Original Article Published On the Jewish News Syndicate

The five top teams in the European Baseball Championships, plus South Africa, have advanced to the Olympic Qualifiers taking place in Parma and Bologna, Italy, through Sept. 22.

When the Miracle Mets won the World Series in 1969, baseball was virtually unknown in Israel. Israel had come out victorious in the Six-Day War only two years earlier, the first field was built at Kibbutz Gezer in 1979, and the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) would be established less than a decade afterwards, in 1986.

Fifty years later, the New York Mets may need to share their “miracle” nickname with Israel’s National Baseball Team. Team Israel shocked the world in last week’s European Championships and now has its sights on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

Israel got off to an unexpected 4-0 start with victories over the Czech Republic, Sweden, Germany and Great Britain. Israel then lost on Sept. 11 to current European champions, the Netherlands.

Israel finished second in its pool with a record of 4-1 and advanced to the quarter finals, held last Friday through Sunday in Bonn, Germany.

On Sept. 13, Israel faced France, which Pool B with three wins and two losses. Team Israel handily beat France 8-2 in the quarter finals, securing a coveted place in the Olympic Games qualifiers for this week in Italy.

But over last weekend, Israel dropped two games to Italy and Spain, finishing fourth overall in the European Championships. This was the first time that Israel has even gotten that far.

A Team Israel pitcher in its victory against France in the European Championships. Photo by Margo Sugarman.
A Team Israel pitcher in its victory against France in the European Championships. Photo by Margo Sugarman.

“We faced some extremely strong teams this week,” says general manager and IAB president Peter Kurz. “The fact that we were able to beat these tough competitors is a great credit to all the players and the staff. We are ready for the next phase, and look forward to representing Israel in general and Israeli baseball in particular with pride.”

The five top teams in the European Championships, plus the already qualified South Africa, advanced to the Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifiers, which take in place in Parma and Bologna, Italy, through Sept. 22. Israel beat Spain on Wednesday in a 3-0 complete game by Joey Wagman. Israel now faces the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Italy and South Africa.

One Olympic spot will be awarded to the winner of the Europe-Africa qualifier tournament in Italy, which will feature the five European teams and South Africa, the winner of the 2019 African Baseball Championship. The second-place team in Italy will get another qualification opportunity for the Olympics in the final world qualifying event.

Continuing its storied run

The Miracle Israel Team continues its storied run, which started with the World Baseball Classic qualifiers in September 2016. Israel won all three of their games in Brooklyn, N.Y., beating Great Britain twice and Brazil once. It then advanced to Pool A, playing in South Korea in March 2017 against South Korea, Taiwan/Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands.

Israel then advanced to the second round (Pool E), playing Tokyo in March 2017. In that first game, Israel beat Cuba, then lost to the Netherlands and Japan. Israel’s storied World Baseball Classic run to the quarterfinals is chronicled in the recent documentary, “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel.”

The team is currently qualified for the 2021 World Baseball Classic.

While the World Baseball Classic only requires that players be eligible for citizenship of the country they represent, for Olympic qualifying tournaments (and for the actual Olympics players themselves), they must be actual citizens of the country they represent. Several American Jewish players, including Valencia, Blake Gailen, Ty Kelly, Corey Baker, Jeremy Bleich and Jeremy Wolf, recently got Israeli citizenship. Most will continue to reside in America.

Despite Team Israel’s incredible success thus far, competing in the Olympics is still a distant dream. The winner of the qualifier tournament will get a bid to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The runner-up will have another opportunity to qualify for Tokyo at a future qualifying event.

In an interview from Germany with JNS following the team’s Sept. 13 victory, Kurz deconstructed the meaning of the team’s recent success for Israel, as well as the experience of playing in Europe.

Q: What does the team’s recent success mean for Israel, for the players and for baseball?

A: When any Israeli sports team excels in international tournaments, it excites the country. While baseball may not yet be a mainstream sport, when Team Israel starts grabbing headlines for exceeding so many expectations, people take notice.

