Separated by 40 years and 569 miles, the shadow of Munich — and the bloody terrorism that took place in the Bavarian city in 1972 — falls over London this year.
On the eve of the 30th Olympic Games, increased concerns about security, about a commemoration for the 11 Israelis who were murdered in 1972 at the Summer Olympics in Munich, and about athletes who may refuse to compete against Israelis (all a legacy of the 1972 Games) mark an increasingly politicized Olympic movement.
At the center of this is London’s 200,000-member Jewish community, which has played a key planning role for the London Olympics, which will take place July 27-Aug. 10, followed by the Paralympic Games in the British capital Aug. 29-Sept. 9.
An organization called the London Olympic Jewish Organizing Committee, formed by a coalition of Jewish groups, has coordinated a wide variety of activities, including a memorial for the martyred Israelis (co-sponsored by London 2012 organizing committee and the mayor of London) , a reception for visiting athletes and other tourists, a clearinghouse for information about kosher food and religious services and sites of Jewish interest, and an increase in interfaith efforts, including twinning projects of synagogues and mosques. (The website is visitjewishlondon.com and at Visit Jewish London Facebook page. Similar information is also offered at chabad.org.uk.)
Following an unsuccessful international effort — under the aegis of the Rockland County JCC and the widow of Andrei Spitzer, among the murdered Israelis — to convince the International Olympic Committee to include a minute of silence during the Games for the 11 Israelis, the Jewish community will sponsor its own memorial event, a staple of local Jewish communities at post-1972 Games.
Though no specific intelligence has indicated that the Olympics are a terrorists’ target, security, as at all Games, is stepped up, the director of Interpol said earlier this year, and Israeli security officials reportedly worked with their British counterparts to incorporate security measures at airports and other potentially vulnerable venues.
As during the planning stages for Olympics over the last four decades, the Jewish community, through the LOJOC, has worked with security officials to protect Jewish buildings and Jewish individuals.
As is always the case, the community is reluctant to discuss details. “We’re on high alert,” said attorney and human rights activist Alex Goldberg, Jewish chaplain at the University of Surrey who has served as chief executive of the London Jewish Forum and community issues director at the Board of Deputies of British Jews. In fact, the Community Security Trust, the Jewish community’s chief security organization, this week issued a call for Jewish institutions in London to increase patrols around their buildings, according to JTA.
Following reports this week that Olympic security — said to cost $1.55 billion — is in disarray on the eve of the Games because of a “shortfall” in the number of trained security guards, a gap to be filled by Britain’s armed forces, Goldberg said, “There are no issues about security [in the Jewish community]. We have drafted [additional personnel] in the army to replace some private security people,” he told The Jewish Week in an e-mail interview this week.
As a veteran activist in the Jewish community, Goldberg helped organize communal plans for the Games.
(Trying to prevent athletes from Arab or Muslim nations from refusing to compete against Israelis, as happens frequently in the Olympics and other international sporting events, IOC President Jacques Rogge declared last month that “only serious injury” would be an acceptable excuse for withdrawing from a competition, and that unspecified “sanctions” would be taken against any athlete who declines to compete against a rival nation for religious or political reasons.)
Jewish London hopes to use the Games to showcase itself, Goldberg said in a telephone interview. “This is a strong Jewish community. It’s a growing, vibrant community.”
Goldberg says “several thousand” Jewish volunteers will number among the estimated 75,000 who will assist during the Olympics and Paralympics.
Some other facets of the London Olympics:
♦ about 70 rabbis will serve as volunteer chaplains to take care of athletes’ and visitors’ spiritual needs.
♦ up-to-date Twitter information of news of Jewish interest will be available at @Jews4London2012.
♦ Visitors who encounter anti-Semitism or witness “anything suspicious” can report it to (0)20 8457 9999; thecst.org.uk.
♦ a specially designed “Olympic kippah” will be offered to volunteers as part of their official uniform. An Olympic snood, or hair covering, may also be available for Orthodox female volunteers.
♦ kosher food will be available 24/7 in the Olympic Village dining room.
♦ Efrayim Goldstein, a 23-year-old Orthodox resident and community activist in London, was among 8,000 people chosen to serve as torchbearers, carrying the Olympic flame on a route to the Opening Ceremonies. The first-known shomer Shabbat torchbearer, he is to run his 330-yard leg of the relay on July 23, seven miles from his Stamford Hill home. Beforehand, he had his gold-and-white uniform checked for shatnez, the biblically banned combination of wool and linen.
Survivor: Athlete And Activist
A natural athlete, fast and strong, in his native Poland, Holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott didn’t intend to become a champion weightlifter when he settled in England after World War II.
But it turned out he was a natural.
After a swim at London’s Hampstead Heaths ponds in 1948, he noticed some weightlifting equipment and asked if he could test his strength.
The weight on the bar totaled about 180 pounds, far above a novice’s level.
“Have you ever lifted weights?” a nearby coach asked young Helfgott.
Forget it, the coach said.
“I kept insisting,” Helfgott says. Finally, he lifted the weight “as if it was nothing.”
