Yossi Goldberg played soccer and basketball as a boy growing up in Israel, but figure skating was in his blood — his mother was a figure skater in Lithuania.
That, says Goldberg, founder and president of the Israeli Figure Skating Association, is why he has devoted a dozen years to a winter sport in a Mediterranean country.
His work has paid off: Israel, for the third time, is sending athletes to the Winter Olympics. And all five going to Salt Lake City, Utah, are skaters — Olga Danilov, a speed skater; and two pairs of ice dancers, Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovsky, and Natalia Gudina and Alexei Beletski.
“This was my dream,” says Goldberg, who served as mayor of Metulla, on the Lebanese border, for 20 years until 1999 and built the Canada Centre ice-skating rink there. “Each [Winter] Olympics gets more and more athletes” from Israel.
Misha Shmerkin, a figure skater from Odessa, represented Israel as its lone athlete at Lillehammer, Norway, in 1992 (he finished 16th), and competed, accompanied by Chait and Sakhnovsky, at Nagano, Japan, in 1998 (18th place). Now 31, he has retired from Olympic competition.
With the growing participation, Goldberg says, Israeli interest in the country’s Winter Olympians grows. Israeli television is sending a reporter to the Utah Games, for the second time.
Jewish athletes, as in past years, will compete for the United States and other countries. The Jewish star of the U.S. 2002 team is Sasha Cohen, a figure skater who is expected to challenge world champion Michelle Kwan in the Games’ featured sport. Sara DeCosta is back as goalie of the women’s hockey team.
Since the U.S. team does not publicize the religious affiliation of its members, it is hard to determine which other American athletes are Jewish. But it is likely that several are on the U.S. roster, as well as squads from Eastern and Western Europe, and the former Soviet Union.
Increased immigration from the FSU gave a major boost to Israel’s winter sports program, says Goldberg, who will head the Israeli delegation at Salt Lake City. The olim included championship-level athletes and coaches, many of whom found a home at the Canada Centre.
As mayor, Goldberg developed Metulla as a winter sports area, near Mount Hermon, Israel’s skiing capital. Then he built Canada Centre, an Olympic-size facility, and promoted the figure skaters. “From the beginning it was a sport I liked,” said Goldberg. “I started to push it.”
Some Israeli figure skaters, including the two pairs who will compete in the 2002 Games, spend part of the year training overseas like athletes from other small countries with limited facilities.
“In Europe there are a lot of countries that have only one Olympic-sized arena,” Goldberg says. “We have only one.”
Israel, with a faltering economy, has little money to spend on its elite winter sports program, he says. The annual budget: “A half-million dollars. It’s nothing.” Goldberg calls the limited funding “our main problem.”
Still, he is optimistic about Israel’s future in the Winter Olympics. “I can promise you that in the future we will compete in skiing, luge, maybe curling. Israel will be in a good position to compete with some European countries.”
No medals this year, he says. “In the next Olympics,” Goldberg says, “I look for a medal.”
Quest For The Quadruple
For a year the questions about Sasha Cohen centered on her back. Runner-up in the 2000 U.S. Figure Skating Championships to Olympian Michelle Kwan, she suffered an injury and was out of competition for a year.
Could Cohen recover the talents that made her a rising star among the nation’s female figure skaters?
After months of painful physical therapy treatments, Cohen, 17, answered the questions last month in Los Angeles. She finished second to Kwan in the U.S. championships, qualifying for the Olympics.
Now the questions are about her jumps.
The 5-foot resident of Costa Mesa, Calif., hopes to become the first woman figure skater to land a quadruple jump — spinning four times in the air — in competition.
Cohen eschewed the difficult and low-percentage jump at the nationals, but she hopes to try a quadruple in Salt Lake City.
If she makes it, she will make history. If she misses, she might miss a shot at a medal.