This is a team that has worked hard to achieve their goals. We have players who have left their wives, their young children and their full-time jobs to come and represent Israel at the tournament. They are all committed to winning.

When our teams excel abroad, the first and most palpable result is that it raises the professional level of our players in Israel. We saw this phenomenon after the excellent sixth-place result of Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic in 2017. In the two years since, our youth players have become more dedicated and have understood the need to focus on increasing their skills. In July, our Under 18 national team competed in the European Championships Qualifiers for the first time and won the tournament. The success of our Senior National Team will give our players a lot to strive for. Our teenage players now have a goal: to be a member of the SNT in the coming years.

This can only be positive for Israeli baseball. The great results of this team are also being noticed outside of the immediate community. This type of exposure increases awareness of baseball in Israel and can attract new players who may not have thought about the sport. We are building two new fields in Beit Shemesh and in Ra’anana; this will only add to the excitement we are generating here in Europe now.”

Q: Can you describe the experience of playing games these past two weeks in Europe?

A: Most of Israel Baseball’s international competition takes place in Europe. Israel is a member of the Confederation of European Baseball, or CEB. It is a tight-knit baseball community, and a good atmosphere exists between the players once the games are over. In most of Europe, baseball is also still a niche sport, so the players share a common love of it and work to support one another.

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Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

Fichman now hopes to compete for Canada at the 2020 Olympics in Japan.

A few curious fans watched the female tennis player with the Canada T-shirt warming up an hour prior to her doubles match on Court 9 at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. She seems confident and clear in what she needs from Fritz, her strong male hitting partner. Another guy with a white sleeveless shirt, shorts and colorful shoes is holding a tennis racket and retrieving balls. Though no one knows who she is, the player is no stranger to the US Open.

Canadian-Israeli Sharon Fichman, 28, played in Flushing Meadows as a junior in 2006, where she reached the doubles finals with partner Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.  Fichman was ranked No. 5 in the junior circuit that year.  She played in the US Open qualifying tournament each year from 2009-2012, and she lost in the first round of the main draw in both 2013 and 2014. In 2014, she reached career-high rankings in singles (No. 77) and doubles (No. 48).  

Following a long period of absence from the tennis tour, Fichman was back in New York this year to compete in the US Open doubles tournament.  She and fellow Canadian Bianca Andreescu  (the eventual singles champion) lost in the first round to Americans Taylor Townsend and Whitney Osuigwe.

Fichman’s break from tennis and her dramatic return is a complex, moving love story which involves overcoming adversity and facing life’s challenges and opportunities with a partner.

Fichman spoke to The Jerusalem Post and explained that in March 2014 “there were a lot of things happening in my life… there was a big change in my coaching dynamic.”

Fichman described moving to Vancouver from Toronto to be with her coach, who relocated there for professional and personal reasons.  The relationship was unhealthy and unraveling.

“In hindsight, I probably should have changed the situation at the time, but unfortunately I didn’t. It got to the point where it led to overtraining, overplaying, poor scheduling, mental fatigue, injuries, surgeries.”

Fichman experienced multiple injuries and surgeries to her Achilles, ankle and knee.

“Looking back, I shouldn’t have been competing. It got to the point that I didn’t enjoy it anymore. I was in pain, mentally and physically. Every time I would come back, I would get injured again. I needed a break. I fell out of love [with tennis].”

Fichman decided to take a break from tennis in May 2016. She stayed in Vancouver, began building a life outside of tennis and entered into a serious relationship, which brought her back home to Toronto.

Once in Toronto, the relationship ended and Fichman was “focused on getting life together and finding a new passion outside of tennis.”

But ultimately she “fell back in love with tennis” and started taking coaching education courses, serving as a high performance coach and doing tennis commentary on television.

Fichman also fell back in love with a person.

“When I moved back to Toronto, Dylan [Moscovitch] got back in touch with me.

Fichman proceeded to describe the moving story of her relationship with Dylan Moscovitch, the accomplished 35-year-old retired pairs skater.