“You never lifted weights?” the coach asked. “You’d better take it up.”
Helfgott took the coach’s advice, training actively in the sport, a decision that led to two Olympic appearances, frequent national championships and international competitions, a role as a leader of England’s survivor community and, this year, a prominent position on the organization that is coordinating the London Jewish community’s outreach for the Summer Olympics.
“I have never retired. I don’t know the meaning of retirement,” says Helfgott, now 82, a retired clothing manufacturer who is one of the few Holocaust survivors who subsequently competed in the Olympics.
“My life is a gift,” Helfgott tells The Jewish Week in a telephone interview.
An avid athlete, “very competitive,” he took part in many sports in England, including the shot put, the discus and soccer. “I was better at gymnastics than I was in weightlifting.”
Winner of gold medals at three Maccabiah Games in the 1950s, he represented England in the 1956 and 1960 Summer Olympics, missing the 1952 Games only because of appendicitis.
Was he nervous competing in the Olympics?
“I was never nervous,” he says. One of his best memories is marching in the opening ceremonies, “representing the country of my choice.” In his mind were Holocaust victims, who “never had a chance” to live out their lives like he did. “I have never forgotten them.”
Helfgott knew he was unlikely to medal at the Games, training less intensively than other athletes. “Weightlifting was not my life. Weightlifting was not my future.”
A weightlifting competition brought him back to Poland in 1959. He held no bitterness toward the Poles, he says. “I never took the attitude of hating. I was saved by a Pole,” a foreman in a factory who had convinced the Nazis that Helfgott was not Jewish.
Ten years old when World War II started, he was interned in several concentration camps, including Buchenwald, was liberated from Terezin, and lost 23 members of his extended family in the Shoah, including both parents and a sister. He planned to live in Palestine, but ended up in England in August, 1945, one of 732 child survivors brought there for rehabilitation by the Central British Fund.
In his 2002 autobiography and in public speeches, he has become a leading voice in his adopted country for Holocaust victims, serving since 1963 as chairman of the “45 Aid Society,” a survivors assistance organization, and has been an active members of the United Kingdom’s council of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
“I was lucky,” Helfgott says. He survived the Final Solution. “I did not want to live just for myself.”
A Jewish community “ambassador” during the London Olympics, he has attended nine Olympic Games; in 1972, he dined with several doomed members of the Israeli delegation a few hours before they were taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists.
He plans to go to some of the competitions in England over the next two weeks, he says. For sure, weightlifting. Maybe some track and field. “The rest I’ll watch on television.”
A windsurfer who grew up on the Mediterranean coast and a gymnast whose home is Massachusetts Bay are among the top Jewish prospects to win medals at the London Olympics. (See story on Israeli shooter Sergey Richter, also a medal contender, on next page.)
Israel’s Lee Korzits, two-time reigning world champion in her windsurfing event, is favorite to take home gold — three years after an accident that almost ended her athletic career.
During a 2009 photo shoot in Hawaii, another surfer crashed into Korzits, snapping two ribs from her spine, paralyzing her from the waist down. Doctors told her she might never walk again. Her response was a regimen of physical therapy and swimming. In 2010, she nearly drowned during a competition in Poland when another surfer knocked her off her board. Again, Korsitz returned to her sport.
“I thought about how much I love windsurfing and how good it is to be healthy,” she told Haaretz.
Korzits, a native of Hofit, near Netanya, the daughter of a lifeguard father and swimmer mother, won world windsurfing title in 2011 and 2012.
If she medals at London, she will follow Israel’s Gal Fridman, who won the country’s first gold medal, at Athens four years ago; Israel’s Shahar Zubari took home bronze from Beijing in 2008.
Alexandra Raisman, 18, who qualified for the U.S. gymnastics team earlier this month, lives in Needham, Mass., a suburb of Boston.
Better known as Aly, she was introduced to the sport as a toddler in a Mommy and Me class. “I always had a lot of energy so it was the perfect fit,” says her profile on the USA Gymnastics website.
Her best event is floor exercise; she’s 2012 U.S. champion in floor exercise; who won bronze in the 2011 World Championships.
“When I was 8 and 9 years old, all I did was watch the ’96 Olympics over and over again,” she told the Boston Herald. “That was really when I wanted to be a champion and go to the Olympics.” She danced to the music of “Hava Nagila” in her Olympic Trials floor exercise performance, and there is talk that she might perform to Jewish music in the Games themselves.
As usual, a handful of Jewish athletes — in addition to Israel’s 37-member squad — will represent Western countries and the former Soviet republics, but they are difficult to identify in advance, since competitors’ profiles do not include their religious affiliation. Usually, a few successful Jewish Olympians turn up during the Games.
This year, for the first time, a judo competitor who works in the Old City of Jerusalem qualified to participate in the Games under the aegis of the Palestine Olympic Committee. Maher Abu Remeleh is the son of a judo coach. Four other Palestinians — two swimmers and two runners — will also compete at London, invited by the International Olympic Committee.
