”

Chess player Iris Kokish spent nine months preparing for the games, which she said she finds meaningful in many ways.

“Chess is an important part of my identity, but so is my being Jewish,” the 27-year-old Angeleno said. “So when I learned that Maccabiah USA was seeking chess players, I knew I wanted to be a part.”

Kokish said the games gave her a chance to visit Israel for the first time and helped her “better understand my Jewish identity, my people and my role within my Jewish community.”   

On July 9, Telanoff won the bronze medal in the 200-meter breaststroke.

“I hoped for a medal, but did not expect one,” Telanoff said. “I swam faster than I ever swam before. I was so thrilled to have moved up to third place and win a medal.”

Telanoff said he enjoyed the games because they gave him an opportunity to compete against the best athletes in his category.

“I am a very competitive swimmer, and this represents an opportunity to compete at a high international level,” he said. “There is also something special about being able to learn more about my Jewish identity while pursuing my passion for competitive swimming.” 

For another Angeleno, Noah Rothstein, 34, who plays futsal, a variation of football, competing in the games means honoring his father’s memory. 

“Beyond how much I love these trips and being able to compete as a representative of the United States, the one thing my dad loved more than anything was watching me play,” he said. “I feel very much that going to the Maccabiah Games honors his memory.”

The experience enabled Rothstein to compete in the sport he admires and explore “the amazing country of Israel, and make friends and memories for the rest of my life.”

Many participants agree that, while winning medals is important, building friendship with fellow athletes is invaluable.

“The first goal has been achieved, with our group coming together as one,” said Greenberg, the soccer coach. “My hope is that the relationships created within our group and beyond, while here at the games, last a lifetime.” 

DETROIT, MI - JUNE 3: Brad Goldberg #67 of the Chicago White Sox pitches during the eighth inning of the game against the Detroit Tigers on June 3, 2017 at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images via JTA)

Jewish pitcher Brad Goldberg makes his White Sox debut


Relief pitcher Brad Goldberg, who is Jewish, made his Major League Baseball debut with the Chicago White Sox.

Goldberg, 27, was called up from the minors, the Triple-A Charlotte Knights, over the weekend, after pitcher Michael Ynoa was placed on the 10-day disabled list with a right hip flexor strain.

Goldberg pitched part of the eighth inning against the Detroit Tigers on Saturday, allowing four runs on a walk and three hits.

He was drafted by the White Sox in the 10th round of the 2013 MLB draft, after ending his college baseball career at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Goldberg left this year’s spring training with the White Sox to pitch for Team Israel in the second round of the 2017 World Baseball Classic in March. The Israeli team was eliminated from the tournament after the second round, with a loss to Japan in Tokyo.

Goldberg was born in Cleveland and grew up in the heavily Jewish suburb of Beachwood.

Discovering 50 Things Before I am 50: Sports


Hello from NYC! I am here to celebrate a milestone family birthday and wanted to share some of my progress on my project of 50 New and Adventurous Things Before I turn 50.

I went to my very first hockey game with JNTO. I loved being in the suite and learning about a whole new sport. I had never watched a hockey game on television or in person before. You may asking yourself, “Did she live under a rock?” Nope! I grew up in Los Angeles and never knew that I LOVE hockey! What a great sport. I love the non-stop action and the giant men jumping over the short wall to get back on the ice. They keep playing even when their sticks break. It was incredible. I cannot wait to go again. Thank you to the JNTO for introducing me to the L.A. Kings. I loved sudden death overtime and a shoot out to ELEVEN! AMAZING!

VideoMy first LA Kings hockey game

I went to my very first NCAA Basketball game and saw my own college team, University of Pennsylvania, play at Pauley Pavilion at UCLA. The Quakers were incredible for three quarters. I loved being there, cheering on my team and singing the Red and the Blue. The final score against Texas A&M (63 – 61) did know show that how well they played for most of the game.

Video: My First NCAA Women’s Basketball Game 2017

In the last year, I started a new sport. I am learning to play tennis. My coach recently said, “It is too bad we did not take video of you when you started.” I said, “Why? So people could see how much I sucked?” He said, “No, to see how much you have improved.” Once when I was very new with him, he said, “Lisa, What are you watching? Because it is definitely not the ball.” I had an eye issue for most of my life that was only recently diagnosed and treated.  I always thought I was uncoordinated and kind of wimpy. It turns out I could not hit a baseball or tetherball because I could not see the ball properly. After many months of weekly therapy, my eye doctor recommended I try tennis lessons. I said, “That sounds frustrating.” Dr. Brodney said, “You have learned new skills and now you have to challenge yourself to use them.” I have made great progress and continue to work on my hand-eye coordination.

VideoLisa Niver’s Tennis Lesson: 15 Months of lessons

It has been exciting to try out new activities like tennis and enjoy sports where I can follow the ball or the puck when others are playing. I recently went on the Olympic Bobsled in Utah. I am on the look out for more new and adventurous activities, let me know any suggestions for my 50 new things list!

Video: Lisa Niver, Adventure Correspondent for The Jet Set, in Utah on the Olympic Bobsled and skiing with the National Ability Center. (starts 16:45)

Episode 32 – Forever pure: Between sports and racism in Jerusalem’s soccer team with Maya Zinshtein


The year is 2012 and Beitar Jerusalem, the favored soccer team of Israel’s right wing, is on its way to its first national title in years. Quickly climbing the rankings from week to week, the team can almost taste the sweet flavor of victory and national pride. However, Beitar’s owner, Arkady Gaydamak, has other plans for the team – plans that will shock the players, the fans, the entire Israeli soccer community and the nation as a whole.

Stretched to its limits along racial lines, the story of Beitar Jerusalem is a sort of microcosm of Israeli society. The team prides itself on its racially pure past and present roster and its right-wing Zionist political alignment.

Maya Zinshtein, director of the film “Forever Pure” which follows the team through its most dramatic crisis, joins 2NJB to talk Israeli soccer, politics and filmmaking.

Plus great music by Quarter to Africa!

Direct Download

US TV premiere – May 15 on PBS

Forever Pure – Official Film Website

Screenings in Israel

Israel’s players line up for the national anthem before a World Baseball Classic game against the Netherlands, in Tokyo. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Team Israel aims for Hollywood ending in World Baseball Classic


Editor’s note: This article appears in the March 16, 2017 print issue of The Jewish Journal.

If Hollywood executives are looking for the next “Hoosiers” or “Mighty Ducks,” they might want to pay attention to Team Israel at this year’s World Baseball Classic.

The team ranked 41st in the world by the World Baseball Confederation jumped out to a 4-0 record in the 16-team tournament, which takes place every four years, beating several powerhouses known for producing Major League talent in the process. That includes unlikely wins against the world’s third-, fourth- and fifth-ranked teams in South Korea, Chinese Taipei and Cuba, respectively. 

Even after subsequently dropping a second-round game to the Netherlands in Japan, Israel had a real shot to advance to the championship round to be held March 20-22 in Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium. Standing in the way: Japan, the top-ranked team in the world. The teams were scheduled to play March 15, after the Journal went to press. (Israel could advance with a loss, but it would be difficult.)

A trip to Los Angeles for the final round would mean a homecoming for Ike Davis, an American-Jewish infielder currently playing for Team Israel, who signed a minor-league contract with the Dodgers in January.

Outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post as well as sports titan ESPN have been among those covering Team Israel’s unlikely rise.

“It’s essentially the Mighty Ducks, Hickory High [of “Hoosiers”] and the Jamaican bobsled team all rolled into one,” wrote ESPN senior writer Eddie Matz in a story. “In other words, it’s straight out of Central Casting for the role of ‘underdog team that stands absolutely no chance of winning but somehow goes on to win it all.’ ”

Nate Fish, who has been involved with the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) for 10 years as its director, and the national team coach from 2013 until 2016, is now the team’s first-base coach. He told the Journal — via email from Tokyo, the site of Israel’s second-round games — that the success experienced by the team this year (the first time it has qualified for the tournament) has been overwhelming.

“It’s been a wild ride. This is by far the biggest thing we have accomplished,” he wrote. “We are trying to control our emotions during the games, but after games individually and as a group it can get emotional when [we] realize we just beat the number four ranked team in the world. Then we see the reaction from friends and family and online and it takes it to a whole other level when we see how many people are supporting us.”

While winning helps garner support, other factors in Israel’s Cinderella story have contributed too. The team has shirts that read “Jew Crew” and a mascot they call “Mensch on a Bench” — a life-size Chassidic doll wearing a black hat and a blue Star of David robe — that makes appearances in the dugout and in post-game press conferences.

“He’s a mascot, he’s a friend. He’s a teammate. He’s a borderline deity to our team,” Israel’s first-baseman Cody Decker said at a news conference after the team’s win over South Korea on March 6. “He brings a lot to the table.”

Despite long-shot odds, Fish said, his team has believed all along it can beat anybody. Still, he admitted in his March 14 email, that taking on Japan represented its tallest task yet.

“We do not view ourselves as underdogs,” he wrote. “In our coaches meeting we map out the games and usually say, ‘Okay, we can beat this team.’ But the further we go in the tournament the more that will change. At a certain point we will truly be underdogs. When we play Japan tomorrow is a good example.”

Israel’s team is made up of mostly American-born Jewish minor leaguers and men who have bounced around the majors. Thirty-eight-year-old pitcher Jason Marquis may be the best-known member of Israel’s pitching staff; he’s currently a free agent who has played for nine major league teams throughout his professional career. The team’s starting shortstop, Ty Kelly, is in the New York Mets’ farm system, but is also focused on a career as a screenwriter.

According to Fish, members of the team have their differences beyond coming from varying baseball backgrounds. However, the joint task of representing the Jewish state on a global stage is bringing them together and adding a layer of significance to the competition that transcends the diamond.

“We all have various levels of connection to Judaism and Israel, but when Hatikva plays before each game, the guys really feel connected and proud of what we are doing,” he wrote. “We know we are representing an entire nation and a group of people from around the world and we take that very seriously.” 

Sam Fuld of the Israeli World Baseball Classic team reacting after striking out in a game against the Netherlands at the Tokyo Dome, March 13. Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images.

Team Israel suffers first loss in World Baseball Classic


Israel’s surprising squad in the World Baseball Classic lost its first game in the tournament, dropping a rematch with the Netherlands, 12-2.

Israel is now 1-1 in the second round of the 16-team quadrennial tournament and 4-1 overall. Israel likely must defeat powerhouse Japan on Wednesday to advance to the semifinals.