Cohen’s jumps, a combination of discipline and athleticism, reflect her combative nature. The Los Angeles Times calls her a “strong-willed 17-year-old,” The New York Times, “feisty … a handful.” She challenges her coach John Nicks; she’s been known to swipe the parking places of fellow competitors and shadow them on the ice during practice.
Such mind games are common among elite athletes.
An honors student at Futures High School in Costa Mesa, she chooses her own music, usually classical, to accompany her routines, and designs her own costumes. After skating she hopes to become a fashion designer.
“The dress,” she told Lifestyles magazine, “has to fit the mood of the piece.”
A skater for 10 years, Cohen — Sasha is a nickname for Alexandra Pauline — says she has a teen’s normal interests. Shopping, movies. And she has several on-line Web sites dedicated to her. One she created herself, others are maintained by fans.
Her family is not actively involved in Jewish activities or traditions.
Her parents, she says, insist that she finish her homework before going to the mall or the movies. “I wouldn’t be here without my parents’ support,” she told Jewish Woman magazine. “My mother is like my camera. She sees everything I do and helps me improve.”
Yiddish On Ice
Ice-dance fans probably won’t hear “Hatikvah” played in Salt Lake City during the next fortnight, but they will hear some Jewish music. The Israeli team of Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovsky usually perform to “traditional” Jewish melodies, often dressed in quasi-chasidic outfits.
Four years ago they appeared in their first Olympics, skating in Nagano, Japan, to “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein,” finishing 14th.
This year’s repertoire: “Hava Nagila,” “A Yiddishe Mama,” “Haveinu Shalom Aleichem.”
Chait and Sakhnovsky come to the Games as the sixth-ranked ice-dance team in the world following the 2001 World Championships. The previous year they were fifth; after they became a team seven years ago they were 28th.
“From fifth to higher is more difficult,” Sakhnovsky, a 26-year-old Moscow native, told The Canadian Jewish News, evaluating his chances for an Olympic medal. “If we go up, it’s great.”
Sakhnovsky, a one-time junior world champion for Russia, made aliyah with his family and resumed skating at the Canada Centre in Metulla. He was paired with Chait, 27, a native of Kfar Saba, whose family emigrated from Russia, then settled in the United States in 1976. Her family lives in Paramus, N.J.
Chait started skating at Rockefeller Center, trained at Chelsea Piers and went to Russia for advanced lessons in ice dancing, which eschews the jumps of competitive ice skating. Fluent in Russian, she usually speaks the language with Sakhnovsky.
The pair, who are noted for their speed and footwork, trained at the University of Delaware. They were a middle-ranked team for several years ago until engaging Tatiana Tarasova, who works with the sport’s elite couples, as their coach.
“She changed our style,” Chait told The Canadian Jewish News. “She let us branch out to different directions, try new choreography and show expression in our dancing.”
During the last two years, based at the CT International Skating Center in Newington, Conn., they have won silver medals in the Skate America and Skate Canada competitions. Second place was their best showing outside of Skate Israel in Metulla.
Israel’s other entry in ice dancing, Natalia Gudina and Alexei Beletski, qualified for the Olympics with a 15th-place finish at the recent European Figure Skating Championships in Switzerland. The married couple made aliyah from Ukraine in 1991.
Olga Danilov began skating, at 3, for medical reasons. “I was all the time in the hospital” in the Ukrainian city Kharkov, she says. “My doctor told my mother, ‘She must take up swimming or skating.’ ”
Young Olga became a skater, at a nearby rink, a decision that will bring her to Salt Lake City as a short track skater for Israel.
Danilov, who made aliyah in 1994 — “We couldn’t live in Ukraine” because of a deteriorating economy and increasing anti-Semitism — began as a figure skater, then switched to long track and eventually to short track, the sprinting events.
She quickly found success in short track, becoming a Ukrainian champion, ranking in the top 10 in Europe in the 500-meter, 1000-meter and 1500-meter categories. She qualified for the Olympics at the recent European Short Track Speed Skating Championships in Grenoble, France, but could not duplicate her success of the previous year.
