Original Article Published on The JNS

Relix magazine and the Brooklyn Bowl are well-known to music lovers worldwide. This year, they will become even better known as they host “High Holidays –A Suite of Spiritually Driven Holiday Services,” an innovative musical worship experience for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Relix Magazine, the print and online publication, was launched in 1974 to focus on the live music scene. The Brooklyn Bowl is a music venue, bowling alley and restaurant in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., with branches in both Nashville and Las Vegas. Both are owned by music-world mover, shaker and mensch Peter Shapiro.

These musical Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur evening and daytime services are celebrating their 10th consecutive year. Services on both days of Rosh Hashanah will take place in person at the Brooklyn Bowl for a limited number of worshippers.

Erev Rosh Hashanah will be livestreamed Sept. 6 at 7:30 p.m. EST on fans.live with Rosh Hashanah morning livestreamed Sept. 7 at 10 a.m. Kol Nidre will be livestreamed on Sept 15. at 7 p.m. from the Relix Studio. Yom Kippur morning will be livestreamed on Sept. 16 at 10 a.m.

The High Holiday services, often to referred to as “Bowl Hashanah,” are hosted by Friday Night Jams/Because Jewish and will be led by Rabbi Daniel Brenner; Jeremiah Lockwood (musical coordinator); vocalist and bass player Yula Beeri; and trumpeter and Antibalas charter member Jordan McLean.

Services include a variety of musical guests from the Jewish and secular world who will appear both live and through pre-recorded performances. The “who’s who” of musicians include Armo, Eric Slick (Dr. Dog), Ross James (Terrapin Family Band), Alex Bleeker (Real Estate), Stuart Bogie (Antibalas/Arcade Fire), Eric Krasno, Dan Lebowitz (ALO), Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Group), Dave Harrington (Darkside), Adam Roberts, Spencer Zahn, Anthony Russell, Brian Chase (Yeah Yeahs) and more.

Rosh Hashanah morning services will include traditional prayers, Torah reading and a shofar service, as well as guided meditation by Yael Shy, CEO of Mindfulness Consulting.

The marquee for the “High Holidays–A Suite of Spiritually Driven Holiday Services” at the Brooklyn Bowl. Credit: Courtesy.

Shapiro proudly notes that “Bowl Hashanah has become a meaningful tradition for Brooklyn Bowl. To have a holiday that means so much, marking the beginning of the New Year, is a life highlight for me personally. I look forward to continuing this tradition forever.”

‘They tell the stories of our people’

Relix editor-in-chief Mike Greenhaus feels that the Brooklyn Bowl, which has historically hosted Bowl Hashanah in person in non-COVID times, is ideal for the High Holidays experience. “We have said for years that Brooklyn Bowl is our sanctuary, clubhouse, church and synagogue, so it only makes sense that it has grown into the spiritual home for our musically inclined Rosh Hashanah services over the years. Especially at a time when so many of us have been apart from our friends and family due to the pandemic, we hope that our suite of traditional but-open-minded and inclusive services will allow us to connect with each other as we ‘begin again’ at the start of this new year.”

While many online and in-person (indoor and outdoor) options exist for worshippers worldwide this High Holiday season, Greenhaus senses that Bowl Hashanah fills a unique place in the Jewish world. He hopes “the services will help make those watching from home or in-person feel a deep connection between their Jewish spiritual world and the live-music community that originally brought so many of us together.”

The service facilitators offer important contributions to the worship experience. Jeremiah Lockwood—the frontman of Sway Machinery, who has also toured extensively with Balkan Beat Box—returns to New York after being absent for a few years while completing his Ph.D. at Stanford University. Lockwood is the son of composer Larry Lockwood and the grandson of the legendary Cantor Jacob Konigsberg. His dissertation, “Golden Ages: Chassidic cantorial revivalists in the digital age,” focused on young cantors in the Chassidic community.

Jeremiah Lockwood. Credit: BecauseJewish.com.

While Bowl Hashanah has a very modern flavor, Lockwood, perhaps unsurprisingly, very much values the cantorial tradition and nusach (liturgy/tunes). “I look to the old-school cantors as great. They speak the music to tell the stories of our people. And they bring the people with them. This is rare in the contemporary world.”

He acknowledges that people “want to have an activating, enjoyable experience.” He and his partners intend to help them on that journey.