Moscovitch, who like Fichman is Jewish, competed with partner Kirsten Moore-Towers and was the 2013 Four Continents silver medalist, 2014 Olympic team event silver medalist, and 2011 Canadian national champion. He then competed with Liubov Ilyushechkina from 2014 to 2018 and together they won numerous prizes, including as the 2017 Four Continents bronze medalists, two-time bronze medalists on the Grand Prix series, and three-time Canadian national medalists (silver in 2015 and 2017, bronze in 2016).

Fichman’s relationship with Moscovitch started slowly.

“We met when I was 12, through his tennis-playing brother,’ she recounted. “We weren’t in each other’s lives… we sort of knew about each other and each other’s careers – we were both Jewish Canadian athletes.”

Fichman was born in Toronto to Jewish parents who moved from their native Romania to Israel before settling in Canada. She competed in the 17th Maccabiah Games in Israel at age 14 and won the gold medal in women’s singles. Moscovitch also had visited Israel on a Birthright program.

“We had each other on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Eventually he reached out, and asked me out a couple of times. Eventually I said yes. When we reconnected, the rest is history!”

They started dating in August 2017 and “hit the ground sprinting.”

Moscovitch’s life would soon change in unexpected ways.

In December 2017, he called Fichman just before she boarded a plane for a three-hour flight to Toronto. He was relaxing on a stretching mat after a gym workout.

“While we were on the phone together, a 200-pound mirrored door next to him unhinged and fell on him. He was knocked unconscious and suffered multiple facial lacerations, a cracked bone in his hand, multiple stitches in his right hand and was concussed for two months. What was horrible, is that I heard everything on the other end of the phone, not knowing whether or not he was dead or alive throughout the flight.”

Fichman described her flight as “the scariest three hours of my life.”

“Usually, Dylan closes his eyes while relaxing after his workouts. This time, since he was speaking on the phone, his eyes were open. Speaking with me saved him some serious head damage. If his eyes were closed, he wouldn’t have been able to react with his hand to help stop the majority of the impact.”

As a result of his injuries, Moscovitch retired from skating and was unable to participate in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

“He missed the opportunity to go to two Olympics, which was his goal – to go to two Olympics and medal.”

That missed opportunity is intimately connected to Fichman’s return to tennis.

“Dylan’s injury inspired me to come back because I wanted him to fulfill that dream. I decided after I heard [fellow Canadian tennis player] Gaby [Dabrowski]in a press conference mention something about the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It inspired me to come back for Dylan.”

Fichman now hopes to compete for Canada at the 2020 Olympics in Japan.

“I had a bad break-up with tennis,” she noted. “I didn’t finish the sport in a way that left me feeling like I had a lot of love for it. This has given me an opportunity to play again and play on my terms and learn to love it.”

Fichman returned to tennis in doubles at the 2018 ITF event in Indian Harbour Beach and reached the quarterfinals with partner Jamie Loeb.

At this year’s US Open, when her practice session draws to a close, she sits in her chair next to hitting partner and the other guy who had been assisting on court. That man is Dylan Moscovitch.

Fichman opens up her tennis bag and takes out a hard case. She retrieves a shining diamond ring which she slips on to her finger. Fichman and Moscovitch got engaged in November 2018, and are planning their wedding in February 2021.

Moscovitch spends a great deal of time with Fichman on and off court, where he offers support and a great deal of insight and wisdom.

“Any athlete who competes later in life and takes a break has a certain perspective, which is a huge asset” said Moscovitch. “This lens helps her a lot on court, and to understand balance in life. I try to help with this philosophy.”

While the US Open may have ended early for Fichman, she and Moscovitch have Tokyo and married life to look forward to and their future is bright as the sun.

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Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

Nadal advanced to Friday’s semifinals, his eighth US Open final four.

Diego Schwartzman’s storied US Open run came to an end in the early hours of Thursday morning in three hard-fought sets against Rafael Nadal, with a final result of 6-4, 7-5, 6-2

The Spaniard had beaten Schwartzman all seven times they’ve played, including a straight-set win in the third round of the 2015 US Open. Schwartzman had won only two sets in the previous 17 against Nadal. The 27-year-old Argentine Jew, who beat Alexander Zverev to advance to the quarterfinals, was the only player to win a set off Nadal at the 2018 French Open, when Nadal went on to win his 11th Rolland Garros title.