“I was dreaming about the Olympics … all the time” as a child, she tells The Jewish Week in a telephone interview from her home in Kiryat Shemona, a 10-minute drive from her training facility in Metulla.
Danilov knew before she immigrated of Israel’s limited skating facilities. “For me it’s OK,” she says. “One ice rink is enough.”
She barely missed qualifying for the 1998 Olympics, then missed a year of practice during her pregnancy with daughter Nicolle three years ago. When Danilov returned to the ice, supposedly out of shape, her racing times had improved.
“I don’t know how,” she says.
Her husband, Alex, a fellow emigre from the former Soviet Union, is a former Olympic shooter.
Danilov is known in Israel’s immigrant community, which reads about her in the Russian-language press. Among Sabras, a skater in a Mediterranean land is a curiosity.
“They don’t know about winter sports in Israel,” she says. “They know just soccer and basketball.”
A Love Of Luge
The Israeli luge team will be in Salt Lake City this week. But Brian Goldberg — the entire team — is going as a spectator.
Goldberg, 24, a native of upstate Spring Valley who now lives on the Upper West Side, is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Brandeis University (Asian Regional Studies major) who saw a TV commercial recruiting lugers during the 1994 Winter Olympics. He was immediately interested.
“It looked like something I’d enjoy,” he says. It is racing down an icy track nearly a mile long on a small sled, feet first, at speeds over 80 miles an hour.
“I’d never done it before,” says Goldberg, a competitive golfer, swimmer and baseball player who competed in the 1992 and ’93 Maccabi Youth Games.
So he attended an introductory practice sponsored by the U.S. Luge Association in White Plains conducted on a hilly, paved road. The sled was outfitted with wheels.
Goldberg says he did well, but he didn’t make the cut of athletes for further training. “I was too old,” he says. The luge authorities wanted kids 11 or 12 years old. “I was 17.”
College came; no luge. After college he went to Japan to continue his studies, and joined an international development program at the former Olympic luge track in Nagano for aspiring lugers from “non-traditional” countries. In other words, small lands and those in warm climates.
He couldn’t represent the United States. “I would have to do it for Israel,” says Goldberg, who became bar mitzvah in Israel and is active in his family’s Conservative synagogue.
He contacted Israeli sports authorities. “They said, ‘If you’re really serious about it, then come here, make aliyah.’ ”
Goldberg did, in August. He has an apartment in Metulla, where he trains on a custom-made sled, with added Rollerblade-type wheels.
He has lined up one corporate sponsor in the U.S., but receives no financial support for his training from Israel. Goldberg has spent $25,000 of his own money.
He helped found the Israeli Luge Federation, part of the country’s expansion into winter sports; he spends some of his time promoting the federation and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. And racing under the Israeli flag, he has become a regular on the international luge circuit, finishing as high as 47th in a race.
“I’m not in the upper echelon,” he acknowledges. Goldberg started the sport too late, doesn’t have the advanced coaching and training facilities available in championship countries like Germany and Austria.
But after taking a year off from school for training, he qualified for the Olympics at the world championships last November in Calgary, Canada.
The Israeli Olympic Committee is not sending him to the Olympics. With limited resources, the committee has decided to sponsor only athletes who have a reasonable chance of winning a medal or a world ranking in the top 15 or 20. Goldberg fits neither.
“I understand what they say,” he says of the Israeli policy. “It’s incredibly frustrating. Most athletes who have met [the Olympic qualifying standard] … their countries send them.”
Goldberg will pay his own way to Salt Lake City to watch the luge competition. “All my friends will be there racing,” he says.
Goldberg says he will keep training, and will probably try to qualify for the 2006 Winter Games. Then he’ll go on with his career in international business.
“For the rest of my life,” he says, “I have a letter that says I qualified for the Olympics. Too bad I didn’t get to go.”