Lockwood is looking forward to working more directly with Yula Beeri and appreciates that she “stepped in,” learning the service in his absence. “We are working on vocal arrangements, and what she is bringing will add a great deal,” he says.

And Beeri is similarly honored to work with Lockwood. “Jordan called three years ago from the West Coast to see if I would come on board and sing a few songs. I said, ‘Of course. When I found out the scope, I was amazed, frightened and intrigued!”

The secular-born Israeli lives in Brooklyn and is the founder of the music and arts collective Yula & The Extended Family (YXFM). She often performs with her husband, drummer Isaac Gardner. Beeri points out that the service fills an important need in the community: “These experiences fill a gap for people like me! People with a secular background who are searching for Jewish identify while also being an artist and musician.”

‘Channeling the crowd experience’

Rabbi Daniel Brenner is excited about the upcoming services but acknowledges that he is still thinking back to last Rosh Hashanah when it was unclear if the service would happen due to the pandemic. “For me, on an emotional level, having a group of musicians on stage making music was like coming out of hibernation and interacting with the world for the first time.”

Blowing the shofar. Credit: BecauseJewish.com.

He was delighted to learn that 20,000 people were watching online.

Brenner captures what is so special about the Bowl Hashanah High Holiday experience. As he explains, “it is putting the experience of live music first and designing a High Holidays celebration around an experience of live music for people for whom live music is their thing.”

And he understands what fans of the jam band scene are looking for, saying “these are people not afraid of a song lasting longer than 10 minutes.” Participants often bring both their young children and their older parents, who also find the experience enjoyable.

And Brenner is there to serve as everyone’s guide. “My role,” he says, “is to be channeling the crowd experience rather than being the rabbi MC.”

He adds, “I have to be immersing myself in the music for it to be authentic. I have to throw myself into it.”

Brenner will also offer short kavannot—prayer explanations and spiritual guidance—as well as parables that he will prepare.

Brenner strives to offer an inclusive, welcoming user experience. “It is similar to a live show—you can sit, stand, wiggle, dance—and you won’t be judged because you can do your own thing and be free of inhibition.”

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Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

As US Open gets under way, lack of blue-and-white competitors is glaring * ITEC and David Squad aim to change that

When fans return to this year’s US Open, they will be painfully aware of an absence of Israeli players.

There will be no Israelis in the men’s or women’s singles draw of this year’s US Open, to be played August 30-September 12 at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, NY.

Jonathan Erlich, 44, will play doubles with Lloyd Harris of South Africa.  Dudi Sela, 36, ranked 319, reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 prior to last week’s scheduled match in the qualifying tournament versus Belgian Ruben Bemelmans.

If Hans Felius has his way, the lack of Israelis in major tennis tournaments will change in the future. Felius, the director of tennis at ITEC (Israel Tennis Educational Centers) – formerly known as Israel Tennis Centers – has a carefully thought-out plan for systematically training Israeli children with great potential so they will one day play in major junior and adult tournaments around the world.

Felius projects that his efforts will bear fruit in 2029. This is no consolation for lovers of Israel tennis with tickets to the 2021 US Open.

Fans of Israel tennis traditionally flock to the US Open each August with hopes of seeing Israeli pros and even juniors in action. Many have stories and memories of late nights spent watching Sela or Shahar Pe’er battle it out on a side court, or Julia Glushko playing in the noon heat, seeking a spot in the main draw. They remember summers watching aspiring juniors Yshai Oliel, Lera Patiuk, Or Ram Harel or Bar Botzer – with great hopes that they’d become the next Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer.

Fans of a certain age remember Gilad Bloom, now 54, reach the rank of No. 61 in singles. Or Shlomo Glickstein, who reached a career-high singles ranking of No. 22 in 1982, and his career-high doubles ranking of 28 in 1986. His impressive career includes reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open once, the third round of both Wimbledon and the French Open once, and the second round of the US Open four times.
Felius is not making excuses for the absence of Israelis at most Grand Slams in recent years. He is simply working to get Israelis back in the draw of major junior and professional tournaments. And he may just have what it takes.

Felius, a native of the Netherlands, was the professional director of the Dutch Tennis Association. He came to Israel in 1988 and was recruited to work with such players as Bloom, Amos Mansdorf and Anna Smashnova. After a stint in Israel from 1989-1997, Felius trained and coached players in Austria and Holland.

