Israel Sports

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Whatever trouble Israel experiences on the global stage, it’s past time for vindictive attempts to discriminate against its athletes and exclude it from world sports to end for good. 

As a young boy growing up in Ashdod, Israel, Alon Day got his first go-kart at age 9. By 15, he was racing them. Less than a decade later, Day has become the first Israeli professional race car driver on the NASCAR circuit. He made history by competing in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on Aug. 13.

More than 11,000 world athletes have converged on Brazil’s second largest city, Rio de Janeiro, for the 2016 Summer Olympics, which began on Aug. 5. Despite the problems that led up to the games, such as Rio’s issues with pollution and crime, and the threat of the Zika virus, many have also hailed the games as bringing forth an Olympic spirit of peace and friendly competition during a time of global stress and conflict. Yet, before and shortly after the games began, athlete delegations from Lebanon and Saudi Arabia had already violated this spirit by bringing their respective countries’ ongoing conflict with Israel to the Rio games.

At 5 feet 7 inches tall, and weighing around 150 pounds, 26-year-old optimistic and powerful blonde Ilana Kratysh will become the first-ever Israeli woman to compete in the wrestling events at the Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, which began Aug. 5. On Aug. 17 she will fight for the gold in the under 69-kilogram category. Ahead of the games, JNS reporter Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman spoke with Kratysh as she seeks to make history for her country and bring home the gold. 

Other than being part of the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, Sandy Koufax and Dean Kremer have something else in common: a respect for Jewish tradition. Koufax decided not to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because the game fell on Yom Kippur. “I would do the same,” Kremer told JNS.org. Last month, Kremer became the first Israeli citizen to sign with an MLB team. The right-handed pitcher was selected by Los Angeles in the 2016 draft and subsequently joined the Dodgers’ Ogden Raptors minor league affiliate in Utah. “I was raised in the Jewish tradition and we speak Hebrew at home,” said Kremer, who grew up in Tel Aviv. “Everything will stay the same [while I’m playing professional baseball], but it is difficult, especially when we get meals catered here. But I try not to eat pork….The values and morals of a Jewish person were instilled in me, and that’s the way I live my life.”

The seed for the city of Cleveland’s first professional championship in a major sport in 52 years may have been planted at the Shaw Jewish Community Center on White Pond Drive in Akron, Ohio, nearly 20 years ago. That’s when a tall, lanky kid from Akron named LeBron James walked onto the hardwood court and changed the game of basketball forever. Coach Keith Dambrot, now the head basketball coach at the University of Akron, conducted those sessions that attracted between 50 and 100 players. “Little Dru [Joyce] brought him because Little Dru used to work out with me,” Dambrot said about the Sunday night sessions. “That’s where I first met [James]. Just a guy that wanted to be taught, wanted to be coached, wanted to please you—sponge-like.” Dambrot, who coached James in high school, texted the superstar after the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the NBA Finals on June 19. “I always try to keep it brief with him. You could see the jubilation,” said Dambrot.

Shot three times by the Nazis in Poland, Bernard Fleischer was down for the count. But just as he was about to be finished off, the German soldier’s gun froze. Assuming he’d die anyway, the soldier left Bernard in a barn. Bernard survived and later joined the Jewish resistance movement. Decades later, his son and grandson are perpetuating his Holocaust legacy in the boxing ring. On Saturday, Sept. 26, junior welterweight Dustin “The White Tiger” Fleischer (4-0, 4 KO) defeated Ira Frank (1-1, 1 KO) with a first-round knockout in Beach Haven, N.J.—with his father, Phil Fleischer, as his lead cornerman for the first time. Dustin says it is his grandfather’s message that gives him strength. Specifically, he wants to be the answer to the trivia question, “Who is the first world champion boxer to be the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor?”