Didi Gregorius, the New York Yankees’ shortstop, homered and drove in five runs to power the Netherlands. The game was called after eight innings due to the mercy rule stopping a contest with a team trailing by 10 runs after seven innings or 15 runs when at least five innings have been played.

Israel was the lowest-ranked team to qualify for the showcase tournament, coming in at 41st in the world. But last week in the first round, the Israelis squeaked past third-ranked South Korea, 2-1, in extra innings, outscored fourth-ranked Taiwan, 15-7, and defeated ninth-ranked the Netherlands, 4-2, to finish first in Pool A with a 3-0 record.

This is the first year that Israel has qualified for the tournament. In 2012, its inaugural WBC squad narrowly missed advancing past the qualifiers.

Most of the players are American Jews, among them several former major leaguers. WBC rules state that players who are eligible for citizenship of a country may play on its team. Jews and their grandchildren, and the grandchildren’s spouses, have the right to become Israeli citizens.

Swimming for Israel in Rio: More than just fun and games


Olympic swimmer and Los Angeles native Andrea “Andi” Murez swims to win, but winning is not the only thing she cares about. 

During qualifying races for the Summer Games in Israel — where she made aliyah in 2014 and became a citizen — her times were good enough for her to represent the country in four events. But she nearly relinquished one of those to a fellow athlete, according to her father, Jim Murez.

“At one point, it was a question of whether or not one of the other girls can be on the swim team … [Andi] was ready to give up her position on the team in that particular event so that the other girl could be able to go, even though Andrea had a much faster time,” he said.

In the end, the other swimmer qualified for a different event, so there was no need to step aside. That means Murez, 24, will begin her Olympic schedule in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 6 with the 4-by-100-meter freestyle relay, followed by the 200-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle and the 50-meter freestyle. 

The swimmer said she has managed so far not to be overwhelmed by the arduous preparation required for the world stage on which she will be competing. 

“My motivation comes from the fun of racing, my previous success, and from the inspiring people around me,” Murez told the Journal via email while training in Sao Paulo a week before the Olympics’ opening ceremony. “It’s hard swimming so many hours, so you have to keep it fun. Being able to laugh at the rough practices and struggles with teammates is really important for me.”

Swimming runs in Murez’s family. Her father, the manager of the Venice Farmers Market, swam competitively until the end of his first year in college. And her grandfather Joe Murez, who taught her how to swim, competed for Hakoah Vienna sports club in Vienna before World War II. 

As for Murez’s only sibling, older brother Zachary, 27, he swam throughout high school and college — and pushed his sister to the limit, too.

“She was always competing with Zak,” Jim Murez said. “She was always trying to keep up with him, and being 2 1/2 years younger at that age is a huge difference, so she was always one step behind him.”

Swimming did not always come naturally for Murez. Initially, she was afraid of swimming pools and until the age of 4 she would not let anyone play with her in the water. Eventually, she felt more comfortable to the point where swimming instructors suggested she swim for a junior team, her parents told the Journal. 

“When she was 12, it went from ‘Do we have to go swimming today?’ to ‘Come on, Mom, I don’t want to be late,’ ” her mother, Melanie, said.

Murez attended Venice High School, swam during her four years at Stanford University and made it to the U.S. Olympic trials in 2008 and 2012. In 2009 and 2013, she competed at the Maccabiah Games, Israel’s version of the Olympics and one of the largest sporting events in the world.

“I had an amazing time … and felt connected to Israel enough to decide to join the [national] team in the fall of 2014,” she said. “When I was done competing for Stanford, professional swimming seemed like the best next step because I still loved competing.”

Murez, who studied human biology in college and intends to eventually pursue a career in biology, moved to the Israeli coastal city of Netanya and stayed at the Wingate Institute, a sports training facility, with the rest of the Israeli swimmers. That helped her quickly develop relationships with her teammates and coaches, she said.

“It seemed like the best opportunity for me to swim post-college,” she said. “Before moving, I had only briefly met a few people, but once I moved, everyone was very nice and helped me get settled.”

Olympic swimmer Andrea Murez

As an Olympic hopeful, her training regimen has been intense. On Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, she swims for four hours each day and goes to the gym for an hour. Wednesdays consist of Pilates and almost 2 1/2 hours of swimming. On Fridays, she just swims for two hours in the morning. 

When the rest of the swimmers returned to their families for Shabbat, Murez always was invited to one of their houses. (The team supplied her with a private Hebrew tutor to expedite her grasp of the language, which she could not speak previously.) 

In December, Israel hosted the European Short Course Swimming Championships, and Murez represented the country in competition for the first time. She made it to the finals in the 100-meter and 200-meter freestyle races and became the Israeli national record holder in both. This past May, she competed in the European Aquatics Championships in London, placing fifth in the 100-meter freestyle. 

As much as Murez enjoys swimming, the fact that the sport has exposed her to new and different people has been an added perk.

“One of the best parts of swimming is traveling for training camps and competitions and meeting new people,” she said. “During my time with the Israeli national team, I’ve been to so many countries and seen so many cultures. It’s been very eye-opening and has made me realize how much I love traveling and want to continue to explore the world.”

With the Olympics rapidly approaching, Murez said she is only mildly concerned about the Zika virus and has taken precautions by wearing long clothing and using spray repellants. She looks forward to staying at the Olympic Village, meeting new people and catching up with old teammates who are also participating.

Aside from her own races, Murez said, she also is excited about attending other Olympic events and watching her teammates. 

“I hope to watch a lot of other events, but I know space fills up in the athlete stands,” she said. “I want to watch my Israeli teammates compete and also see beach volleyball and gymnastics.”

In advance of the Games, she said she was feeling calm — for now.

“[I’m] mostly excited,” she said. “It’s really fun being in the village. I think the nerves will come right before the race.”

And overall, Murez said, she is particularly proud to embrace an Israeli swim cap as she prepares to race for gold. 

“It’s such an honor to be representing Israel at the Olympics,” she said. “It’s a small country but a very special place and I feel so much support.” 

Highly touted baseball prospect Alex Bregman to make MLB debut for Astros


Alex Bregman, a Jewish player and one of Major League Baseball’s top prospects, has been called up by the Houston Astros.

Bregman, 22, will make his debut on Monday night against the New York Yankees after being promoted the night before from Houston’s Triple A Fresno minor league affiliate. He will likely play third base and the outfield for the Astros.

“It’s a dream come true,” Bregman told MLB.com. “And I’m ready to go to work, keep my mouth shut and hopefully help contribute.”

Bregman is the son of two lawyers and hails from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he attended Congregation Albert, the city’s oldest synagogue.

He was the second overall pick in the 2015 MLB draft and is currently ranked the 19th best prospect in the game by ESPN. He was hitting .333 with six home runs and 15 runs batted in 18 games with the Fresno squad.

Bregman, who was an All-America shortstop at Louisiana State University, said the first thing he did after getting the call from the Astros was to call his mother.

“She was screaming,” he said.

The only Jewish player to be drafted higher than Bregman was Ron Blomberg, who was drafted No. 1 overall by the New York Yankees in 1967 and became baseball’s first designated hitter.

Tablet reported that Bregman’s grandfather Stanley, who was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, worked with baseball’s Washington Senators (the second team with that name, which eventually became today’s Texas Rangers) through his law firm.

New Jewish sports camp pairs prayer with play


On a recent summer morning, about 30 campers sat surrounded by posters of elite Jewish athletes: Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson, figure skater and Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen, and Major League Soccer player Kyle Beckerman. 

As a group, they recited the Birkat ha-Mazon, with the words projected on a screen. Then there was a short “SportsCenter”-inspired presentation on the subject of wellness that included allusions to the Talmud and Maimonides.

After that, the kids grabbed their rackets and gloves and headed out to the soccer field, the baseball diamond, the tennis court or the gym for several hours of intensive training.

This is Jewish summer camp? It is at 6 Points Sports Academy California, where about 100 kids ages 9 to 15 are getting a serious sports fix this summer. Held on the campus of Occidental College in Eagle Rock, the residential camp is offering three two-week sessions — the last is July 19-31 and space is still available — in its inaugural year on the West Coast. The fee is $3,100 per session; some financial assistance is available.

The 6 Points camp — the name refers to the number of points on a Star of David — is run by the Union for Reform Judaism, which operates 15 other residential camps in the United States and Canada, including Camp Newman in Northern California and another 6 Points Sports Academy in Greensboro, N.C. The latter, now in its seventh season, welcomed some 750 campers this summer. 

“Sixty-five percent of the families [from the Greensboro camp] indicated that their child would not have gone to Jewish overnight camp if it wasn’t for the sports,” explained California’s 6 Points camp Executive Director Alan Friedman, formerly director of the Greensboro campus. “It’s really about specialty camps and campers accessing a camp that speaks to them.” 

The vast majority of campers at Occidental are from Southern California, but at the first session, there were also a handful from Seattle, one from Texas, another from Ohio and a Jewish boy from Japan, whose father apparently found it in a Google search. Boys far outnumber girls, but on the fields and courts, they train together. (In the camp’s dormitory, each gender has its own floor.)

Harrison Stone, a soccer player from Beverly Hills, ran in a Tikkun Olam 5k.

On a typical day, the campers spend a couple of hours in the morning honing their skills in their “sport major” under the supervision of a head coach and a minimum of two assistants. So you might find soccer players stretching on the field in picturesque Jack Kemp Stadium, then working on a series of dribbling and passing drills in 90-degree heat. (Don’t worry, they take frequent breaks.) 

Nearby, a small group of tennis players, including one assistant coach from Israel, warms up with groundstrokes. In the gym, the coach runs passing and shooting drills while the lone girl in the basketball program has her foot and ankle taped courtside by the camp’s full-time athletic trainer. (There is also a nurse on staff.)

Up on the baseball diamond, Tyger Pederson— Joc’s brother, who played infield in the minor leagues for the Dodgers — and a cadre of other coaches run fielding drills while pop music plays in the background. 

The camp is intense. Kids spend two additional hours working on their sport after dinner, often participating in scrimmages and games. And in the afternoon, following lunch and an hourlong rest period, campers choose two electives for the day — maybe flag football, volleyball, Zumba or swimming.

“It’s rigorous instruction,” said Friedman, 51. “It’s for kids who have experience in their sport and are really looking to break into the next level.” 

He said he hopes to significantly increase enrollment next year, having had little time to promote the camp since the agreement with Occidental wasn’t signed until late last year.

Coaches are given talking points by the camp’s director of Jewish life as well as visiting rabbis and educators so they are able to reinforce on the field Jewish values such as kehillah (community) and kavanah (intention). 

