Alex Rabinovich says there were about 50 gymnastics clubs in his native Kiev, 10 alone in his neighborhood, when his family left Ukraine for the United States two decades ago. His father’s club, Spartak, was one of Kiev’s top gymnastics training facilities, he says.
Peter Rabinovich, a one-time Soviet gymnastics champion and longtime head coach of the Ukrainian gymnastics team, was an honored figure in the USSR’s athletic world, producing the opening ceremonies of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, turning out elite competitors and running a school for more than 1,000 athletes and 40 coaches.
But as a Jew in the former Soviet Union, he — and his family — was still the object of anti-Semitism.
They migrated because “we had to,” says his son, Alex, who has followed in his father’s footsteps, opening Lana’s Gymnastics Cub in the Kew Gardens Hills neighborhood of Queens 16 years ago.
When the Rabinoviches came to New York in 1991, Alex says, they didn’t know if gymnastics, a major part of their lives in their homeland, would be part of their future here. “We didn’t know what we would do here.”
He and his father (who died in 2000) took a chance and opened the Queens gymnastics club, which has prospered.
The facility, which is closed on Friday and Shabbat, offers classes — besides the standard instruction in gymnastics — in physical fitness, dance, martial arts, and arts and crafts. The 500 students per week who attend, from 40 countries, include Jews and Christians and Muslims.
“We have a lot of New York State champions,” says Alex, above.
In an off-Olympic year, interest in gymnastics, as in many Olympics sports, goes down. As the 2012 Games in London approach, Alex says, interest will soar again.
But, he says, he sees more interest here than in Ukraine, where gymnastics once was a major sport with government funding. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the worsening of the independent republics’ economies, state funding of athletics has dried up. “It’s not a priority. Today, it’s not prestigious.”
Alex went back to Kiev for a visit a few months ago, and was disappointed by what he saw. Most of the city’s gymnastics clubs have closed; those still open, including his father’s, are in bad shape.
“I was almost crying,” he says, adding that his family’s leap of faith in leaving Ukraine for the U.S. was the right decision. “I love this country. I have no regrets.”