While Nadal took Thursday’s match in straight sets, the match was not easy for the second seed. In the first two sets, Nadal raced to double-break leads. However, a number of misfires by the 33-year-old Spaniard allowed Schwartzman to get back into each set.

The momentum appeared to shift for Schwartzman in the seventh game of the second set. Down 5-1, Schwartzman broke Nadal twice to tie the score at five apiece. Prior to the match, Nadal’s serve had only been broken twice at Flushing medals; Schwartzman broke Nadal four times.

Following a difficult passing winner, the crowd stood and cheered, calling out Schwartzman’s name.  Schwartzman repeatedly pumped his fists toward the packed, Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd and, inspired by the fans’ enthusiasm, continued to fight.

“It crazy,” said Schwartzman. “It’s nice when it’s happening on court, the big points and when you win the big points. I took a lot of confidence after that point.”

Nadal held serve to go up 6-5 as the match clock topped two hours. Schwartzman served and saved three match points before going down 7-5.

The players stayed on serve in the third set before Nadal broke Schwartzman in game six to go up 4-2. While the match appeared to be winding down, Nadal showed signs of wear and tear, receiving treatment from the trainer on his left forearm.

Nadal mustered strength and came out fighting, winning nine of 10 points in games five through seven.  At 30-30 in the third set’s eighth game, Schwartzman hit long before hitting the final shot of the match into the net.

The old friends embraced at the net.  The crowd cheered the hard-working Schwartzman who stayed on court to sign autographs for late-night fans.

In the 1 a.m. media session, Schwartzman was asked to describe Nadal’s tenacity.

“He is like a lion in the middle, you know, in the jungle. He’s a fighter. He knows how to play the important moments every single time. I have played him eight times, and every important moment he played better than me!”

Nadal advanced to Friday’s semifinals, his eighth US Open final four, against 24th-seeded Italian Matteo Berrettini of Italy. The big-hitting Berrettini outlasted No. 13 Gael Monfils of France 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6(5) in Wednesday’s thrilling five-setter. 

The other men’s semi features No. 5 Daniil Medvedev vs Grigor Dimitrov, while on the women’s side, Serena Williams faces Elina Svitolina and Belinda Bencic takes on Bianca Andreescu.

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Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

How Shabbat-observant music lovers grooved at the Lockn’ Festival in rural America

BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAINS, Virginia – When the biblical Abraham and Sarah opened up their tent and welcomed everyone to come in, they had no idea they would be setting a precedent that would be replayed last week at the four-day Lockn’ Festival in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

A “hippie” jam-band Americana gathering held annually since 2013 and attended by some 30,000 music lovers, Lockn’ has featured headliners such as Phish, Dead and Co, Tom Petty, Robert Plant and Carlos Santana. The festival strives to blend world-class music, promote local vendors and encourage community engagement.

For an observant Jew, attending a music festival over Shabbat poses many potential logistical challenges: It is not permitted to light fires, make any purchases or carry in a public place. There is no kosher food on site, and many would question the permissibility of attending a concert at all on the Sabbath – even if tickets are purchased in advance and one need only show a wrist band to get in.

Enter Rabbi Yehoshua Eliovson and 25 members of his JamShalom and Shabbat Tent organizations.

Shu, an IT professional with Orthodox rabbinic ordination, has been friends with festival organizer Peter Shapiro for many years. JamShalom received special permission to arrive at Lockn’ on Wednesday to begin setting up its “Shabbat Tent.”

The tent makes it possible for observant Jews to keep Shabbat while also attending a music festival, and it serves as a source of outreach and support for concertgoers.

The American-born Shu, who has lived in Israel since 2004, drove down from New York with two of his children, ages 17 and 23, in vehicles loaded with camping gear, banners, tapestries, rugs and Shabbat food donated by Grow & Behold. They set up the communal tent to be used for prayers and meals, but it was destroyed in a torrential rain storm. After purchasing a new big tent, the crew was on their way to again building a Shabbat camp.