“So when a coach sees a camper on the sports field — let’s use work ethic (musar avodah) as one of our values — if you see a camper really pushing themselves, they will give the camper a value bracelet based on that,” Friedman said. “If our rabbis or educators see campers being great sports, they can take it back to a Jewish text.”

Among the rabbis and educators spending time at the camp this summer are Stephanie Schwartz of Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles and Cantor Yonah Kliger of Temple Judea in Tarzana.

Friedman is the first to tell you 6 Points isn’t for everyone. When he gets a call from a parent whose kid has only a casual interest in a sport — and he does get those — he is honest with them. 

But for Jewish kids who live and breathe a game, kids such as Eli Nissenbaum, the new 6 Points Sports Academy seems to fit like a well-worn baseball glove. Or in Eli’s case, soccer cleats.

“Before I got here, I was barely flexible,” said Eli, 11, of Beverly Hills. “My [soccer ball] juggling has improved a lot,” he added. His shooting, too. But most of all, his goalkeeping. 

Eli, whose family worships at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, said he appreciated the prayers before mealtime, even though it isn’t something he does ordinarily, and he wore the value bracelets he had earned in recent days proudly. He was especially pleased about the one for perseverance given to him by his soccer coach, and another reading “role model,” which he received after giving an impromptu motivational speech to his team during an all-camp color wars-type competition. 

Harrison Stone, 14, another soccer player from Beverly Hills, had a similarly positive experience. 

“It will definitely increase my odds of getting on my high school team,” he said. He recalled one particular scrimmage when, “something clicked and I saved every goal.” 

But perhaps his most memorable time at the camp took place off the field during siyum, which is when the entire camp gathers before bedtime. They say the Shema and the Hashkiveinu, and on one particular night, Harrison borrowed a guitar and played “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz with a counselor.

Friedman said that night epitomized the camp’s purpose.

“For us, it was what Jewish camp is about: having a camper help lead an event,” he said. “But also what happened that night [was] Harrison gave a gratitude bracelet to the head soccer coach publicly. It was a very emotional moment. It was so meaningful. It was everything we work toward. Harrison got this whole concept of why do we live our Jewish values and he presented his coach this gratitude bracelet for being this great role model and for helping him.” 

With Euro Cup brawl and Olympics doping scandal, Russia deepens its sense of isolation


In authoritarian political systems, sports take on outsized importance. After all, national greatness is part of the bargain: a measure of democratic freedom is traded for strength and victory, whether on the battlefield or in the stadium. That logic holds for Vladimir Putin’s Russia, too—which is why you could say Putin has had very bad month. In France, at the Euro Cup, the violence of Russian hooligans almost got the national team banned, before a humiliating loss to Wales took care of that, sending the Russians home doubly embarrassed. Days later the International Olympic Committee upheld a ban on Russian track-and-field athletes at the forthcoming Rio Olympics in response to evidence of a widespread, state-sponsored doping project. Seeing as the legitimacy of the Putin system comes less from the ballot box than from the deliverance of national pride and success, it was likely not the most upbeat of weeks inside the Kremlin.

Dating back to the Cold War, Soviet rulers embraced sports as a vehicle to prove Communism’s superiority, at whatever the cost. International sporting events are a way of forcing the West’s acceptance, as Putin achieved in hosting the Sochi Winter Olympics two years ago, and of delivering a sense of national pride by winning. The Russians were so desperate to win we now know they resorted to extensive doping. These days, it seems like international sports deepen Russians’ sense of grievance and isolation from the world. Sports have become a microcosm of Russians’ conflicted desire to gain the respect and validation of an international world order whose legitimacy they question, and seek to undermine. 

Successive generations of Kremlin rulers have tried to project the image of the country as a besieged fortress, alone in the world and surrounded by enemies. For Vladimir Putin and those around him, Russia’s latest tribulations in the world of global sport seem to bear out that worldview. First came the clashes in Marseille, in which Russian soccer fans fought with England supporters during the EuroCup. Some Russian fans shot flare guns towards the English section of the stands and burst into the section as the match ended. Fights spilled out in the streets, as well. More than 30 people were hospitalized, including several with critical brain injuries.

Russian soccer fans are late to international hooliganism, but the Western press and French law enforcement still managed to make it sound like there was something novel and sinister about the Russian version of the problem, calling Russia’s violent fans “well-trained” and organized. Russians, in turn, pointed to the bad press as yet another example of Western institutions’ inherently anti-Russian ideology. 

Similar to how Russian officials have responded to, for example, Western sanctions over Ukraine, they hit back on criticism over fan violence, conceding nothing and instead raising the rhetorical temperature. Vladimir Markin, a top law-enforcement official, suggested that Europeans couldn’t handle Russia's soccer fans because they are more accustomed to gay-pride parades than dealing with “real men.” Igor Lebedev, a deputy in parliament and member of Russia's football union, said, “Nothing wrong with fighting. Keep it up boys!”

With time, however, the tone changed. The Russian team was fined 150,000 Euros and given a suspended disqualification from the tournament—one that proved superfluous after the disastrous 0-3 loss to Wales—which appeared to convince Russian officials that the matter was serious enough not to be laughed away. The ugliness of the violence immediately raised questions about Russia’s ability to host the 2018 World Cup, which will be held in 11 cities across the country. Even before the brutal scenes in France, Russia’s World Cup was already tarnished, marred by the specter of corruption and vote-buying. Putin has been a lonely defender of ousted FIFA president Sepp Blatter, the man who presided over the selection of Russia to host in 2018 and who has since been brought down by allegations of corruption. With an event of such national prestige at stake, officials began to display uncharacteristic contrition. The country’s sports minister, Vitaliy Mutko, said that violent fans in masks “brought shame on their country.” For his part, Putin condemned the attacks in Marseille, calling them a “disgrace.” But Putin couldn’t help himself, adding that “I truly don't understand how 200 of our fans could beat up several thousand English.”

Although some anonymous British officials theorized the Russian hooligans were part of the Kremlin’s strategy of “hybrid war”—using a patchwork of covert, deniable means to undermine the Western security order—that seems an unfounded and paranoid exaggeration.  Over the years, nationalists and football hooligans have periodically been convenient allies of the Kremlin, but ultimately the Putin state is wary of uncontrolled violence, which could one day threaten its own power. The young men who came to France from Russia may have been well prepared for a fight—armed with metal bars and fingerless gloves—but in many respects, their inspiration comes more from the football hooligans of England of the 1970s and 80s than anything homegrown.

Just days after the soccer hooligan controversy, on June 17, the International Association of Athletics Federations, the governing body for track and field competitions, banned Russian athletes from the 2016 Rio Olympics for sustained and wide-reaching doping violations. The decision was historic: individual athletes have been barred from international competition for doping, but never entire national teams. Investigations into Russian doping suggested an illicit program with alleged support of the country’s security services. To date, Russia’s response to the allegations, which have gathered in strength and damning detail in recent months, has been to try and cauterize the wound, admitting to a certain degree of malfeasance while denying a deeply rooted culture of doping condoned at the top. After the ban was announced, Putin tried this tactic anew, suggesting doping violations were limited to a few individuals, and that banning the whole track and field team amounted to “collective punishment,” saying it was akin to a prison sentence for “an entire family” if one relative committed a crime.

The International Olympic Committee upheld that ban, while keeping open the possibility that individual Russian athletes who go to extraordinary efforts to prove they are clean could be allowed to compete. Either way, the whole affair casts a far more humiliating note on Russian sporting exploits. It’s possible Russia may turn its back on Rio in a huff. A widely circulated tabloid with Kremlin ties asked the question, “Is it worth Russia going to Rio?” After all, the editorial posited, “They want us to crawl to them on our knees, ask forgiveness, and beg to be let in.”

For Putin and those close to him, efforts to exclude or punish Russia, whether for its annexation of Crimea or support for state-sponsored doping programs, are seen sees as pieces of a larger conspiracy. Today’s Russian elite sees plots against its power and authority everywhere it turns: some of those visions are grounded in actual Western policy, if a distorted understanding of it; others are nothing more than baseless, paranoid fantasy; and, like its poorly performing soccer team or apparently state-run doping program, no small number are problems of Russia’s own making. After the loss to Wales, a fitting joke started to make the rounds, playing Russia’s sporting woes off the geopolitical tensions it has encountered over the years. Echoing a comment that Putin made in 2014, when he said that unidentified soldiers in Crimea weren’t Russian troops but had purchased their military gear in a shop, the joke has Putin saying “those aren’t our soccer players on the field, they just bought their uniforms in a shop.”

Joshua Yaffa is a New America fellow and a contributor to The New Yorker based in Moscow. 

This article originally appeared on Zocalo Public Square.

Jewish coach leads Colombia soccer team to 3rd place in Copa tournament


Colombia’s national soccer team finished third in the prestigious Copa America Centenario tournament led by its Jewish coach, Jose Pekerman.

Colombia defeated the United States, 1-0, on Saturday in the bronze medal match at University of Phoenix Stadium. Sixteen countries competed in the centennial edition of the tournament, which ended Sunday with Chile beating Argentina in the title match.

Pekerman took over as Colombia’s coach in January 2012 and “has overseen a renaissance” with the Colombian national team, according to the Copa America websiteHe is a former midfielder with the Argentine national team.

He was born in Villa Dominguez in the Argentine countryside, one of the main centers of Jewish immigration to Argentina. His grandparents came from Ukraine. Pekerman lived in the Buenos Aires Jewish neighborhood of Villa Crespo.

In the finals, played at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Chile defeated Argentina on penalty kicks, 4-2, after the game ended in a scoreless tie. Argentine star Lionel Messi missed his penalty shot, later asserting that he will no longer play for his national team.

In April, Messi was ripped as “Jewish” and “Zionist” after donating cleats to an Egyptian charity. Messi, a Catholic, visited the Western Wall on a peace tour in August 2013 with the Barcelona club. One year later, Messi supported a soccer match organized by Pope Francis to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but he did not play in the match due an injury.

The Copa tournament celebrated 100 years as the oldest national team cup in the world. Some 1.5 million fans attended the 32 games held in 10 venues across the United States, for an average of more than 46,000 fans per game, making it the most attended Copa America in the tournament’s history.

Along with record-setting attendance, more than 100 million viewers watched the games on the Univision and FOX networks, including the most-watched men’s soccer match ever on the FS1 network for the USA vs. Argentina semifinal on June 21. The tournament has been televised in more than 160 countries around the world, reaching more than 1.5 billion households.

Ban champ Tyson Fury from boxing over anti-Semitic comments, ex-titlist Wladimir Klitschko says


Former world heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko called for his successor to the crown, Tyson Fury, to be banned from boxing over anti-Semitic, homophobic and sexist comments.