What do basketball player and coach Larry Brown, swimmers Jason Lezak and Mark Spitz, and gymnast Mitch Gaylord have in common? They’re among a group of 25 individuals who have won medals in both the Olympic Games and the Maccabiah Games, as revealed in a chart at the back of sports-minded Jewish journalist Ron Kaplan’s new book, “The Jewish Olympics: The History of the Maccabiah Games.” While Spitz competed in the 1965 Maccabiah Games before winning nine Olympic golds, Lezak first took part in the Maccabiah Games in 2009, after he had already been to the Olympics three times. The same path was taken by Lenny Krayzelburg, who tasted Olympic gold a year before he swam in the 2001 Maccabiah Games. “It’s like walking on the Moon. What do you do for an encore?” Kaplan said, referring to winning an Olympic medal. For Krayzelburg and others, the Maccabiah Games provided the answer. Kaplan, the sports and features editor of the New Jersey Jewish News and author of the award-winning blog “Kaplan’s Korner on Jews and Sports,” provides what he calls the first “definitive history” of the Israel-based sports competition that since 1932 has grown from 390 athletes across 14 countries to 9,000 athletes from 78 countries during its most recent iteration.

While his teammates are at bat, Ido Peled flashes a toothy teenage grin, his cap tilted slightly off-kilter, and affirms that his favorite club is the New York Yankees. The 13-year-old reveals that he first became interested in the game by watching baseball movies. But Peled isn’t an American teen who was immersed in the national pastime from infancy. He’s Israeli through and through, as are his parents. Ido was one of more than 100 kids ages 8-14 who took part in the Israel Association of Baseball’s (IAB) recently held annual summer training camp. Since its first pitch was thrown seven years ago, the camp has helped foster consistent growth for a sport that was previously foreign to Israel. The IAB also recently launched a new initiative called “Baseball For All,” which brought 30 Jewish and Arab teens from Modi’in and Ramle together to learn the sport. 

Baseball fans might most vividly remember Hank Greenberg for his chase of Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1938 and his other impressive exploits on the field. The smaller universe of Jewish baseball fans may remember him for sitting out a crucial game on Yom Kippur decades before Sandy Koufax would do the same. But John Klima wants readers of any background to know the unsung story of Greenberg’s World War II service. “What you found out about Hank Greenberg was that he really represented everything to everyone, and he represented everything to the Jewish people before the war, during the war, and after the war. And then the rest of the country, even though they knew about him as an American League MVP and a big slugger, kind of embraced him, I think, the same way that the Jewish population had in the 1930s,” says Klima, author of the new book “The Game Must Go On: Hank Greenberg, Pete Gray, and the Great Days of Baseball on the Home Front in WWII.”

The people who sat in seats one and two of row 12, section 120 at Quicken Loans Arena during Game 3 of the NBA Finals last week weren’t your ordinary Cleveland Cavaliers fans. Tomer Hulli and his father, Eli, made the trip from Israel to attend games 3 and 4 in Cleveland. Hulli, who lives in Tzur Moshe, just five minutes from Cavaliers head coach David Blatt’s home in Israel, has been playing basketball since he was 5. He said he didn’t plan this trip, but once the Cavaliers advanced to the finals, he decided he was all in. “The tickets are expensive, but you only live once,” said Hulli.

Relatives of the Israeli Olympians murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Games have long pushed the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to recognize the 11 victims with a moment of silence or other official tribute. As recently as 2012, the 40th anniversary of the "Munich Massacre," the IOC persisted in its refusal to grant that request. But the playing field is shifting. In time for the 2016 Rio Olympics, a first-ever IOC-supported official memorial telling the story of the massacre will be erected in Munich. The memorial, whose groundbreaking ceremony will take place this summer, is being constructed at the initiative of the Bavarian government to bring a sense of closure to this 43-year drama.