“My main expertise is in systematically building players to the professional ranks,” said Felius. He emphasized that “physical education is the basis.”

The father of six is a Jew by choice who made aliyah in 2012. He took a break from tennis to work in hi-tech then was offered his current position, the Director of Tennis and Social Impact Programs at the ITEC.
“I had one more chance to do it right—to get players to the top 100. I knew it would take patience.”

Felius knew it would require a carefully crafted, step-by-step plan.
“It takes 10 years, and we need to stick to each point.”
He firmly believes that getting Israeli players to the top levels is not a matter of “taking the two best players at age 16 and giving them the best coach.”

He makes the case that it is important to identify children with the right motor skills and other skill sets at age seven.
The ITEC is in a unique position to identify and work with young players throughout the country. The ITEC offers what he describes as “three complementary, yet separate spheres that empower one another and create synergy.” They include junior development (5,500 children), social impact programming (for 2,000 children at risk and also includes a coexistence and an obesity prevention program) and talent development.

The talent development program provides 500 gifted players the opportunity to eventually play professional tennis, or to receive scholarships to play at leading universities and colleges abroad. Players train in seven junior academies throughout Israel (Akko, Yokneam, Haifa, Ramat HaSharon, Tel Aviv, Ashkelon). They play two hours a day, five days a week and also participate in fitness classes, mental training and tournaments at the centers. Some go on to play tournaments in Israel and abroad.

Select players from these academies who meet certain ranking and tournament point benchmarks will proceed to the International ITEC Tennis Academy, where the program consists of six days of tennis and fitness, mental training, medical/physiotherapist support and nutrition.

Players on the Elite Team, top-100 track currently include males Ron Ellouck (ranked No. 148), Vova Bazilevsky, Amit Valas, Ofek Shimanov (715), and female players Mika Dagan Fruchtman (226), Karin Altori (541), Mika Buchnik (775) and Vasilina Andronov. Some from this cohort will go on to play men’s and women’s future tournaments, then top level ATP and WTA professional tournaments.

While Felius’ program is predicted to take 10 years before an Israeli is at the top of the tennis world, the David Squad is also hard at work getting young Israelis to the big tournaments – and they predict it will take even less time.

DAVID SQUAD members (from left) Gabriel Rujinsky (coach), Gur Trakhtenberg, Tim Vaisman, Ilan London Menache, Simon Levy, Andy Zingman, Halel Ashoosh pose on the court. (credit: LIDOR GOLDBERG)

The David Squad was started in 2007 by British businessman David Coffer, who at the time was struck by what he saw as a lack of clay tennis court training facilities in Israel. He selected eight of the best juniors and funded a two-week intensive training camp on red clay courts in Spain. The single focus of the David Squad elite training program is to produce Israeli tennis players who win international competitions.

Andy Zingman, Head of Operations of the David Squad and head coach, proudly reports: “We are currently coaching and managing the top-three 15-year-old boys, the best two 14-year-old boys and the top 12-year-old girl. All of them represent Israel at European Championships and are/were highly ranked in Europe U14.”

Zingman, who made Aliyah from Argentina 15 years ago, was ranked No. 18 in the world for U18, was the Argentine singles and doubles national U18 Champion, competed in all four Grand Slams, and has extensive experience coaching junior and professional players. He boldly predicts that all six players in the David Squad elite training program will make it to the US Open within two to four years.

“We just need time for them to grow, get stronger, and absorb the hard work.”
He bases his prediction on accomplishments of the David Squad players so far.
“In the past 15 years the David Squad has grown to become one of the most highly-respected organizations in Junior tennis, having produced international champions, including Junior Grand Slam, Orange Bowl, $10k, $15K and $25K tournaments winners.”

The six players the David Squad is currently working with include:

• Gur Trachtenberg (15 years old, ranked No. 592): Israeli National Champion U12 & U14. Last year he won three Tennis Europe tournaments in a row, won the Israeli Junior National Tournament (U14) and Represented Israel at European Championships.

• Halel Ashoosh (15 years old; ranked No. 1,709): Winner of national tournaments U12 & U14. Last year was the finalist of three U14 Tennis Europe tournaments in a row (lost to Gur). Represented Israel at European Championships U12 & U14.