On Thursday, Klitschko described the remarks in May by Fury, who took the Ukrainian’s title in November, as “Hitler-like.”

Fury, 27, of Britain, was filmed warning viewers not to be “brainwashed” by Zionist Jews, who he said own all the banks and media. He later apologized for the remarks.

“I was in shock at his statements about women, the gay community, and when he got to the Jewish people he sounded like Hitler. The man is an imbecile. Seriously,” Klitschko told the British media. “You cannot put it all together as a representation of the sport of boxing. He’s an imbecile champion.”

Fury and Klitschko will meet in a rematch for the world championship next month in the British city of Manchester.

Give fired coach David Blatt a championship ring, Israeli lawmaker urges Cavs’ Jewish owner


An Israeli lawmaker reportedly has written to the Jewish owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers asking him to give a 2016 NBA championship ring to David Blatt, the team’s former head coach.

Nachman Shai of the Zionist Union party sent the letter Tuesday to Dan Gilbert, The Jerusalem Post reported, in his position as head of the Knesset caucus on U.S.-Israel relations as well as a caucus on strengthening the Jewish world. Blatt was fired in January.

“I want to wish you mazal tov on your success in bringing a long-awaited championship to the great city of Cleveland and its wonderful people,” Shai wrote. “We in Israel were proud of the achievements of one of our own, David Blatt, when you appointed him as the head coach of your team, and we of course, were sorry to see him go. Nevertheless, Israelis remain strong supporters of the Cavaliers, as do their many Jewish fans in Cleveland’s strong Jewish community.”

At the time of Blatt’s dismissal, the Cavaliers had the best record in the Eastern Conference. Some claimed the team’s superstar, LeBron James, undermined the coach.

Blatt had led the Cavs to the 2015 NBA Finals, where they lost to the Golden State Warriors in six games. On Sunday night, the Cavs defeated the Warriors in a finals rematch, taking Game 7 to become the first team in NBA history to win the title after trailing in the series 3-1.

Shai also wrote to Gilbert: “David played a key role in building the Cavaliers, guiding its players, and helping the team become championship-caliber. That is why I want to encourage you to give David the respect and credit he deserves by giving him a championship ring, as is customary for players who have left mid-season. I am sure he would cherish such a ring that would symbolize his part in your team’s success.”

In a season and a half at the helm, Blatt guided the Cavaliers to an 83-40 record; his .675 winning percentage was the best of any coach in franchise history.

Blatt sent a text message to the team to offer his congratulations, Sports Illustrated reported Monday.

“My Congratulations. An enormous accomplishment for the organization, a special and historic moment for Cleveland,” the text read, according to SI reporter David Pick.

Blatt interviewed with several NBA teams in recent months for head coaching positions without success. Earlier this month he signed on as head coach with a team in Turkey; his two-year deal reportedly does not allow him an out if an NBA team makes an offer.

Meet the Orthodox ‘American Ninja Warrior’ training to be a rabbi


Like his fellow competitors on “American Ninja Warrior,” 25-year-old Akiva Neuman pushed himself to his physical limits — climbing, jumping and running through an intense obstacle course — in the hopes of making it to the national finals in Las Vegas.

But unlike the dozens of athletes who competed with him at the Philadelphia qualifiers, which will air June 27 on NBC, Neuman prepared by saying the Shema. He also wore tzitzit and a kippah throughout the competition.

Dubbed #ninjarabbi for the occasion, Neuman is an Orthodox Jew and rabbinical student at Yeshiva University. He will finish his smicha while he starts a full-time job at Deloitte in the fall —  yes, in addition to “Ninja” training and studying to be a rabbi, Neuman is also pursuing a master’s degree in taxation at St. John’s University.

 

Tune in to watch the sure-to-be compelling profile of Neuman — after all, the show’s emotional, behind-the scenes stories have been parodied by Drake on “Saturday Night Live” — and to witness his supporters cheering “rabbi, rabbi,” while he shows off his strength, speed and agility.

As of press time, we don’t know whether or not Neumanwho lives in New York, makes it to Vegas. In the meantime, read on for six interesting facts about the “ninja rabbi.”

He found out about the show while at the gym.

Neuman was working out at the gym with a friend when he saw “American Ninja Warrior” for the first time. (The show, which was based on a Japanese competition, is now in its eighth season in the U.S. and has something of a cult following. In fact, The Wall Street Journal recently asked “Is ‘American Ninja Warrior’ the Future of Sports?”)

“It had my name written all over it — it’s competitive and athletic, but it’s not cutthroat, and there’s a certain level of camaraderie required,” Neuman tells JTA. (The coaches, contestants and viewers cheer each other on.)

“I thought, what’s the worst that happens? I get rejected? So what?”

Neuman also figured that being an Orthodox Jew could be his hook. He submitted a video that showed him sitting with an open Talmud surrounded by religious books; it also shows him rock climbing and running.

“I love ‘American Ninja Warrior,’” he says in his video. “But I also do this stuff because if I didn’t I’d be onshpilkes!”

But most of his working out is done at home.

Neuman says he’s always been athletic and competitive; he was the captain of the soccer and hockey teams at his yeshiva high school, where he also played basketball. But considering that he’s studying for his master’s and rabbinical ordination — and he has a young child at home — his workouts usually have to be done early in the morning or at night.

“I’m probably only working out four or five hours a week, but to build muscle it’s all about consistency, even if you’re just doing a little at a time,” he says.

In Neuman’s must-watch submission video, he’s seen at home making impressive use of a pull-up bar and doing pushups while his 6-month-old son, Yaakov Shmuel (aka Koby), reclines on an activity mat.

And he really does that stuff, he tells us.

“Just 10 minutes a day of physical activity can change your attitude, your health, and it gives you more energy,” he says.

He’s also a synagogue youth director — with an athletic streak.

“I have my days, nights and weekends covered,” says Neuman, who in addition to studying works as the youth director at the Young Israel of Holliswood in a suburban Queens neighborhood.

He’s known for getting the kids active.

“We usually start with a game, so the kids can connect, and then we go from there,” moving on to prayer or studying texts, Neuman says.

On Yom Ha’atzmaut he organized an Israeli army-style boot camp for the kids.

“He is always combining physical activity with Torah in ways that motivate and inspire the kids,” says Ronit Farber, a member of the synagogue.

“The first time we met Akiva, we had him and his wife for dinner,” says Rachel Klein, another Young Israel congregant who was one of several community members who traveled to Philadelphia to cheer on Neuman with posters that said “Team Akiva,” as well as “American Ninja Warrior” in Hebrew letters. “After dinner, his wife had to drag him home because he was busy playing soccer with our kids all over our house.”

Neuman is also a star performer in the annual Purim shpiel, adds Klein, “dazzling the audience every year with his dance moves, flips, tricks and splits.”

Akiva Neuman, center, with his wife, Chani, and son, Yaakov Shmuel. Photo by Emuni Z.

He takes the fact that he’s representing Jews seriously.

“I know that the general feeling is that Orthodox Jews aren’t fit — especially not rabbis. And I wanted to show that that’s not always the case,” Neuman says.

But he knows that by wearing religious garb while filming — it was his idea, and the show was fine with it — he instantly becomes a national symbol of observant Jews.

“I bear it with great responsibility, and I’m also really nervous about it,” he says.

That’s part of the reason Neuman said the Shema right before he started the course.

“I wanted one more experience to be closer to God, and was thinking, ‘You have to help me through this, because I’m not just doing it myself,’” he says.

He sees physical fitness as a matter of Jewish principle.

“We’re the people of the book, and that’s our focus. My intellectual growth — both in terms of my Torah learning and secular learning — is the focus for me, too. But we also need to take care of ourselves physically,” Neuman says.

“There’s a commandment that says we have to guard our souls, and the Rambam [Maimonides] elaborates that we’re also commanded to take care of our bodies. We’re scoring points by exercising, and fulfilling what God wants of us.”

Athleticism runs in the family — hopefully.

Neuman and his wife, Chani, grew up near each other in Highland Park, New Jersey. She’s sporty, too.

“When we were dating, we used to go to Dave and Buster’s a lot,” he says. “She always beat me in basketball.

“We keep joking that next year it’ll be the rebbetzin’s turn,” he adds.

And the two are banking on the fact that their athleticism will carry on to the next generation.

“We’re waiting for him to crawl first, but as soon as that happens, we’ll have a soccer ball at his feet,” he says of Koby. “We’re actually hoping he runs before he walks.”

Los Angeles Dodgers sign Israeli in Major League first


Dean Kremer became the first Israeli to sign a contract with a Major League Baseball team.

The Los Angeles Dodgers signed Kremer, a 20-year-old Israeli-American Tuesday. The team drafted the right-handed pitcher in the 14th round of this month’s 2016 MLB draft.

Kremer, a Stockton, California native born to Israeli parents, was drafted last year in the 38th round by the San Diego Padres but did not sign with the team. He transferred from San Joaquin Delta College to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where he went 4-5 with a 4.92 ERA in 12 starts.

He was the first Israeli to be drafted by an MLB team.

Kremer played for Israel’s national baseball team for the past three years. He was named the European baseball championship’s most valuable pitcher each of the last two years and led Israel out of the tournament’s C-pool into the stronger B-pool last year.

“I was born here in the United States, but I go back and practically live [in Israel] for two months out of the year in the summer, so it’s definitely home,” Kremer told the Las Vegas Review Journal in February.

Kremer will play this summer for the Dodgers’ Rookie League team, the first of six leagues he will have to progress through to make it onto the major league roster, Haaretz reported.

Finding Pickleball’s sweet spot


Marshall Pura, 73, had never heard of the fancifully named sport of pickleball when he came across a story about it six years ago in an AARP publication. 

Sometimes described as pingpong on steroids, the game is played with short, square-headed paddles and a perforated plastic ball akin to a Wiffle ball on a court that’s one-fourth the size of one used for tennis. It sounded perfect for Pura, a former tennis player with a bum elbow who was looking for a retirement pastime that would be easier on his bones and joints. 

The former marriage and family therapist fell in love with the game, playing it during the summer while visiting family in New Mexico. There was just one problem.

“This is 2010, and believe it or not, we don’t have one pickleball court in all of Los Angeles County,” he said.

And so began Pura’s odyssey to bring pickleball — a relatively new sport — to L.A. The game got its start 50 years ago on Bainbridge Island near Seattle when a couple of creative dads decided to repurpose an old badminton court. They wrangled their kids to play with, grabbed some pingpong paddles and a Wiffle ball, and the game was born. 