Three years ago, kayaking coach Roei Lev found Ilya Podpolnyy crying on the steps of the Jordan Valley Sprint Kayak Club overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Podpolnyy, then 17 years old, had just been disqualified from the Israeli kayaking championship. He couldn’t survive the heats. He didn’t make the start line. He was devastated—and he had no one with whom to share his hopes, his dreams, and his disappointment. His divorced parents still live in Russia, and he has been estranged from his father since making aliyah at age 15. But on April 18, 2015, Podpolnyy stood on the podium of the same Israeli kayaking championship to receive five gold medals, and now he has his sights set on the Olympics.

When Jewish coach David Blatt was hired by the National Basketball Association’s Cleveland Cavaliers last June, he was not often recognized when he walked the streets of downtown Cleveland. What a difference a year makes. Now, Blatt can go few places without being recognized. For good reason. After early-season struggles, the former Israeli basketball coach has the Cavaliers in the mix to win the city of Cleveland’s first championship in a major sport since 1964. “Everything here is bigger,” Blatt said. “In Israel... I can tell you that scrutiny is great and seemingly everyone in the country knows and follows Maccabi [Tel Aviv]. You don’t see that in most other countries in Europe. But here, just the mere volume of media, whether it be TV or radio or Internet or whatever, the volume is just so great. It’s everywhere, it’s almost overwhelming.”

The media circus surrounding “Deflategate” is a sad disservice to the late Myra Kraft—who along with her husband, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, contributed greatly to both the growth of American football in Israel and the survival of the Jewish people. The Kraft family’s philanthropy and activism should inspire us to honor Myra’s memory as the world is watching her team play on Super Bowl Sunday, writes Jason Stverak, president of the Salomon Center for Truth & Accountability.

Baseball Hall-of-Famers Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax are household names both in their sport and in the pantheon of Jewish professional athletes. But why has basketball Hall-of-Famer Dolph Schayes not achieved similar recognition? Noted sports historian Dolph Grundman, author of the new book “Dolph Schayes and the Rise of Professional Basketball,” blames demographics and technology. “I think Dolph is not better known because he played in a small city before televised sport became so pervasive,” says the author sharing a name with his biographical subject. 

The week of Yom Kippur, David Kirschtel learned of Ben Berger's death. Ben lived a long, good life punctuated by a singular, terrible tragedy—he outlived his son, David, who was one of 11 Israeli Olympians murdered by Palestinian terrorists during the horrific Munich Massacre of the 1972 Olympics. Kirschtel, the CEO of a JCC that launched a widely signed petition urging a moment of silence for the slain Israelis at the 2012 London Olympics, writes that his JCC will make another effort on behalf of the Munich victims’ families ahead of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie are the American dream. So why did two young men who have built their lives in Israel promote a GoFundMe crowdfunding webpage with the urgent message that they needed $3,500 to travel to the U.S. to watch the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles square off for Major League Baseball’s (MLB) American League championship?

Idan Ravin’s friends chipped in to buy him a humble but life-changing bar mitzvah gift—a basketball hoop his father attached to the roof of his garage. Little did his friends know that years later, he would be the personal trainer of NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, and Stephen Curry. Ravin’s new book, “The Hoops Whisperer: On the Court and Inside the Head of Basketball’s Best Players,” details his rise from a Jewish upbringing to becoming a well-respected figure in the professional basketball world. “The [NBA] players and I sort of live parallel lives because we both found something that we love very much, and only faith can push you through such a non-traditional journey,” Ravin tells JNS.org.

Influenced by his Jewish upbringing and a summer on a kibbutz, basketball coach David Blatt is embarking on his highest-profile challenge yet: coaching LeBron James, the NBA superstar who has made waves for returning to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. Coming off guiding Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv franchise to its 6th Euroleague basketball title, Blatt landed the Cavaliers job in June, before James’s recent announcement that he would leave the Miami Heat for Cleveland. “The lessons of Judaism are life lessons to begin with,” Blatt tells JNS.org. “Without question, the values, the morals, and the ethics that I’ve taken from my Jewish upbringing have greatly influenced me in every walk of my life.”