• Eyal Shumilov (14 years old; ranked No. 1,611): Winner of multiple singles and doubles Tennis Europe tournaments and National tournaments in Israel in 2020. This year he won a doubles ITF tournament with Gur Trachtenberg in Georgia. Represented Israel at European Championships U12 & U14.

• Tim Vaisman (14 years old): This year achieved Best ranking of No. 4 in Europe U14, Represented Israel at European Championships U12 & U14. He was singles and doubles Champion in several TE tournaments.

• Ilan London Menache (14 years old): A new player on the squad who immigrated with his family from Brazil three years ago. Ilan won national tournaments and represented Israel at the U14 European Championships this summer.

• Evelin Bortsova (12 years old): The Israeli National Champion U10, and potentially U12 next month. She won many singles matches and a doubles tournament at U12 Tennis Europe events this year. Evelyn owns a fantastic eye-ball coordination, stroke technique and a winning mentality.
In addition to these players, the David Squad continues to develop promising younger players as part of the David Squad pipeline.

“Throughout the past 15 years we have continued to produce the very best Israeli players, through our professional approach and dedication to the highest standards to produce elite level players, irrespective of lack of support from the wider system,” noted Coffer. “We continue to do so and are extremely excited about our current cohort, which comprises an exceptional group of the region’s top players aged 12 to 15. We are certain each of them will be playing juniors Grand Slam in the short term and very confident about their progression to professional status thereafter.”
While spectators at this year’s US Open will not get to see any Israel other than Erlich in action, they are invited to keep a close eye on the boys and girls working hard at ITEC and through David Squad to become Israel’s next tennis stars. Perhaps one day, one of these young Israelis will be accepting the champions trophy on center court at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

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Original Article published On the JNS

Traveling to Israel has just gotten tougher since the start of the coronavirus, and the Delta variant isn’t helping. But if you are fortunate to get there, then a world of treasures—Jewish, historical, athletic, culinary and otherwise—awaits.

Walk down Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv or through Jerusalem’s famed Machane Yehuda open-air market at 10 p.m. on a random weekday night, and it’s hard to get a table. Diners are eating schnitzel, drinking beer and discussing surfing, a scheduled (or postponed) trip abroad and the big sale at Ikea (Israel has seven stores), which ended on July 27. During an ordinary summer, tourists from all over the world would freely mix with Israelis at these restaurants.

But this is no ordinary summer. With the exception of a few thousand tourists granted special permission to visit as part of teen tours—Birthright trips, rabbinic groups, Jewish communal leadership and/or missions, or as first-degree relatives visiting Israeli children or parents—very few non-Israelis are enjoying the Jewish state this summer.

Traveling to Israel has just gotten tougher as countries around the world are now being classified by color—yellow, orange and red. The United States became orange on Aug. 11, meaning those fortunate enough to be granted permission to travel to Israel must quarantine upon arrival for seven to 14 days. An active Facebook group, “Reunite Olim With Their Families,” now has more than 10,000 members. Throughout the pandemic, their goal has been to “provide support, help and resources for olim and their families” so as to be reunited in Israel after being separated so long due to coronavirus travel restrictions. The group serves as a place to share resources to help others get approval to be reunited with their families. With few exceptions, only potential travelers with immediate relatives have a shot at visiting Israel right now.

Prior to last March, for most tourists around the world, all that was required to enter Israel was a passport and a plane ticket. Now, Jews simply wanting to put a note in the Western Wall, visit Yad Vashem, eat falafel on Ben-Yehuda Street, hike Masada or celebrate a child’s bar or bat mitzvah don’t have the opportunity. Some out-of-work tour guides have been offering virtual tours of Israel hot spots, but it’s not the same.

I am pleased to be one of the lucky ones, having been granted permission to visit first-degree relatives. With my serological test and Tav Yarok (“green pass”) in hand, I have been able to visit relatives, eat shwarma, drive up and down Kvish Shesh (Highway 6), enjoy Netanya’s beaches (and kosher French pastries), observe massive country-wide construction—and just take it all in. I have visited Israel twice since May, and offer a few observations and insights.

Israeli Jews and Arabs go about their business

For those who haven’t been fortunate enough to visit Israel in two or more years, the country looks the same, and yet different.

