As captain of the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team in the Rio and London Olympics, two-time Olympian Aly Raisman led her team to gold. She once performed a floor routine to “Hava Nagila,” and at the 2012 London games, fought for a moment of silence for the Israelis killed in the Munich Olympics. Last week, Raisman discussed her career at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue with NBC sportscaster Andrea Joyce, and then answered questions from some of the 1,400 people at the sold-out event.
Jeff Schoenfeld, president of UJA-Federation of New York, which hosted the evening, presented Aly with a menorah, saying, “You have lit up our hearts.”
In an interview the next day, Mark D. Medin, UJA’s executive vice president, called the event a “uniquely collaborative opportunity” for them to work with their member organizations to celebrate Raisman’s “message of athletic achievement … to working hard, setting a goal, and achieving your goal. For all the young people who were there to see that Jewish values, Jewish pride and Jewish education was so important to an athletic hero like Aly, we feel it was a really transformative message.”
Before the event, The Jewish Week had the opportunity to sit down with Raisman one-on-one to talk about how being Jewish has affected her training, what it was like to be the Jewish poster child of the 2012 Olympics and how she feels about being a role model for hundreds of thousands of young Jewish girls.
Q: There isn’t a lot published about you and your Judaism. Is this the first time you’ve spoken to the press about it?
A: In the 2012 Olympics, my floor music was to “Hava Nagila,” which is obviously the most famous Jewish song, and I was able to win the gold medal on that, so I think that it definitely got a lot of press. I also went to Israel for the Maccabiah games and I went to a lot of Jewish community centers around the country, so I feel like I’ve actually done a lot of stuff, and I’m really grateful for the opportunity for that. Ever since the 2012 Olympics, I’ve been really able to connect Jewish fans all over the world. And I take a lot of pride in being able to not only represent the U.S.A, but also the Jewish community everywhere.
As an Olympic gymnast, you don’t have a lot of time for dating, school, or the typical teenage social life. How does your involvement in Judaism play into that picture?
I mean, of course, when I was training I was always really busy and traveling all the time, but of course I have such fond memories [of Jewish experiences] — you know the Jewish holidays and being able to spend time with my family. Especially before my bubbe passed away in 2011, we would always do the holidays at her house, so I always made time [for Judaism] with training. Also my coaches also coached in Israel so they were always really respectful of it, and understanding if I had to skip workout or something. They were also really behind my Jewish floor music as well, so it was like both of our things together.
Why did you choose “Hava Nagila” for the 2012 Olympics? How do you feel about being the Jewish poster child for those games?
I think it’s really cool, it’s definitely something that’s a huge honor and really exciting. Like I said, being able to represent not only your country, but also the Jewish community all over the world, it’s really special. I loved, obviously, the song, and I think everyone in the world knows the song. My coaches wanted me to dance to folk music and then we picked that song and they thought it was a really perfect fit. I heard the music, I showed it to my coaches, and I kept it for two years and clearly the judges loved it, too, so that was really cool.
At the 2012 games you also announced that you were in support of a moment of silence for the Israeli athletes killed in Munich. Why do you think it’s important to stand up for Israel in the public sphere? And did you receive any backlash for it?
I didn’t receive any backlash from it, I mean everyone was really supportive of it, it was one of those things where I was in a press conference right after I won the gold medal on floor and some reporter asked me if I would dedicate my performance to [them]. Then from there it just kind of blew up. I didn’t really realize it because you’re kind of in a bubble when you’re at the Olympics, but when I got back home I really realized how many people were supporting me. I didn’t expect it — you never expect it. Then to see the support, it’s really overwhelming.
The following year when I wasn’t training, I traveled around the country and met so many wonderful people, and I met a lot of Holocaust survivors, which was so incredible, and such an honor to meet them and to hear their stories. It’s something you never think about when you’re training for the Olympics: the really cool and incredible people you can meet afterwards.
With over 850,000 Twitter followers, there are a lot of young girls throughout the country who look up to you as a role model. Why do you think so many people are inspired by you, and what message do you want them to take away from you?
I think there are so many people that watch the Olympics, and gymnastics is one of those sports where a lot of little girls start out doing it, and it’s something that everyone can relate to. I think that’s one of the reasons why the summer Olympics is so popular, because everyone can relate to swimming, or running, or doing a cartwheel. So I think a lot of people really enjoy watching gymnastics, especially because it’s a younger girls sport. I was considered older at 22, so I think that a lot of young girls watch it and think they can do it as well. But I think it’s really cool, and I take the responsibility of being a role model really seriously.