It rained again most of Friday. Three hours before the start of Shabbat, the rain stopped and the sky cleared. Two guys with deep connections to music and traditional Judaism, Yehuda and Motti Shur, heated food for Shabbat dinner over a camping stove and warmers. They grew up in a Shabbat-observant home with a music-loving father, Rabbi Moshe Shur, the longtime director of Queens College Hillel. The elder Shur once lived on a California commune led by Wavy Gravy, jammed with Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, played in the Diaspora Yeshiva Band, and presented at Blues for Challah: A Grateful Dead Shabbaton.

TWO YOUNG shirtless men were on ladders around the campsite, anchoring wood poles and tying string to the tops as part of the eruv that would enable observant Jews to carry on Shabbat. Shu, meanwhile, entertained questions from curious Jewish and non-Jewish fellow campers. “We don’t roll on Shabbat,” Shu tells a 40-something couple, explaining, “We only carry within the private domain within our campsite.”

He then shared, “My rebbe is Trey [Anastasio, lead singer of Phish], and his rebbe is Derek Trucks, and both will be performing tonight. We are excited!” 

Leib Meadvin, a Philadelphia area artist and math teacher with a long beard who just came from the for-pay shower house, is dressed in dark slacks, a white button-down shirt and Crocs. The hassid, clearly the oldest member of the group, has a long and distinguished history of following the Grateful Dead and attending concerts. He proudly shows off his tallit and tefillin bag with his Hebrew name and Grateful Dead logo.

Unlike most members of the group who feel comfortable walking to the concert venue on Shabbat (and who are able to enter without scanning their wrist band if they say they are with JamShalom), Leib and his son will not hear live music until after the Havdalah prayer on Saturday night when the Tedeschi Trucks Band will be joined by Trey Anastasio.

Shabbat starts with most still wearing shorts and tie-dyed shirts. Shu shares words of Torah, leads an extended Kabbalat Shabbat with Lecha Dodi sung to the tune of the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple.” After Kiddush and Hamotzi (the blessings over wine and bread) and after dinner is served, the eclectic group sits in a circle on chairs and carpets.

Lisa, a young woman from Louisville, Kentucky, who lives in Brooklyn, tells about her cannabis edibles business, explaining how she carefully doses each of the three layers of her signature cakes.

“If you feel comfortable eating in my house, you will feel comfortable with the kashrut of my edibles!” Lisa came to Lockn’ and the JamShalom “to cultivate community.” She observes, “We are one big festival family. THIS is our family within a family.” 

There are several Israelis in the group. Two hesder yeshiva students whose families made aliyah from the United States five years ago are here, prior to enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces.

Racheli, who grew up in a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) family in Lakewood, New Jersey, and who works in special education in Israel, is here for the shows, and for the “the Rabbi Shu experience.” She is also here for “the people, the tapestries, the kitchen full of food, and the heady jams!”  

ONE OF Shu’s daughters just completed her service in the IDF. She and Shu will continue on to Colorado to see some Phish shows before traveling in India.

Dinner is quick. Most dash off to the venue to catch the Trey Anastasio Band with Derek Trucks. Even more music awaits at another venue, Garcia’s Forest, with a set starting at 12:30 a.m. More prayers, Shabbat food and music will follow Saturday, late morning.

Peter Shapiro, the festival founder with deep Jewish ties, loves what he sees. “Whenever I see Shu and the JamShalom crew at a show, it makes me feel better. They are able to bring out and evoke the best of the Judaic spirit and do it in an accessible way that people of all ages and backgrounds can embrace and feel a part of. It is uplifting and a model for showcasing the best that the Jewish religion and its culture and people represent.”

According to Prof. Shaul Magid, distinguished fellow in Jewish studies at Dartmouth College and senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, there is a long history of observant Jews attending concerts and music festivals over Shabbat.