When I landed in Israel a few months ago, in May, and began walking down Arlozoroff Street in Tel Aviv (trying to avoid the backhoes and tractors working on the massive light-rail project), I was keenly aware of people’s faces. That would sound odd, of course, during any time but these COVID times. I was seeing hundreds of faces for the first time in more than a year. Not just eyes, but entire faces—people eating and drinking in packed cafes and bars, people swimming, surfing and playing volleyball and old-fashioned matkot (often called “Kadima”) on the beach.

People remained unmasked throughout the two-week visit, but the sense of calm and complacency changed within seconds one evening. While returning to our Tel Aviv Airbnb from dinner, the sirens came out of nowhere, and we followed the lead of fellow Tel Avivians running for cover in shelters or basements, hallways, even under concrete steps. A week of unexpected bombing was underway from terror groups in Gaza. We, and all of Israel, would be in and out of shelters and safe rooms for an entire week. Flights out of Ben-Gurion were canceled, and the chances of returning home in time for a life-cycle or any other event looked bleak.

Construction can be seen throughout Israel. As they say, the crane is the national bird of the Jewish state. Photo by Howard Blas.

While residents of Ramat Gan outside Tel Aviv all the way down to Beersheva were dealing with hundreds of falling rockets—and with their phones, people were filming Israel’s Iron Dome air-defense system knocking most out of then out of the sky—other areas were dealing with riots, fires, looting rock-throwing and stabbings in traditionally calm, mixed Arab-Jewish neighborhoods.

By July, everything had shifted again. A feeling of physical safety—from the Gaza Strip and the Arab sector—had mostly returned. But then, the Delta variant of COVID-16 started getting out of hand, and Israel returned to mask requirements indoors with workers in the private sector encouraged to continue working from home. Government officials were working 50 percent in person and 50 percent remotely. Each of the three Shabbats I spent in shul (in Beersheva and Tel Aviv), mask compliance neared 100 percent after a spring where vaccinations meant faces were visible. What a difference two months makes!

While the news around the world has had a field day reporting on the Ben & Jerry’s boycott announcement of not selling their products to West Bank communities and parts of Jerusalem, and while The New York Times ran a long piece titled, “Riots Shatter Veneer of Coexistence in Israel’s Mixed Towns,” these are far from the big stories in Israel. Ice-cream lovers can still buy Ben & Jerrys in supermarkets and in small stores (though many now don’t want to). And Israeli Jews and Arabs go about their business—together.

The author at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Selfie photo by Howard Blas.

In the ever-expanding city of Beersheva in Israel’s Negev Desert, Jewish, Muslim and Bedouin families wait in lines together at Osher Od or Machsanei Hashuk grocery stores with their overstuffed shopping carts in the checkout line. All have the same goal—to feed large families at the best possible prices. At Soroka Hospital’s many medical specialty clinics, Jewish and Muslim mothers wait for appointments—with Jewish and Arab doctors—and offer each other personal stories, comfort and support.

At the many Israel Tennis Educational Centers in such “mixed” cities as Jerusalem, Jaffa, Beersheva, Tiberias, Haifa, Sajur, Yokneam and Akko, the co-existence program has been bringing Jews, Muslim Arabs, Christian Arabs, Bedouins and Druze and refugees from many countries around the world together since 1970 to learn and play tennis.

In Israel, life goes on. Coexistence is not a news story.

Israel’s gems, large and small

Drive south down Kvish 6, Israel’s fast north-to-south toll road, and you will see an example of daily life that is not a news story. You will pass the town of Kiryat Gat in the distance, and it is simply exploding. It’s not just home to Intel anymore. Companies such as Hitachi, Zenith Solar and HP-Indigo have a large presence, and construction of upscale apartments and private homes in nearby Carmei Gat are going up everywhere.

After exploring the industrial area and walking the streets of Kiryat Gat, a city that’s home to about 57,000, I set out to tour the Negev Brewery, Noam’s Artichokes and Maresha Estate Winery. To my disappointment, all were closed but a friendly voice on the phone at the winery directed me to Beta Israel Village. To my delight, I discovered a replica Ethiopian village with guides and workshops working hard to preserve and share Ethiopian Jewish life with Israelis and tourists alike. Nearly 4,500 Ethiopian Jews live in Kiryat Gat.