Rabbi Benny Zippel:
A Chabadnik Among Them
For the next two weeks Rabbi Benny Zippel, the Chabad emissary in Salt Lake City, will be putting tefillin on gentiles.
Gentiles is how Jews, and all other non-Mormons, are known in 70-percent-Mormon Utah.
Rabbi Zippel, a native of Italy who for nearly a decade has headed the Lubavitch movement’s Chabad House in Salt Lake City, has been designated a religious chaplain by the Olympic organizing committee. “I am the only Jew” in that official position, he notes.
Based during the Games in the Olympic Village, a 10-minute drive from Chabad House, he will wear an official uniform — pants, turtleneck, vest, jacket in “mountain shadow blue.” There will be one Orthodox accessory — “tzitzis out.”
For more than a year the rabbi has handled calls from Jews who are coming to Salt Lake City and have requests. “The phones do not stop ringing,” he says.
Officials, technical experts, team physicians. “Plenty of plain and simple tourists are coming. People want kosher. People want mikveh. People want housing.” As the only Orthodox rabbi in a state with only 3,500 Jews, Rabbi Zippel is the only Orthodox address in town.
In addition to Chabad, there is a United Jewish Federation, a Reform-Conservative congregation, a Reform temple in a nearby suburb, and chapters of Hadassah and the National Council of Jewish Women. “We do have Jews — that’s for sure,” says Teresa Bruce, federation executive director.
The federation will sponsor a series of receptions for the visiting Olympians.
Chabad has arranged for extra kosher food on sale at a local supermarket, and is providing challahs and grape juice for Shabbat.
“Winter is always a busy time for us. We have tourists the whole year round,” Rabbi Zippel says.
The Olympics will be busier. “Nineteen days of eight-hour shifts,” he says. “Putting on tefillin, counseling — anything they want.”
Chabad House holds Shabbat and holiday services. The rabbi built a mikveh in Salt Lake City when he arrived. His family then was the only Orthodox one in the state. “Now there are about a half-dozen families that are shomer Shabbos,” Rabbi Zippel says. “God willing there will be more in the future.”
Signals Off For Shabbat
Elly Libin, an expert on electronic signals hired by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, has spent 22 years working with TV networks and government agencies for the upcoming Winter Games. Much of that time he spent negotiating his contract.
Libin, a 43-year-old resident of Woodmere, L.I., and an Orthodox Jew, does not work on Shabbat.
“It’s a 24-hours-a day job,” he says of his duties in Utah, which include training technicians and working with security forces.
A veteran of three previous Olympics, Libin is a recognized expert in his specialized field. The people running the Games “feel if they have an expert, they have access to him 24 hours a day,” he says.
Libin, however, made his priorities clear — “My Shabbat is more important” — so he is off duty from Friday evening to Saturday evening.
The kipa-wearing Libin is a curiosity in heavily Mormon Utah.
“The Mormons enjoy discussions about religion,” he says. “They respect you as a religious professional.” They ask him about his beliefs and about his day-to-day practice. “They ask, ‘Can we watch you pray?’ ”
Sometimes they come to his apartment to see a Shabbat meal. He is staying for six weeks across the street from the site of the opening and closing ceremonies, a 32-mile walk from Salt Lake City’s Chabad House.
And the Mormons invite Libin to speak in their churches about Judaism. “I just tell them it’s not my place,” he says.
Libin has encountered no anti-Semitism, no outright proselytizing, he says. Although the Mormon Church has a conversionary bent, “according to what they tell me, they want to convert Jews last.”
Libin eats kosher food he brought from New York, and at night he learns Daf Yomi on-line.
The morning after the closing ceremonies, he returns to Woodmere. That’s Taanit Esther, the fast day that precedes Purim.
“I’m home,” Libin says, “for Purim.”
Yossi Goldberg played soccer and basketball as a boy growing up in Israel, but figure skating was in his blood — his mother was a figure skater in Lithuania.