Today there are special pickleball paddles that cost between about $20 and $100 and a national tournament run by the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA), which uses nets set at the same height as for tennis.

Where does the game’s goofy-sounding name come from? The most popular theory centers on the dog that belonged to one of the game’s inventors. Supposedly, he liked to chase the Wiffle balls and run off with them. His name? Pickles.

With no place to play locally, Pura ended up signing up for a pickleball tournament in Escondido in San Diego County. 

“I thought I was pretty good in terms of playing pickleball and wanting to test the waters in a tournament,” said Pura, a fit guy who ran a dozen marathons over the course of 10 years starting when he was 53. “In Escondido, I got whipped pretty badly.”

Getting knocked out of the tournament early did have one notable upside: Pura had time to mingle and chat up other players. They offered him advice on bringing pickleball to Los Angeles. 

One of the first things Pura did when he got home was join the USAPA, whose membership has tripled in the last three years, according to Justin Maloof, executive director of the organization. As one of its volunteer ambassadors, Pura’s principal task became spreading his passion for a sport that now claims more than 2.5 million participants in the U.S., according to the Sport & Fitness Industry Association.

Pura’s efforts locally found numerous stumbling blocks, however. He was unable to persuade officials near his home at Griffith Park to allow some tennis courts to be used for pickleball during off hours. He also found little support when he took his appeal to a nearby retirement home. 

“The director says to me, ‘Well, our people are more interested in line dancing and bingo and computers,’ ” said Pura, who grew up in an Orthodox household but considers his own Conservative.

When his contact at a Glendale recreation center didn’t show up for a meeting, he decided to stop by the local YMCA, where one of the directors mentioned she was looking for a game they could play on the roof. 

“She opens the roof door and she shows me not one but two abandoned paddle tennis courts,” Pura said. “They are very similar dimensions [to pickleball]. She says to me, ‘Do you want it?’ My mouth drops open. ‘Sure.’ ” 

Pura put up signs in the gym offering free clinics. The first day, one woman showed up, Maxine Johnson, who was then 83.  

“I happily say, [Maxine] just turned 90 a few weeks ago,” Pura said. “She has not missed two sessions per week for [all] those years.”

Other players, some considerably younger, started turning up, too. “The game is good for nine to 90,” Pura said.

Among those who took to the game was Doug Nichols, 65, who lives in Santa Monica Canyon and sought out Pura at the Y three years ago. “He taught me to play,” Nichols said. “He is very patient. He has a good sense of humor.” 

Now Nichols teaches others how to play at Memorial Park in Santa Monica and at the paddle tennis courts at Venice Beach. 

Kim Webb, 55, is another of Pura’s students. The Studio City resident started playing with him at the Y two years ago. Now that the Y courts are out of commission because of roof repairs, they play at Pacific Park in Glendale, which has a large outdoor space painted for three pickleball courts. (It is used for basketball at other times.) They also sometimes play in the park’s gym as the game can be played indoors as well as outdoors. Currently, Webb plays six times a week, sometimes twice a day. 

“He is so enthusiastic about the game,” she said of Pura. “He would rather teach a new person and get them comfortable with the game so they get to play than play against players who are also there at his level.” 

These days, Pura plays pickleball four times a week, mainly at Pacific Park in Glendale and the Los Angeles Tennis Club. (He has friends who are members of the private club.) Other places to play pickleball in Southern California include Simi Valley’s Rancho Tapo Community Park and Allendale Park in Pasadena. (Visit usapa.org for additional locations and information.) 

Last year, Pura participated in the first pickleball tournament ever held in Los Angeles County. It was part of the California Senior Games in Arcadia, and he took home gold in his singles division. The sport has a particularly enthusiastic following with seniors, and courts are most common in communities with large senior populations.

Still, Pura, who has taught the sport to middle school students and even younger kids, hopes that pickleball eventually will become part of school physical education programs. “It is easy to learn and the equipment is cheap,” he said. 

He also thinks an aging population means the game is poised for considerable growth in the coming years. But what would really help move the sport from niche status to the forefront, he said, is a celebrity taking up the game. 

“What really, really would do it,” he said, “would be if a president would take on the sport of pickleball.”

David Blatt to interview with Sacramento Kings for head coaching job


David Blatt, the Israeli American who was fired this season as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, reportedly will interview with the Sacramento Kings for the same position.

The NBA team reportedly has interviewed several candidates with head coaching experience, ESPN reported Sunday in an article citing unnamed league sources who said Blatt would be interviewed early this week. The Kings recently fired George Karl after finishing 33-49 this season.

Blatt interviewed for the New York Knicks last month, though the team is said to be leaning toward interim coach Kurt Rambis, and also was considered by the Los Angeles Lakers before they hired Luke Walton last week.

Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the NBA, is coming off a strong season with the Kings. Casspi also played for Maccabi Tel Aviv, which Blatt coached to the 2014 Euroleague championship.

At the time of his firing in January, Blatt said he wanted to remain in the NBA, as opposed to returning to coaching in Israel and the European leagues, where he led Maccabi Tel Aviv to five national titles and the Euroleague crown. He also guided the Russian national team to a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

At the time of his dismissal, the Cavaliers had the best record in the Eastern Conference. Some claimed the team’s superstar, LeBron James, undermined the coach. Blatt had led the Cavs to the 2015 NBA Finals, where they lost to the Golden State Warriors in six games.

 

A California dream-come-true as Rams take QB Jared Goff


Quarterback Jared Goff was less than a year old when the National Football League Rams left Los Angeles in 1995.

Now the California native and No. 1 pick in Thursday's NFL Draft will be a face of the franchise when it returns to Los Angeles, after 21 seasons in St. Louis.

Goff, who set Pac-12 conference records for passing yards and touchdowns at the University of California, Berkeley, will join running back Todd Gurley in an attempt to turn around a Rams team that has not had a winning record in any season since 2003.

“Just truly a dream come true,” Goff said. “I'm taking it as an honor and I'm going to have to prove them right, that they made the right decision.”

The Rams traded up to take Goff, dealing numerous later-round picks to the Tennessee Titans earlier this month to acquire the first overall selection.

“If you're a first-round quarterback, there's going to be pressure regardless,” he said. “I'm very excited, very ready to go, ready for the challenge.”

The lanky 21-year-old is known as a cool presence in the pocket.

The first true freshman to start a game at Berkeley, Goff said his biggest adjustment will be the speed of the pro game. The Rams said earlier this year that Case Keenum would be the Rams starter going into training camp.

“I'll come, work hard, see what happens. Hopefully I can play early,” Goff said.

The draft, held at Chicago's Roosevelt University for the second year in a row, took a decidedly California turn after Goff was selected and he took to the stage to the music of the rapper 2Pac's song “California Love.”

Jared's father, Jerry Goff, was a former Major League Baseball player who also made sports memories in Chicago, hitting his first home run for the Montreal Expos in 1990 at Wrigley Field.

Jared Goff had spoken with many teams, including the Cleveland Browns, about being a potential pick.

“When the Rams traded up, I had a good feeling about it,” he said. “It's been an unbelievable experience, and something I'll remember the rest of my life.”

Israeli-American coach David Blatt reportedly on potential list for Lakers post


David Blatt, the Israeli American who was fired this season as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, reportedly is under consideration for the same post with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Blatt was listed this week in an ESPN report, citing unnamed league sources, as one of 10 potential candidates on the NBA team’s “long list” to replace Byron Scott, who the Lakers announced Sunday will not be returning next season. Scott, a former Lakers’ player, coached the squad to its two worst seasons ever.

Blatt has been rumored as in the running for head coach of the New York Knicks, though reports circulating this week say his candidacy for the position is a smokescreen to hide the team’s intention to hire interim coach Kurt Rambis. Blatt played basketball at Princeton University with the Knicks’ general manager, Steve Mills, in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

At the time of his firing in January, Blatt said he wanted to remain in the NBA, as opposed to returning to coaching in Israel and the European leagues, where he led Maccabi Tel Aviv to five national titles and the 2014 Euroleague championship. He also guided the Russian national team to a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

At the time of his dismissal, the Cavaliers had the best record in the Eastern Conference. Some claimed the team’s superstar, LeBron James, undermined the coach. Blatt had led the Cavs to the 2015 NBA Finals, where they lost to the Golden State Warriors in six games.

Israeli-American basketball coach David Blatt in running for Knicks post


David Blatt, the Israeli American who was fired this season as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, reportedly is under consideration to take the New York Knicks post.

Blatt is in the running for the job currently being filled on an interim basis by Kurt Rambis, ESPN reported Monday evening, citing unnamed league sources.

Blatt played at Princeton with the Knicks general manager, Steve Mills, in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Several other coaches with NBA coaching experience are available, some with past ties to the Knicks.

Blatt said at the time of his firing in January that he wanted to remain in the NBA, as opposed to returning to coaching in Israel and the European leagues, where he led Maccabi Tel Aviv to five national titles and the 2014 Euroleague championship. He also guided the Russian national team to a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

At the time of his dismissal, the Cavaliers had the best record in the Eastern Conference. Some claimed the team’s superstar, LeBron James, undermined the coach. Blatt had led the Cavs to the 2015 NBA Finals, where they lost to the Golden State Warriors in six games.

He reportedly also is being considered for head coach of the Brooklyn Nets, the New York Post reported. The team is owned by Russian businessman Mikhail Prokhorov, who knows Blatt from his time as a coach in Moscow.

Baseball, Jews and the American dream


In 1903, the Yiddish-language Forverts published a letter from a Russian immigrant, who’d written to say he didn’t understand the point of the game of baseball, the sport so beloved by all Americans.

“What is the point of a crazy game like baseball?” the perplexed reader asked. “I want my boy to grow up to be a mensh, not a wild American runner.”

“Let your boys play baseball and play it well,” Forverts publisher Abraham Cahan wrote back. “Let us not raise the children that they grow up foreigners in their own birthplace.”

Six years later, the Forverts published a column that attempted to explain this strange game to its readers, many of them recent immigrants from Europe eager to leave behind the Old Country to become American. The piece was illustrated with a baseball diamond with Yiddish notations, including detailed explanations of the “defense party” and the “enemy party” — meaning the team in the field and the team at bat.

“To us immigrants, this all seems crazy, however, it’s worthwhile to understand what kind of craziness it is,” the Forverts said. “If an entire nation is crazy over something, it’s not too much to ask to try and understand what it means.”

More than a century later, Americans are still crazy about baseball. Major League Baseball is the second-largest professional sports league in the world by annual revenue ($9.5 billion in 2015), second only to the National Football League. And, more importantly, baseball, more than any other sport, has served as a means of assimilation for wave after wave of newly arrived immigrants to the United States, a ready bridge to connect with Americans and their culture.

