Original Article Published On The JNS

The famed race, which each year covers 3,413 kilometers (2,121 miles) over 21 stages in 23 days, featured eight riders wearing the Israel Start-Up Nation jersey.

When Belgian professional road and cyclo-cross racer Wout van Aert took the 21st and final stage of the Tour de France and Slovenian cyclist Tadej Pogačar won the overall 2021 Tour de France on Sunday, there weren’t many Israeli riders in sight. Even without Israeli riders winning the race, this year’s Tour de France was an unprecedented victory for the Jewish state.

The famed race, which each year covers 3,413 kilometers (2,121 miles) over 21 stages in 23 days, featured eight riders wearing the Israel Start-Up Nation jersey. The Israel team, which included two Canadians, five Europeans and Israeli-born Omer Goldstein, put Israel and Israel cycling on the map in perpetuity.

Israel’s Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov was on hand at the finish line in Paris to greet the riders and show just how much Israel cycling matters.

“We are so proud to see an Israeli team carry the Israeli flag at one of the largest sporting events in the world,” he said. “Thanks to the partnership with the Ministry of Tourism, the team is promoting our brand of tourism to Israel throughout the race. Events of this kind are the biggest generators of tourism in the world, so it was important for me to come and learn about what is needed, and how it will be possible to bring major international sporting events to Israel on the day the skies open.”

Thanks in large part to the visionary leadership and financial backing of the team’s co-owner, Canadian-Israeli billionaire Sylvan Adams, the world is beginning to take note of Israel as a bike-racing country and as a tourist destination. In May 2018, Adams, known for bringing positive attention through such stunts as bringing Madonna to Israel for the Eurovision song competition, arranged to have Israel host the three-week Giro d’Italia bike race.

Israel Start-Up Nation rider leads the peloton at the Tour de France in front of the Arc de Triomphe, July 2021. Credit: Courtesy.

Adams is proud of Israel Start-Up Nation’s performance at this year’s Tour De France. “ISN’s second Tour represented another building block in the team’s growth. For the first time, we were on the podium, with Michael Woods earning the iconic polka-dot climber’s jersey,” he said. “We also had our share of bad luck, with terrible crashes destroying our GC hopes on the first day.

“But the team held strong and was cheered all along the roads of France, with shouts of Israel, Israel, Allez [Go!]! Also, allez Start-Up Nation in recognition of the team moniker and allez Chris Froome, in respect of our great four-time Tour winner. We have put the ‘Start-Up Nation’ on the world map. And a special mention of our Israeli Omer Goldstein for racing like a consummate pro, despite being in his first Tour de France.”

‘Quick to change focus and fight for new goals’

Israel Start-Up Nation boasted several noteworthy accomplishments throughout the three-week race, while also facing some challenges. It finished in the top 10 on nine stages and the top five on three occasions. Canadian Michael Woods took the KOM (red polka-dot leaders’ jersey with blue snowcapped mountains and the words “RIDE ON” at the base) after a big push on Stage 14. Woods finished both third and fifth during the Tour de France, while teammate Dan Martin of Ireland made the top five with an impressive performance on the final mountain stage.

Sports manager Rik Verbrugghe says the riders should be proud of the way they fought to overcome a difficult start to the race. On the first day, seven out of eight on the Israeli team were involved in several crashes. One was caused by a fan who stepped onto the course to unfurl a banner. “We had a challenging beginning, but we never lost morale, and the guys were quick to change focus and fight for new goals,” he said.

Canadian-Israeli billionaire Sylvan Adams (center) poses with other members of Team Israel Start-Up Nation, July 2021. Credit: Courtesy.

The Tour concluded three weeks later in Paris with the traditional finish on the Champs-Élysées. The Israeli team finished with a strong performance as André Greipel of Germany sprinted to fifth place. The final stage—Stage 21, 67 flat miles (108 kilometers) from Chatou to Paris at the Champs-Élysées—concluded with Israel riders Omer Goldstein in fifth place, Rick Zabel 23rd and Guillaume Bovin 29th.

Greipel had recently announced that this would be his final Tour de France. His teammates, mindful of what this race means to him, positioned him near the front for the sprint and at the end.

“This was an emotional day, knowing that I would take on my last Tour de France stage. In the sprint, due to the new finish, everybody gambled a bit in the headwind, and I guess I gambled a bit too much,” reported Greipel, who vocalized wishing he finished even higher in the pack. “I would have liked a better result, so there is some disappointment now but also relief as I could finish another Tour de France.”

