Opening the gates for Israel’s slain Olympians in Rio de Janeiro

A memorial in Tel Aviv for the 11 Israeli team members killed by Palestinian Black September terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Credit: Avishai Teicher.
A memorial in Tel Aviv for the 11 Israeli team members killed by Palestinian Black September terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Credit: Avishai Teicher.

The week of Yom Kippur, I learned that Ben Berger had died at age 97. 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. 

The murder of the group that became known as the “Munich 11” is a stain on the Olympics that has marred them to this day. David was an outstanding weightlifter, a Zionist, and the only American on the Israeli team. Ben, along with other athletes’ surviving family members, lobbied for a minute of silence at the opening ceremony of the  2012 London Olympics to mark the 40th anniversary of the tragedy. But the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has continued to refuse to honor the fallen Israeli Olympians.

I met Ben three years ago when he came to speak at the unveiling of a Munich 11 memorial sculpture in front of JCC Rockland in West Nyack, N.Y. By then, the JCC had formed a strong bond with Ankie Spitzer, who lost her husband Andrei during the kidnapping and the botched rescue effort. Ankie and Ilana Romano have led the charge from Israel for a minute of silence at the Olympics’ opening ceremony. Their efforts started with the Montreal games in 1976 and continued through the London games. They are tireless and determined women whose husbands were taken from them all too soon. They don’t intend to let the IOC, or the world, forget.

When Ben came to speak, our JCC was gearing up to host the JCC Maccabi Games in 2012, which we were dedicating to the memory of the murdered Israelis. While each year at the JCC Maccabi Games—an Olympic-style teen athletic competition—JCCs honor the Munich 11 as part of the opening ceremony. Our local community took on an added task. We were going to reach for the impossible. We were going to get that minute of silence in London through an online petition. Almost 112,000 signatures later, we hoped that our efforts would pay off.

I stood, along with Ankie, Ilana, and members of our JCC leadership before IOC President Jacques Rogge prior to the London Olympics and handed over that hefty document. The IOC’s answer was “no.” But certainly we did not fail. The entire world heard us.

Now, it seems that the IOC has heard us, too. Ankie and Ilana have just participated in the various commemorations in Israel of the 1972 murders, and Ankie reports that attendance was greater than it has been in years. She notes that the Olympic Committee of Israel, under new leadership, has committed to making the minute of silence happen in at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The IOC, under Thomas Bach’s leadership, recently committed funds to a memorial in Munich honoring the slain Israelis. There appears to be heightened concern and a will to acknowledge that something needs to be done regarding what happened in 1972. For the first time since she sat stoically at the Montreal Olympics, waiting for the IOC to do something, Ankie feels hopeful that it might. 

Our petition, and what we did, changed things. It was a crazy idea. But it shows just how far determination and a just cause can take you. Yet Ben Berger’s death reminds us of life’s frailties, and how the things we hold dear are often forgotten when we pass. David Berger’s murder, and the deaths of his teammates, should not be relegated to the dustbin of sports history with the passing of their families. Ben’s cause has outlasted him, but we can still make it right. The Olympics in Rio de Janeiro are less than two years away. 

As Yom Kippur came to an end, my thoughts were drawn back to Ben Berger and his quest for justice. Our JCC has committed to continue that work and will make another effort in support of the Munich 11 families, in hopes that the IOC will grant that minute of silence. Ben didn’t live to see his son finally memorialized, as he deserved.

The final service of Yom Kippur, Ne’ilah, is referred to as the closing of the gates. Let’s not allow the gates to close on any other family member. They warrant that honor, respect, and closure.

Let’s keep the gates open wide for Rio.

David Kirschtel is CEO of JCC Rockland in West Nyack, N.Y. 

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