Now, timed to the opening week of Major League Baseball’s 113th season, the Skirball Cultural Center is unveiling “Chasing Dreams: Baseball & Becoming American,” an acclaimed exhibition organized by the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) in Philadelphia. The show will be on view for the duration of the baseball season, through Oct. 30, highlighting the sport’s role as an active player in America’s major dramas of the 20th and 21st centuries — immigration, racism and racial integration, wars, assimilation and acculturation. The exhibition also shows how baseball’s role in these phenomena was just as pivotal for Jews as it has been for other cultural groups, including Italians, Blacks, Mexicans, Japanese and Latinos, a particularly impactful group within Los Angeles baseball, which the Skirball’s installation especially focuses on.

“While we can see in the story of American Jewish life this important kind of connection to baseball as our national pastime, as a symbol of ideals, as a public display of Jews’ integration into American society, it has indeed played a similar role for other minority populations,” said Josh Perelman, co-curator of the exhibition and the chief curator at NMAJH.

The show emphasizes memorabilia and data, but also stories even seasoned baseball fans might not have been aware of — whether highlighting Jewish stars like Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg, or more minor figures, like catcher Moe Berg and Thelma “Tiby” Eisen, the latter a Los Angeles native who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home and was an outfielder in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL).

“Chasing Dreams” is organized around four distinct sections and includes some interactive experiences, including a virtual-reality game that enables the visitor to experience playing in the field, and a cage (replete with a chain-link fence) where visitors can throw off a mound. (Just like Sandy Koufax!)

The exhibition opens with an introduction to the sport’s early history and key founders — ones whose names you might not know, like Lipman Emanuel “Lip” Pike, a 19th-century baseball star, who was not only the game’s first Jewish player, but also is believed to have been the first-ever professional baseball player. There’s also Albert Von Tilzer, son of Polish Jewish immigrants, who wrote in 1908 the iconic song “Take Me Out to the Ball-Game” with singer-songwriter Jack Norworth. On display is a reproduction of the original lyric sheet, along with the sheet music to “Jake, Jake, the Yiddisha Ball Player,” a baseball polka written by composer Irving Berlin and lyricist Blanche Merrill. There’s also space dedicated to Barney Dreyfuss, known among hard-core baseball aficionados as the Jewish German immigrant who bought the Pittsburgh Pirates and co-invented the first World Series championship — today one of the biggest annual athletic spectacles in the world. Visitors also can read an excellent reproduction of the 1903 World Series agreement, drafted and signed by Dreyfuss and Boston Americans owner Henry Killilea.

Sheet music for “Take Me Out to the Ball-Game” by Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer, 1908. Courtesy of Andy Strasberg

Amid the baseball trivia is a pendant awarded to Deacon White of the Detroit Wolverines as part of the sport’s precursor to the World Series, which was named for a Jew — actress Helen Dauvray, who married John Montgomery Ward, shortstop for the New York Giants. From 1887 to about 1893, Dauvray personally awarded the Dauvray Cup and accompanying pendants to the winning team of the championship game between the National League and the American Association. The owner of the New York Giants, as it happens, was Andrew Freedman, son of Jewish German immigrants, and a successful businessman and Tammany Hall insider who bought the Giants in 1895, while in his mid-30s. Known as one of baseball’s most unpopular owners ever, he fought with everyone, including fans. The exhibition includes a Polo Grounds pass bearing Freedman’s signature from 1898 — the same year the short-fused owner pulled the Giants off the field after Baltimore Orioles outfielder Ducky Holmes exclaimed an anti-Semitic slur.

The show’s “Shaping Identity” section profiles players who found a home in baseball, and through it helped shape what being American meant for them. Hank Greenberg, who, with Koufax, is considered one of the greatest players in American professional sports history, is a linchpin of the exhibition. 

Jackie Robinson signs autographs on the first day of spring training with the Brooklyn Dodgers on March 6, 1948. Donated by Corbis.

According to Birdie Tebbetts, Greenberg’s teammate on the Tigers, Greenberg — also known as “The Hebrew Hammer” — “was abused more than anyone except Jackie Robinson.” It didn’t help that Greenberg played in Detroit in the 1930s and ’40s, during the time of notoriously anti-Semitic inventor and manufacturer Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin, both of whom worked to poison many Americans’ attitudes toward Jews. 

Greenberg’s own Detroit Tigers uniform is on display in the show, along with a crown awarded him by the Maryland Professional Baseball Players Association as part of its “Sultan of Swat” award.

Hank Greenberg’s Sultan of Swat crown, bestowed in recognition of his 1938 season by the Maryland Professional Baseball Players Association. Photo courtesy of Steve Greenberg

Perhaps most touching — even more than his decision to not play in a crucial game on Yom Kippur in 1934 — is Greenberg’s original military identification card from 1944. Greenberg was the first player to register for the draft, in October 1940, and served 47 months — longer in World War II than any other player, during which time he did not play even one inning of his beloved baseball. He eventually became a member of the Army Air Forces in the Pacific theater, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. 

Hank Greenberg’s military identification card from 1944. Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, N.Y.

“My country comes first,” Greenberg famously said.

Berg and Eisen are two of the lesser-known Jewish ballplayers highlighted in the exhibition. Berg wasn’t a particularly good baseball player by MLB standards, but the Princeton and Columbia graduate made his mark as perhaps one of the most intelligent people the game has ever seen, as well as being a spy for the predecessor to the CIA — the Office of Strategic Services — during World War II.

For her part, Tiby Eisen was born in Los Angeles in 1922 to Dorothy (Shechter) Eisen and her Austrian immigrant husband, David Eisen. In 1940, Tiby wanted to play football but was denied by a city council’s ruling that women couldn’t play tackle football in Los Angeles. Eventually, she pivoted to a sport where female involvement was more accepted — baseball, joining the all-female league in 1944 and becoming one of its most successful players in the league’s short, 11-year history.

Thelma “Tiby” Eisen, seen here in 1945, played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Courtesy of American Jewish Historical Society

“Chasing Dreams,” though, like baseball itself, is not about only one ethnic group. As much as the show celebrates the role of Jews in baseball, as well as the role of baseball in bringing Jews into the American mainstream, “Chasing Dreams” demonstrates how the sport also served as a bridge between Jews and non-Jews, and likewise, for other minority groups striving to enter the American mainstream through the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. 

Notably, there’s the iconic portrait of Greenberg and Joe DiMaggio, the Italian-American New York Yankee, and there’s the extensive space given to the “Overcoming Adversity” section, showing the journey of Black Americans like Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron, and Mexican Fernando Valenzuela, Cuban Raul Lago and Puerto Rican Roberto Clemente, as well as Japanese-born Ichiro Suzuki. 

One particularly jarring set of letters can be found in an exchange between the Washington baseball club and its minor league team, the Chattanooga Lookouts, in December 1953, six years after Robinson integrated the sport. The Washington team was one of only a handful that had not yet signed a Black player.

Ossie Bluege, director of Washington’s “farm league” operations, wrote to Lookouts owner Joe Engel that Lago had applied to attend a Nationals baseball camp in Florida, cautioning that “whether he is colored or not” would be determinative in whether he could attend.

“If he’s white all go and well, if not, he stays home. …” Bluege typed, adding in his own hand below that, “If any colored blood want to know now.” Engle then wrote to the American Club in Havana, “If Raul Lago has any colored blood at all, I do not want him to come to Winter Garden.” They got the response they needed to give Lago the green light:

“NO COLORED BLOOD AT ALL, POSITIVELY WHITE, AS SNOW BALL.”

From the perspective of today’s world of multiracial and multiethnic teams, that things like this happened in baseball seems bizarre, but even this ugly interaction is part of what makes baseball, as Perelman said, “a mirror for our society, revealing all of our strengths and all of our things that we have to celebrate as a nation, but also the challenges we face and the ground we still have to cover.”

Throughout its history, baseball has, Perelman believes, charted a sort of “chronology of ethnic identity and minority acceptance” in America — the game reveals the nation’s shortcomings, even while it serves as a proxy for America’s remarkable success in overcoming those deficiencies.

Today, the advancement of Jews or Italians or Blacks in American sports is no longer at issue. But baseball can still be seen as serving an acculturating role for Latino immigrants and their descendants.

“The meaning of diversity in baseball is very much today centered around the Caribbean and South America,” Perelman said. “It is part of the ongoing story of the sport that how diversity is defined in baseball changes over time and illustrates the nature of immigration and ethnicity at a particular moment in American history.”

Gabriel “Tito” Avila Jr., founder of San Francisco’s Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum, describes baseball as a “catalyst” for Latino assimilation into American culture, and said the sport has helped acculturate and assimilate Latino Americans since Colombian-born Lou Castro became the first Latino professional baseball player with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1902.

The main issue with Latino involvement in professional baseball wasn’t their ethnicity or national origin — it was their skin color, and, in fact, Latinos and Blacks shared a particular bond, because many of the Black Latinos (Afro-Cubans, for example) played with African-Americans in the Negro Leagues. It wasn’t until Minnie Miñoso, a Black Cuban, debuted in 1949 with the Cleveland Indians that a Black Latino broke the crumbling color barrier that Robinson cracked two years earlier.

Avila, 65, is a son of Puerto Rican immigrants and grew up in New York City playing stickball, handball and baseball in the streets with the other Latino kids in his neighborhood. He went on to play semi-professional baseball and opened the Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum in 1998.

“It’s a different game altogether [today],” Avila said, pointing out that Latinos, for many years now, have moved well beyond the sport’s periphery, with players like Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez and Alex Rodriguez cementing Latinos’ place in the game much as Greenberg and Koufax and Robinson did decades ago. “We’ve got superstars. We’ve got players that have put us deep in the game of baseball in every position.”

Adrian Burgos, a history professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who specializes in Latino sports history, added that what distinguishes Latino baseball players from those in other immigrant groups is that Caribbean Latinos have a rich baseball history dating back about as far as that of Americans.

“Latinos have been playing this very effusive, ebullient, emotional, enthusiastic version of baseball going back to the 19th century,” Burgos said. Baseball for Latino Americans, according to Burgos, gives them a “common language” with their American neighbors. 

“They are already fanatics of the game,” Burgos said. “So what really helped them when they migrated to places like New York or Chicago or other urban areas throughout the U.S., the familiarity with baseball gave them an in to having conversations with their neighbors: ‘Did you see Gomez pitching against Greenberg? Did you see Clemente?’ 