Goldstein spoke more succinctly and playfully at the finish line. “It was the hardest and most enjoyable race of my life. What do I want now? To rest, and leave the bike … ”

This year’s Israel Start-Up Nation consisted of Guillaume Boivin, Chris Froome, Omer Goldstein, André Greipel, Reto Hollenstein, Dan Martin, Michael Woods and Rick Zabel.

Read more

Original Article Published On The JNS

“It is just good news after good news; who wouldn’t want that, especially in times like this?” according to David Wiseman and Shari Wright-Pilo, who created a Facebook page to chart the journey of Israeli Olympic athletes and their designated sport.

Nearly 10 years ago, just before the 2012 London Olympics, new immigrants to Israel David Wiseman and Shari Wright-Pilo noticed a lack of what they considered to be much-needed English-language news and content about the Israeli Olympic team. They decided to do something about it; they created the Facebook group “Follow Team Israel” to share stories about the Olympics, as well as stories about Jewish athletes and sports teams from around the world. Now, nine years later and days away from the start of the rescheduled 2020 Tokyo Olympics set to take place July 23 to Aug. 8, their page has 21,282 followers and is considered the premier English source about Israeli athletes.

“The page was created out of a shared love of two things: Israel and sport,” reports Wiseman, who made aliyah from Australia in 2005. “With most of the athletes playing sports that are ignored or neglected by traditional sports media, the page strengthens the connection between the fans and the athletes.”

Wiseman and Wright-Pilo, an immigrant from Toronto, Canada, have one goal. “It is just good news after good news; who wouldn’t want that, especially in times like this?” poses Wiseman, who feels that these hardworking, talented athletes deserve attention. “We do it because we want the athletes to know all they do for us, and that all their sacrifices aren’t in vain.”

Follow Team Israel continues to post a wide range of stories each day, covering such topics as Israeli windsurfer and Olympian Katy Spychakov; the two Orthodox American Jews drafted to Major League Baseball teams (Elie Kligman by the Washington Nationals and Jacob Steinmetz to the Arizona Diamondbacks); and Israeli Yam Madar, drafted by the Boston Celtics of the National Basketball Association. While the site posts only sports-related stories, Wiseman observes that the appeal is to a wider audience who cares about Israel.

David Wiseman and Shari Wright-Pilo. Credit: Courtesy.

“The irony is that most of them aren’t sports fans—couldn’t care less about it—but they love Israel, and they love to see people passionate about what they do/representing Israel,” says Wiseman.

The Jerusalem-based Wiseman, who works in digital branding and online reputation management, is excited about the upcoming summer Olympics, even if they will mostly be held without fans as a precaution against contracting and/or spreading COVID-19.

When asked to offer three to five Israeli athletes to keep an eye on at the upcoming Olympics, he had a hard time limiting himself. He reluctantly stopped at seven, noting, “It’s like picking a favorite grandchild.”

Wiseman’s list includes:

  1. Lonah Chemtai Salpeter, Marathon
  2. Israel’s baseball team, Team Israel
  3. Linoy Ashram and Nicol Zelikman, Individual rhythmic gymnastics (there is also a team)
  4. Judo (six men and six women, one in each weight division)
  5. Anat Lelior, Surfing
  6. Avishag Semberg, Tae kwon do
  7. Sagiv brothers, Triathlon (Ran and Shachar Sagiv will both compete; they come from a connected Israeli Olympic family. Their father is Olympic marathon runner Shemi Sagiv.)

Israel is planning to send 89 athletes to the Olympics (54 men and 35 women) to complete in 15 sports—nearly double the number of athletes who represented the Jewish state at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The numbers are unusually high, in part, since 24 of the 89 are on Israel’s baseball team.

Linoy Ashram. Credit: European Gymnastics (https://www.europeangymnastics.com/).

Israel has won nine Olympic medals since it first participated in 1952. The first came in 1992 in the sport of Judo when Yael Arad won a silver medal. She was followed a day later by another judoka, Oren Smadja, who won bronze. Gal Fridman is the only Israeli to win a gold medal (windsurfing, Athens 2004) and so far the only Israeli to win two medals (bronze, Atlanta 1996).