As in past years, Israel, with a small athletic budget, is sending a small number of athletes to the Olympics — those with the best chances of winning a medal or of finishing among the top competitors. The Israeli Olympic Committee’s stated goal this year is to return with a medal in at least one new sport, and to have a female athlete win a medal for the first time.
Tennis players Shahar Peer, Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram, longtime competitors on the professional circuit, are Israel’s other probable medal contenders.
Members of the Israeli squad are:
Felix Aranovich, gymnastics; Artium Arshanski, judo; Nimrod Shapira Bar-Or, swimming; Vered Buskila, sailing; Moran Buzovsky, rhythmic gymnastics; Gil Cohen, sailing; Nufar Edelman, sailing; Imri Ganiel, swimming; Anastasia Gloushkov, synchronized swimming; Amit Ivri, swimming; Gideon Kliger, sailing; Yonatan Kopelev, swimming; Victoria Koshel, gymnastics.
Valeria Maksyuta, gymnastics; Guy Matzkin, archery; Gal Nevo, swimming; Noa Palathcy, rhythmic gymnastics; Ioseb Palelashvili, judo; Golan Pollack, judo; Neta Rivkin, rhythmic gymnastics.
Donald Sanford, track and field. Not Jewish, the U.S.-born Sanford, a sprinter, is married to an Israeli and lives on a kibbutz.
Alice Schlesinger, judo.
Jillian Schwartz, pole vault. American-born, an All-American at Duke University, Schwartz represented the U.S. at the 2004 Games. A native of Evanston. Ill., she has competed for Israel since gaining Israeli citizenship two years ago, a year after taking part in the Maccabiah Games and setting national records in the sport.
Eran Sela, sailing.
Alex Shatilov, gymnastics. Shatilov won a bronze medal in floor exercise at this year’s European Championships.
Marina Shultz, rhythmic gymnastics; Yakov-Yan Toumarkin, swimming; Inna Yoffe, synchronized swimming; Paulina Zakaluzny, rhythmic gymnastics.
Arik Zeevi, judo. Zeevi, a four-time European champion, won bronze in 2004.
Zohar Zemiro, marathon; Misha Zilberman, badminton; Shahar Zubari, windsurfing.
The members of the U.S. squad who are known to be Jewish are:
Anthony Ervin, swimming. A former Olympic gold medalist, world record holder and world champion, Ervin is the son of a Jewish mother and African American father. Losing interest in the sport, he dropped out for several years, touring the world, working on his master’s degree and auctioning off his gold medal to raise funds for tsunami relief in Southeast Asia.
Steven Gluckstein, trampoline. A resident of Atlantic Highlands, N.J., Gluckstein earned the sole spot on the U.S. team by beating out his brother Jeffrey.
Jason Lezak, swimming. The anchor of the gold-medal-winning 400-meter freestyle relay team in the 2008 Summer Games, Lezak at 36 still ranks among the world’s fastest sprinters.
Mark Mendelblatt, sailing. A native of St. Petersburg, Fla., he won his first international championship at 11. A three-time college All-American at Tufts University, he is a securities broker.
Julie Zetlin, rhythmic gymnastics. Resident of Bethesda, Md., and daughter of a former Hungarian national champion in the sport, Zetlin has been a member of the U.S. national team for nine years, winning four medals in the Pan-American Games.
The Social Media Shooter
Netanya, Israel — One of the top-ranked sharpshooters in the world, Sergey Richter, an Israeli competitor born in Kharkov, Ukraine, usually has his eye on a target 10 meters (11 yards) or 50 meters (55 yards) away.
To compete in the London Olympics, he also had to keep an eye on the bottom line.
Israel, like many small nations with limited athletic budgets, makes little funding available to its Olympians-in-training, especially those in smaller, less-glamorous sports, and few sponsors are interested in paying the training expenses.
So Richter, 23, the first Israeli athlete who qualified for the country’s 2012 Olympic team, raised his own funds online.
Based here at the Wingate Institute for elite athletes, he posted a section on the Mimoona.co.il website, a “crowdfunding” Internet platform that serves as a host for a wide variety of worthy Israeli entrepreneurial causes, including an Israeli TV series and a school for disabled children.
Richter says he was the first member of Israel’s Olympic team to seek funding online in this way, though gymnast Valeria Maksyuta is also on the Mimoona site now.
“The Olympics is the most important contest in the world, because it is not all about me, it’s about Israel,” his Mimoona profile states. “There is nothing I want more than standing on the podium with a medal hearing the Israeli national anthem … Your help could help me concentrate entirely on training.” As incentive, he offered T-shirts, medals and private shooting lessons.
Richter raised more than 54,000 shekels ($13,600), exceeding his target of 50,000 shekels, a modest total that allowed him to concentrate on his training.
“I’m reaching my goal,” he says.
Richter, who will compete in three shooting events in London, came to Israel with his family 16 years ago (his father was a wrestler; his mother, a skater), took up the sport in Israel (he learned at the shooting center in Rehovot), and served in the army (as an elite athlete, he was allowed to concentrate on his training.)
After the Olympics, he says, he’ll probably enroll in college.
Does he have his eye on the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro?
It depends on how he fares in London, he says. “We’ll see.”