“I think that baseball, more than any other sport, has served as a mirror of American society,” the show’s co-curator Perelman said. “Not to say that other sports don’t have their own stories, but in my opinion, baseball has been the most powerful and the most significant.”

Baseball’s back: Here’s a look at 8 Jewish major leaguers and a manager


Will Joc Pederson rebound from his second-half struggles of last season? Can Kevin Pillar build on his strong 2015 campaign? Will injuries derail one-time MVP Ryan Braun?

These are some of the questions to be answered as these Jewish players and others get set for the Major League Baseball season that opens Sunday.

Pederson (Los Angeles Dodgers), Pillar (Toronto Blue Jays) and Braun (Milwaukee Brewers) – all outfielders – are among the position players who will start for their teams. They will be joined by second baseman Ian Kinsler of the Detroit Tigers, who also have a Jewish manager, Brad Ausmus. And Danny Valencia, a solid hitter, appears to be the starter at third base for the rebuilding Oakland Athletics.

Among pitchers, right-hander Scott Feldman will be part of the Houston Astros’ starting rotation. And the Miami Marlins bullpen will include Craig Breslow, who has mostly made his living for 10 years as a lefty specialist, the last three with Boston. With the Red Sox he earned a World Series championship ring in 2013, then last year achieved a first: He started a game after making 522 appearances in relief.

In Oakland, outfielder Sam Fuld joins Valencia to make the Athletics the only team with multiple Jewish players. Fuld is injured and will start the season on the disabled list.

Boston had been “the” Jewish address of late: The Red Sox had Breslow, catcher Ryan Lavarnway and outfielder Ryan Kalish in 2012, and infielder Kevin Youkilis and outfielder Adam Stern played together in 2005 and 2006. Only Breslow of that Boston bunch remains in the majors.

“It’s the first time in years the Red Sox don’t have a Jewish ballplayer,” said Ephraim Moxson, co-publisher of the Jewish Sports Review newsletter.

Several others who have played in the majors weren’t fortunate enough to make Opening Day rosters. They include infielders Nate Freiman, Ike Davis, Josh Satin and Cody Decker, as well as relief pitcher Josh Zeid.

Up-and-comers include shortstop Alex Bregman, the second overall pick in last June’s collegiate draft by the Astros, and Zach Borenstein, an outfielder in the Arizona Diamondbacks system. Bregman hit .294 for two of the Astros A teams last season, while Borenstein hit .281 in spring training before being demoted to the minors.

Pederson shouldn’t have worries about being sent down, but will look to avoid the second-half doldrums he suffered last season. The center fielder had started for the National League in last summer’s All-Star game as a rookie one night after finishing second in the home-run-hitting contest. But his horrid second half, which included his benching as the starter, saw his batting average fall to .210 and he finished with a team record-tying 170 strikeouts. Still, he slugged 26 homers and played stellar defense.

Pillar could be the real deal. He was outstanding in the field, finishing second among all center fielders in defensive ratings. While lacking Pederson’s power, Pillar showed far better skills as an all-around hitter – so much so that he’s been elevated to leadoff in the batting order of one of the majors’ best offensive clubs. In 2015, his first full season in the majors, Pillar hit .278, socked 31 doubles and stole 25 bases.

“Pillar is probably the best of them all now” among Jewish major leaguers, Moxson said. “He’s got a good glove, a good bat and speed.”

All-Star Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers is coming back from postseason lower-back surgery that affected him even through spring training. (Scott Paulus/Milwaukee Brewers)All-Star Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers is coming back from postseason lower-back surgery that affected him even through spring training. Photo by Scott Paulus/Milwaukee Brewers

Braun, a left fielder starting his 10th season, possesses those tools, too, and remains the brightest light on a rebuilding Brewers team that finished last a season ago in the National League Central. But he’s coming back from postseason lower-back surgery that affected him even through spring training.

Last year Braun made the All-Star team for the sixth time and is steadily building a Hall of Fame-level career — if his suspension in 2013 for using performance-enhancing drugs can be overlooked. Keep in mind that he’s just 31.

The Tigers are also looking to return to contention and will need Kinsler to have a typically solid season, as he did in 2015 batting .296, though driving in 19 fewer runs than the previous campaign. A sharp falloff in pitching doomed the Tigers, who finished with the American League’s second-worst record and last in the Central Division. The poor showing nearly cost Ausmus his job one year after winning the division in his managerial debut.

In Houston, Feldman provides veteran leadership to a young staff headlined by Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel. Feldman missed half of 2015 with knee and shoulder injuries, making just 18 starts as the Astros emerged as a wild-card team. Feldman could find himself pitching with much more at stake in October, as the Astros are favored by some to contend for the World Series this year. Pillar’s Blue Jays will provide stiff competition, as Toronto is the consensus pick to reclaim the A.L. East crown.

 

American Jews stay in the game with Israeli sports


Forget all the jokes you’ve heard. On Feb. 25, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles hosted a panel of accomplished Jewish athletes to share stories about competing internationally and, in the process, debunk the myth that Jews can’t jump. 

Just ask 35-year-old Los Angeles native David Blu (formerly Blumenthal), a former USC basketball standout and Maccabi Tel Aviv star, who headlined the panel. The 6-foot-7 Blu was joined by Marlee Galper, a Santa Monica product who captained the Emerson College women’s lacrosse team before playing for the Israeli national team in the 2015 ELF European championships. Representing the baseball world was Aric Weinberg, a Huntington Beach native who played in the minors before leading the Israeli national baseball team to a third-place showing in the European baseball championship.  

David Katz, the founder and CEO of

Israeli soccer player earns tryout with NFL


An Israeli professional soccer player will be trying out for the National Football League as a kicker.

Gal Mesika will be the first Israeli to participate in a tryout attended by pro football scouts when he attends the free agent specialists combine in Arizona starting March 14, according to Steve Leibowitz, president of American Football in Israel, the sport’s governing body there.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft recommended Mesika, who kicked for an Israeli national American football team last summer, for the tryout. Kraft, who has donated millions to Israeli football and has a Jerusalem stadium named for him, watched Mesika kick when Kraft was in Israel hosting 19 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A demo tape led to an invitation to train with one of the leading kicking coaches in the United States, Gary Zauner.

The training led to Mesika being invited to attend the combine for unsigned kickers, punters and long snappers.

Mesika, a goalie in top Israeli soccer leagues for the past decade, was the place kicker and punter for the Israeli team in American football in its inaugural international game, a 28-20 victory over Spain last summer in Madrid. He was the starting goalkeeper for the under-19 and under-21 Israeli national teams.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft to receive honorary doctorate from Yeshiva University


New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a noted philanthropist, will receive an honorary doctorate from Yeshiva University.

Kraft, a noted philanthropist, also will deliver the keynote address at the New York Jewish school’s 85th commencement ceremony at Madison Square Garden in May, the university announced Thursday.

“Robert Kraft represents not only success in business, but is a true Jewish leader who embodies our values of kindness, goodness, generosity to the broader community and tremendous support for the State of Israel,” Richard Joel, president of the the flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy, said in a statement. “His success on and off the field, his profound humanity, his willingness to stand up for the Jewish people and Jewish causes make him an ideal role model for our students.”

The statement noted Kraft’s philanthropy of over $100 million to numerous institutions and organizations, many of them Jewish. He has donated to Boston’s Jewish federation, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, as well as Brandeis University and Temple Emanuel in the Boston area, along with the World Jewish Congress, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and many more Jewish entities. The Hillel chapter at Columbia University is named for Kraft and his late wife, Myra.

Kraft, 74, is the chairman and CEO of The Kraft Group, a holding company with assets in paper, packaging, real estate and sports teams.

Yeshiva’s statement notes that its past commencement speakers include Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Israeli President Shimon Peres, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Sheldon Adelson in talks to build Las Vegas stadium for Oakland Raiders


Sheldon Adelson met with the owner of the Oakland Raiders team owner to discuss the casino mogul’s plan to build a billion-dollar stadium for the NFL team.

On Friday, the same day of the meeting, Mark Davis also toured the site of Adelson’s proposed 65,000-seat stadium on the University of Nevada-Las Vegas campus. The UNLV football team would share it with the professional franchise, which would become the NFL’s first Las Vegas-based team.

Hours after Davis’ meeting with Adelson, the National Football League sent a memo to all 32 team owners saying the league has no rule against moving to any particular market, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal daily newspaper, which is owned by the Adelson family. The memo comes in the wake of questions as to whether the league would bar a team move to Las Vegas because of the state’s legalized gambling.

“[T]he Sands leadership team let us know that officials from the Oakland Raiders are scheduled to travel to Las Vegas and tour locations around the valley for a potential new home, and they have asked us to meet them at our 42-acre site on Friday morning to answer questions about that site,” UNLV President Len Jessup said in a memo leaked Thursday.

The Raiders’ lease on their current stadium has ended. The team will likely negotiate a short-term lease to remain in Oakland next season; it made an unsuccessful bid to move to Los Angeles.

Adelson’s Sands Corp. could fund the stadium through a mix of private and public funds, such as hotel room taxes earmarked for tourism promotion.

Andy Abboud, senior vice president of government relations and community development for Las Vegas Sands, told the Review-Journal that a group led by Adelson’s Sands organization is moving forward on the stadium project with or without an NFL team.

Adelson, a major Republican donor, purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal for $140 million last month. In 2013, he offered $1 billion to support Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

Firing of Cavs’ Blatt has Israelis losing sleep – but not to watch late-night games


Restless sleep often prompted Tel Aviv resident Mike Bargman to flick on his bedroom television to watch Cleveland Cavaliers’ games.

“You get a thrill when he’s running up the court,” said Bargman, the managing director of a public-relations firm in the city.

Bargman was talking not about Cleveland’s star forward, LeBron James, but about the head coach, David Blatt, who reached the NBA following a nearly 30-year career in Israel as a player and a coach.

The Israeli pride remains, but forget about any more Cavs’ games for Bargman. A friend’s text message at 4 a.m. Saturday woke Bargman with the news that Blatt had been fired after leading the Cavs for just a season and a half, including to a 30-11 record this season — the best in the Eastern Conference.

“It’s absurd,” Bargman said.

The dismissal of Blatt, who led Maccabi Tel Aviv to the 2014 Euroleague championship in an upset, has stunned Israelis. After all, in his Cavs’ tenure, he had racked up an 83-40 record — the seventh-best winning percentage (.675) in NBA history. In his first year, he guided the Cavs to just their second appearance in the NBA Finals.

So what doomed Blatt in Cleveland, where he wore his Israeli identity on his sleeve, pointedly called on Israeli reporters in news conferences during the playoffs and responding to their questions in Hebrew?