This year’s Olympics will feature Israel’s first-ever archer (22-year-old Itay Shanny), surfer (21-year-old Anat Lelior) and equestrian team. The team of four show jumpers includes an eclectic group: Mexican-born Alberto Michan, who is in his third Olympics but representing Israel for the first time; Teddy Vlock, a 23-year old jumper who reportedly trains with Yale University in New Haven, Conn.; American-born 36-year-old Danielle Goldstein Waldman; and Ashlee Bond, whose father is Shlomo Goldberg/Steve Bond, the Israeli-born American model and actor.

Read more

Original article posted on the Camp Ramah Northern California website.

When the idea of including campers with disabilities in Ramah camp was proposed in the late 1960s, there was a great deal of pushback. Fortunately, we have come a long way since the first Ramah camp began including people with disabilities through its Tikvah Program in 1970. Following in this Ramah tradition, Ramah Galim was founded with inclusion as a core value with Tikvah as part of our camp from the beginning — and we get more inclusive each summer.

This year, we began in-depth discussions about inclusion—for people with disabilities and for everyone—during staff week. The Tikvah staff led a Shabbat afternoon program consisting of stations where we learned texts, discussed benefits and challenges of inclusion, and shared concrete strategies for facilitating inclusion. The Tikvah staff also modeled spirited musical Tikvah davening (prayers) for the camp over Shabbat. The entire staff was more excited than ever before to genuinely include and model inclusion for their campers.

Ramah Galim has reached new levels of inclusion. Inclusion is no longer a “program;” rather it is a mindset and an attitude that reflects our values. Two of the 12 campers who started the summer in Tikvah selected Ocean Exploration as their maslul (specialty track), which they seamlessly attended daily with campers from other edot (divisions). The rest of the Tikvah campers rotated through such activities as kayaking, biking, wall climbing, gardening, and performing arts with peers from other divisions. Additionally, each day, Tikvah joined Bogrim and Nachshonim for morning prayers. I have lost track of the number of Friday afternoon, and Shabbat day and weekday evening peulot erev (evening groups) that have included Tikvah and another edah.

The most wonderful part is that inclusion is no big deal. Campers with and without disabilities participate in camp activities daily—from maslul, to meals, Havdalah, singing and dancing, and Yom Sport. 

In this very special summer, when children have been apart for so long, it is a delight to see all campers playing, learning, and enjoying being Jewish together, in their special home, just a short walk from the waves of the Monterey Bay. May we continue to grow our naturally inclusive Ramah Galim community.

Read more

Original Article Published on The JNS

For Team Israel and members of the media who spent three tense, very exciting nights at Maimonides Park in Coney Island, N.Y., back in September 2016, July 11 was a true homecoming.

Team Israel played a Sunday afternoon game against the FDNY (Fire Department of New York) in Brooklyn, N.Y.—at the same stadium as the miracle games of 2016—before embarking on a series of exhibition games on the East Coast that will then see them fly to Tokyo to compete in the Summer Olympic Games. Israel will face Japan, Mexico, South Korea, the United States and the Dominican Republic. While their medal chances are uncertain, the 24 players on the Olympic roster could not be more excited.

In 2016, nobody took Team Israel seriously as they played in the World Baseball Classic qualifiers. That began to change after they defeated Great Britain once and Brazil twice, and advanced to “Pool A” in South Korea in March 2017 against South Korea, Taiwan and the Netherlands.

Team Israel proceeded to battle through the World Baseball Classic and won the 2019 European Baseball Championship. By finishing in the top five, Israel earned the right to participate in the 2020 Olympics qualifiers. As the winner of that tournament, Team Israel qualified to be one of six national teams to compete in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, the 2020 Olympics were postponed to July 2021, where, being that COVID remains an issue in Japan, they will largely take place without fans and with players living in a bubble reminiscent of the NBA bubble in Florida in 2020.

Nevertheless, July 11 was a day for nostalgia and celebration for the journey and for what Team Israel represents for Israel and the Jewish people. The 12 pitchers, three catchers, six infielders and three outfielders are mainly American-born players of Jewish descent, although there are some native-born Israelis on the team. In order to represent a country in the Olympics, a player must be citizen of that country; thus, all members of Team Israel hold citizenship. Some are former Major Leaguer Baseball players with extensive MLB or Minor League experience.

Team Israel (again) playing at Maimonides Park in Coney Island, N.Y., on July 11, 2021. Photo by Howard Blas.

‘Crazy, rewarding, hard, fun, tough’

Pitcher Shlomo Lipetz, 42, was born in Tel Aviv, played college baseball in the United States and has been affiliated with Israel baseball for more than 30 years. At the World Baseball Qualifiers in 2017, the right-handed pitcher was the only native Israeli on the team.