“This Shabbat counterculture thing started with the Rainbow Gathering,” in the early 1970s. “They had a Shabbat tent, an eruv and hevra [community]. It was a place for Jews, and non-Jews and a lot of Grateful Dead stuff, and people returned each year.” He also credits the Havurah movement of the 1970s with empowering Jews to take a “do it yourself” approach to Jewish ritual and observance.

While most Chabad and mainstream Orthodox Jews would likely not attend a music festival over Shabbat, Magid credits the influence of Chabad with the idea that “there is no place a Jew can’t go.” Magid feels that “Jews coming to music festivals through JamShalom represents a certain kind of confidence we American Jews have. We are good. We can go anywhere!”

Rabbi Menachem Creditor, author, activist, musician and scholar-in-residence at UJA-Federation New York, approaches the question of observant Jews attending music festivals through the lens of a rabbi.

“When a rabbi is asked a question like this, it’s typically easier to say no,” he says. “In truth, the beauty of halacha [Jewish law] is its elasticity. Finding ways for Jewish tradition to allow for a communal experience of music demonstrates the power of tradition to not reject the world but rather cherish it enough to see its worth.”

Rabbi Gabe Greenberg, director of the Jewish Renaissance Project at Penn Hillel, is supportive of Jews who balance Shabbat observance with music festival attendance.

“Observant Jews who attend these music festivals are embodying and enacting the ancient Jewish yearning to celebrate with community during pilgrimage festivals. I think this fusion of old and new is a wonderful manifestation of Rav Kook’s adage, ‘The old shall be made new, and the new shall be made holy.’”

WHILE SOME people who attend music festivals with JamShalom have been Shabbat-observant for many years, some younger participants are newly observant or seeking, and appreciate the guidance and support that JamShalom and the similar Shabbat Tent group offers.

Lara and Cheston Mizel at Lockn’ from Los Angeles run a Shabbat tent described as “an oasis of chill based on Shabbat hospitality, mindfulness and nourishment for the body and soul.”

Cheston Mizel has observed that Jewish twenty- and thirty-somethings who attend music festivals “are looking for something and want to connect. If we don’t do it, others will give answers. We didn’t grow up frum [religious] but found it later. We love festivals and we want to share and do outreach.” 

The Shabbat tent was started in 1999 at a Phish show as a one-time project. Its success prompted organizers to expand to various settings across the country, appearing at festivals such as Bonnaroo, Mountain Jam, Gathering of the Vibes and Fare Thee Well. They have also hosted Passover Sedarim at Coachella (affectionately called “Matzachella”) and most recently hosted nearly 200 people at the July 4th High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, California.

“We are listed on the festival website and we are located right near the front door!” reports Mizel proudly.

Shu is also there to meet the diverse, unique needs of young Jews. He put up his first JamShalom flag at the Super Bowl in 2011 and at a Nassau County Coliseum concert in 2012, where he recounts, “We grilled with our hevra. It was chill. Then, Pete [Shapiro] invited us to Lockn.” 

Shu finds young Jews “in their best moments spiritually, when they are at music festivals. We put up a tent at a crossroads of where Jewish kids are. We at JamShalom create connections where they are.” 

In Israel, Shu works for Deloitte, where he is a service leader for strategic storytelling and fundraising readiness. He has also continued to consider ways he might help youth in both Israel and America. “I love music and realized kids were in the fields,” he says.

Through JamShalom, and a new venture called the Negev Farmhouse (named after a Phish song and album), Shu and his wife say they are striving to meet the needs of Jewish young adults. “I have the largest congregation of millennials in the world. They call me 24/7.” 

The Negev Farmhouse “provides an authentic space for young Jews (18-32) to discover and celebrate their personal relationship with Judaism within a community of like-minded friends.”

Shu finds millennials who don’t come from observant backgrounds are discovering Shabbat and observance through JamShalom. “They say, ‘I love JamShalom and PhishShalom and doing Shabbat at shows. Can’t we do Shabbat without the concert?’” He points out that, of course, Shabbat comes every week and can be meaningful in all locations.But a Lockn’ Shabbat – with 12 hours a day of live jam band music for four days – only comes once a year.

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