Some Israeli fans are pointing at James, saying he undermined the coach – and worse.

Blatt had been hired in the summer of 2014, fresh off his Maccabi crown, to develop a young team steadily recovering from James’ 2010 departure for the Miami Heat. The Cavs had just drafted Kansas guard Andrew Wiggins with the No. 1 overall pick.

But a month later, Cleveland abruptly reversed course.

James, a native of Akron, Ohio, returned to his home area as a free agent after leading the Heat to two NBA titles. And in an effort to make an immediate run at the championship, the Cavs’ general manager, David Griffin, opted to rebuild around veterans: He brought in All-Star forward Kevin Love from Minnesota in exchange for Wiggins and others.

That summer, James rebuffed Blatt’s offers to meet. During the season, James changed plays called by Blatt — a habit brought to a dramatic climax in the closing seconds of a nationally televised conference semifinal game against the Chicago Bulls in which James hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer. James told journalists he scrapped the play in the huddle.

“If I had salespeople not following the plan, that wouldn’t be acceptable behavior, for sure,” said Mark Mayerfeld, who manages a 12-person sales and account staff for Trader Tools, a software company in Raanana. “You’ve got to follow the plan. If you don’t, you’ll be fired.”

Another Israeli, marketing executive Barry Spielman, added: “I don’t think this would be accepted in any workplace: not in the army, not in business, not in government. It’s insubordination of the highest order.

“You can’t have a prima donna on a sports team. Blatt’s mistake is that he didn’t put LeBron James in his place last season. He didn’t call him out. Eventually he lost the confidence of the team. Once he lost the team, he probably lost the management.”

One Israeli voice of dissent was Yediot Acharonot columnist Sharon Davidovitch, who cited the hard reality of the National Basketball Association being a star-driven league.

“It was the right decision, but it was cold, it was painful and – there’s no other way to say it – insulting,” he wrote, adding that the most important thing is “for the star to be happy enough to bring the team a championship.

“Can the inexperienced [Blatt replacement] Tyronn Lue help him get there? It’s uncertain. But for the moment, it makes LeBron happy. And that’s what’s important.”

In an interview Monday on ESPN’s “Mike & Mike” program, Griffin said Blatt’s firing was not “a panic move.”

“I recognized where our spirit was,” Griffin explained. “What I don’t think we have is a swag and a belief in one another. You watch Cam Newton: He is the identity of the Carolina Panthers, and he has absolutely no fear. We play the best teams in this league, and we don’t play like that right now.”

Indeed, said Tal Brody, formerly a star player for Maccabi Tel Aviv, the Cavs losing by 34 points to last year’s champions, the Golden State Warriors, in a home game last week “was a backbreaker” for Blatt in Cleveland. Brody said he sent Blatt a supportive email after the firing but hasn’t heard back.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly conveyed his best wishes, too.

Blatt is hardly the first coach in U.S. professional sports to be fired despite winning consistently. The Warriors dismissed Mark Jackson following their 51-31 finish in 2013-14 – 28 more wins than he registered two seasons earlier. Casey Stengel famously told reporters he had been informed that “my services were no longer desired” after leading the New York Yankees to within one run of a World Series title in 1960 that would have been his eighth championship in 12 years.

Blatt, though, was a landsman representing tiny Israel in one of the world’s best-known sports leagues. His wife and children still live in Israel.

And he had earned his shot at the big time: Along with the Euroleague title prized by Israelis, he delivered Russia a bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics and had won league championships in Israel, Italy and Russia. Shortly after the firing, rumors began linking Blatt to the Brooklyn Nets’ head-coaching vacancy.

“He’ll have to earn his stripes again [with] another NBA team, a team that’s middle of the pack or lower end — and I think he’ll be successful at it,” Mayerfeld said. “He’s been a winner his whole life. I see him having success in the NBA still.”

David Blatt made Israelis the biggest Cavs fans outside of Cleveland. Now what?


It’s hard to be a Cleveland sports fan.

We’ve had our share of disappointments. We haven’t had a championship for any major team since 1964. But they are our teams and we love them.

When I made aliyah 15 years ago, Cleveland wasn’t on the radar for most Israelis. But when LeBron James joined — then infamously left — the Cleveland Cavaliers, my hometown became known to my fellow citizens.

When the Cavs tapped Israeli-American David Blatt as head coach in 2014, and then LeBron returned shortly thereafter, recognition of our NBA team skyrocketed. Cleveland was suddenly every Israeli’s favorite city and we natives became minor celebrities.

Now, with Blatt’s firing last Friday, Cleveland has become notorious.

LeBron may be the NBA’s biggest star, but Israelis love Blatt, who is best known for leading Israel’s beloved Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team to the 2014 Euroleague championship.

Blatt was the first Israeli to become an NBA head coach. Blatt, after graduating from Princeton, made aliyah to play professional basketball in Israel, and elsewhere, until a career-ending injury.

For the first half of this season, it was unusually easy to find Cavs games live on Israeli sports channels (with the Israeli color commentators speaking in Hebrew right over the Fox or ESPN feed). Israelis, my family included, wanted to see those camera shots of Blatt on the sidelines, leading the team with the best record in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

Now, however, I expect that to change. The Cavs, especially LeBron James — who was rumored to never like Blatt  — are public enemy No. 1 here. Israelis, like many Cavs fans around the world, are wondering how the team’s front office could fire the coach of a team that made it to the NBA Finals last year and has among the winningest records in the league.

The Cavs had won 11 of their last 13 games when Blatt was unceremoniously sent on his way, though the Golden State Warrior’s 132-98 blowout of the Cavs, at home, on Jan. 18 probably helped make up their mind.

While Israelis are content to lay much of the blame on James, for me, it’s complicated. As a Cleveland native, I want to see — actually, I need to see — my Cavs go all the way (just once in my lifetime, please!).

As an Israeli, I hope that Blatt finds a new NBA team to coach that will appreciate him and treat him with the respect he deserves.

But do I want Blatt to find wild success elsewhere? After all, Bill Belichick, after five seasons as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, led the New England Patriots to six Super Bowl appearances and four victories. That still stings.

A similar victory for Blatt would sting even worse — but I’d be proud, too.

For now, I think I’ll keep my collection of Cleveland sports team T-shirts and sweatshirts in the closet. At least until a new team offers Blatt another dream job. Or the Cavs win an NBA championship. Whichever comes first.

For ex-baseball players, Israel a place to learn and teach


Out of baseball after four years playing in the minor leagues, Brent Powers, a Christian from Texas, took a tour of Israel last year with his wife. He was smitten with the country and considered how to return.

The Masa Israel Journey will provide his path.

Powers and about a dozen American college players will be part of the group’s five-month, baseball-themed program launching in January. Israel’s baseball czar figures their expertise will do wonders for a sport that is growing in popularity, but remains a niche sport in a country where soccer and basketball reign.

Masa provides an internship-like framework that encourages young Jewish professionals from the Diaspora to experience Israel from the inside. Masa now encompasses some 250 professions.

Along with Hebrew-language classes and trips, the baseball players, like Masa participants generally, will work in their professions and interact in depth with their Israeli counterparts: coaching at Israel’s new baseball academy, playing in an adult league and teaching the sport to elementary-school children.

Israel Association of Baseball director Nate Fish believes his organization’s partnership with Masa “can really revolutionize” the level of play in Israel. Now, he says, coaching in Israeli youth and adult leagues is handled by parents and other untrained volunteers.

“If you have 10-20 college players coming in, and put two to three on each team, the level of play goes up,” Fish said of the adult league. “And when we send them to the communities to coach once a week, it gives the little kids some real baseball role models. You’ll get better practices. There’s no substitute for that.”

The visitors will gain, too, because “it gives them an opportunity to start their coaching careers,” he said.

The program is spreading by word of mouth, and Fish says he plans to more actively recruit future cohorts by appealing to their sense of sports adventure and career aspirations.

That’s what reeled in Powers, who had pitched in the minors from 2011 to 2014 for the Oakland Athletics and Toronto Blue Jays. Three teammates from the Athletics’ team in Burlington, Vermont, in 2012 played for Israel in that autumn’s World Baseball Classic qualifiers and connected him to Fish, a coach on the club.

When Fish tweeted early this year about the Masa launch, Powers said, “Whoa – that’s exactly what I want to do.”

In Israel, “I really look forward to working with the kids,” said Powers, who coaches youth in a Houston program.

Joshua Scharff, an outfielder and pitcher for Yale University before graduating in 2013, has been in Israel working with the program since September and awaits the arrival of his American colleagues. He had enjoyed the pro-Israel advocacy work he did in Boston, but left for the baseball calling.

“My heart is here, so when I found something that combined the two things I love the most – baseball and Israel – I jumped at the opportunity,” Scharrf said from his apartment in Tel Aviv.

To add heft to the program, Masa recruited former major league outfielders Art Shamsky and Shawn Green, both of them Jewish, as spokesmen and might bring them to Israel to lead clinics.

Masa officials see their initiatives in lacrosse – which launched a year ago – and baseball as providing Israel with a stream of talented athletes from overseas who will inject their experience locally. Accomplished players in such sports as soccer, American football, basketball, swimming and the triathlon could soon find opportunities to ply their trade in Israel. Scholarships and grants scaled to each athlete’s experience and ability help reduce the $9,400 per person fee.

The organization also aspires to take the athletic program beyond the field of play to include those working in coaching and sports management – even sports writing.

“We always aim to have a large number of opportunities for professionals to come to Israel and enhance their careers,” said Freda Surki, Masa’s director of development and organizer relations. “We realized that sports portfolios didn’t really exist, and thought that this would be a great opportunity.”

The new baseball track comes as the Israel Association of Baseball is forming a team to compete next September in the WBC’s qualifying round in Brooklyn, New York.

“The timing couldn’t be better,” Green said. “The better the [Israeli] team does in the qualifiers, the more that momentum kicks in … to help grow baseball in a country with a contingent of fans. It’s the right way to do it.”

Much of the seed money is coming from Andy Bloch, a Northern California resident who says he plans to persuade Jewish owners of Major League Baseball clubs to become involved and contribute financially, too.

While the program might “take awhile” to become entrenched and to draw ever-more accomplished players to Israel to play and to coach, Bloch says, the effort will bear fruit as a greater mass of talented homegrown ballplayers develops.

“It’s a great opportunity for Israel and for the players,” he said.

That’s just how Powers sees it.

Like in many Jewish families, Powers had a parental influence pushing him to visit Israel – his father, also a Christian, had been to the country several times for work.

By program’s end, Powers said, “I’ll have a phone book full of friends.”

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