Baseball and Team Israel have helped keep him focused throughout the pandemic. “The fact that I just keep playing the game kept me really sane while doing my day job,” he says.

Lipetz is vice president of programming for City Winery. He says he is proud of how far Team Israel has come since 2017. “It is no longer the underdog mentality—that we are just happy to be here. With the help of some of the big league guys, folks like Ian [Kinsler] and Danny [Valencia], I think that really helped change our mentality to something of ‘we belong here, and we can make some noise!’ ”

Pitcher Josh Zeid, 34, has played for the Houston Astros and is currently working for the Chicago Cubs in Phoenix, where he is the rehabilitation pitching coordinator. He also pitched for Team Israel at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, where he was named to the 2017 All-World Baseball Classic Team.

At the end of the WBC, Zeid thought his baseball career was over. As he looks back on the past four years, he says “it has been crazy, rewarding, hard, fun, tough, but it is crazy. We are standing here today in Brooklyn. Four years ago, we were all here. I thought my career was over at the end of the season. We had a swan song starting in Brooklyn; it is pretty surreal, pretty special.”

The right-handed pitcher uses a bright-blue mitt with the expression “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” inscribed in Hebrew. “My grandfather died six months ago, and these were his last words to me,” he reveals.

Zeid pitched the second inning of the FDNY game and struck out all three batters. “I am honored to play for Team Israel in the Olympics,” he says. “It’s a lifelong dream come true. I feel I have been blessed. Just putting in the work and care and effort to making sure this one comes true as well.”

Pitcher Joey Wagman, 29, was also all fired up to return to Brooklyn as part of Team Israel. Drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the 17th round of 2013 draft, he recalls, “The last time I was here was five years ago for the qualifiers, so it definitely brings back a lot of memories.”

Wagman did not play in 2020, though he resumed training with Team Israel teammate, Zach Weiss, when both lived in Southern California.

“I used the time to refine some things in my movement and delivery and shore up my mental game,” he relates. Over the past three months, Wagman has played professional baseball in the Czech Republic. “It was a different pace of baseball. After an 18-month layoff, it was a decent, relaxed environment, where I could control pitch counts and innings, and it served its purpose as prep for the Olympics.”

Of the opportunity to reunite with his teammates, Wagman says: “It has been years since I’ve seen all these guys—being together brings back so many good memories. There have been so many good memories with Team Israel in the past five years.”

‘We need to start playing some good baseball’

Danny Valencia is arguably Team Israel’s most accomplished player. Valencia, 36, has played for eight Major League teams, and had 795 hits and 95 home runs in 3,000-plus plate appearances. He says he is looking forward to representing Israel in Tokyo. “It is a really cool experience, and it is going to be an awesome memory for all of us.”

Valencia also knows what being in the Olympics will take, noting that “we need to start playing some good baseball.”

Valencia knows this Olympics will feel different due to COVID precautions. “Obviously, we will be in a bubble. There will not be many fans at the games, but it should be an amazing experience. We will be around a lot of great athletes. And we’re there to handle the job but also to enjoy the experience.”

Ben Wanger, 23, a right-handed pitcher, also serves as a designated hitter. His parents, David and Gwen Wanger—both clothed in “Wanger” jerseys—traveled from Newton, Mass., to Brooklyn and watched their son from behind the Team Israel dugout. While they’re unable to attend the Olympics in Tokyo, they dream of the day they will be able to visit Israel for the first time—and celebrate what they hope will be a medal for Team Israel.

Whether Israel ultimately wins gold, silver or bronze, the Wangers are practically glowing over the accomplishments of their son and his teammates—and of what the experience has done for everyone’s Jewish identity.

“The experience for these players, especially American Jews who made aliyah, has been incredibly enriching,” says David Wanger. “They are so much more attuned to their heritage, and they feel incredibly connected to Israel and to the Jewish people.”

The Wangers and the good-sized observant Jewish crowd that showed up in Brooklyn are praying that the miracle of Team Israel will continue. The team is off to a promising start with a 12-3 victory over New York’s bravest: the FDNY. Israel scored an impressive 12 runs on 15 hits, with the first run at the top of the sixth.

Team Israel in Brooklyn, N.Y., on July 11, 2021, before they are off to the Tokyo Olympics. Photo by Howard Blas.

Read more