What a pleasure to discover Israel’s gems, large and small. The joke is that Israel’s national bird is the crane. Construction cranes are everywhere—from Jerusalem to Netanya to Beersheva. Names of fancy buildings with apartments in the millions include the Mesila (Jerusalem’s German Colony), T-Towers (Ir Yamin-Netanya) and David Promenade Residences (Tel Aviv). Is Israel, currently a country of fewer than 9 million people, gearing up for the potential immigration for all of the world’s estimated 14 million Jews? No! Israel is gearing up for extraordinary internal growth.

According to projections by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, the country’s population will reach about 12.8 million in 2040. The Central Bureau of Statistics, projects that by 2050, Israel’s population will hit 15.7 million.

Beta Israel Village in Kiryat Gat, Israel. Photo by Howard Blas.

As an example, the entire city of Jerusalem is currently undergoing a massive facelift with every infrastructure project from light rail to roads being addressed at once. The high-speed train from Ben-Gurion International Airport and Tel Aviv’s Haganah station to Jerusalem—a huge time-saver over commuting in terrible traffic—is up and running. A new three-mile road, Road 16, an entry route to Jerusalem, is currently under construction and will connect Route 1 from the Motza area to Givat Mordechai through two tunnels. It will be under the Har Nof and Yefeh Nof neighborhoods.

Renderings of high-rises scheduled to be built at the entrance to Jerusalem will have travelers thinking they are in Midtown Manhattan!

Yet for all of Israel’s growth, in many ways, it’s still the same old Israel. Israelis still earn their name as sabras—prickly on the outside and sweet on the inside. Impatient customers shout at fellow customers and cashiers in checkout lines. Wolt delivery drivers and commuters on scooters, bikes and motorcycles unapologetically come within centimeters of toppling pedestrians. And parking everywhere is a nightmare, especially when every inch of street or sidewalk is deemed to be a legitimate parking space.

And Israel continues to help one another in large and small ways. Benches in cities are filled with clothes and kitchen items for others to take. Produce and meals are offered free to the poor nationwide.

Israel is still teaching the world to save water through drip irrigation and through toilets with two flushers. Israel is teaching the world safe ways to walk on sidewalks while using cell phones—in Tel Aviv, a thin red or green line serves as a walk/don’t walk signal for those waiting for the light to change. And Israel’s food—cuisine that runs the gamut of the world—can’t be beaten. It’s still the Startup Nation, even though the hundreds of startups that don’t get bought out by Google still boast impressive concepts.

It’s just one of the ways the country’s ingenuity and subtle differences make it like no other place in the world, especially for Jews, native or visiting. The entire country—from the most to the least traditional—stops and acknowledges Shabbat in some way. Almost everyone shares Friday-night dinner with family or friends, and cherishes Saturdays for activities at a calmer pace, from traditional synagogue prayer to wind-surfing on the Kinneret.

We pray that the Jewish homeland will soon be ready to welcome the extended Jewish family for a visit.

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Original Article Published On The JNS

The Israeli Paralympics team is headed to Tokyo to compete in nine sports in the delayed 2020 Summer Paralympics from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5.

Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and the sports world, meet Pascale Bercovitch, Shraga Weinberg, Moran Samuel and Doron Shaziri. Olympians Biles and Osaka have helped raise awareness about mental health in sports. And the four elite Israel athletes, along with 27 other Israeli Paralympians, are doing their part to show the world the extraordinary capabilities of people with physical disabilities.

The Israeli Paralympics team is headed to Tokyo to compete in nine sports in the delayed 2020 Summer Paralympics from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5.

Bercovitch will compete in paracanoeing, Weinberg in wheelchair tennis (quad singles and doubles), Samuel in rowing (women’s single sculls) and Shaziri in 50-meter men’s rifle (shooting). The Israeli delegation is scheduled to compete in athletics, bocce, goalball, kayaking, powerlifting, rowing, shooting, swimming, table tennis and wheelchair tennis. They will join 4,400 athletes from around the world set to compete in 539 events in 22 sports.

Paralympic athletes are assessed and then placed into competition categories, called sport classes, according to what extent their impairment affects their performance. According to the Olympics official website, “The Paralympic Movement offers sport opportunities for athletes with physical, vision and/or intellectual impairments that have at least one of the following 10 eligible impairments: impaired muscle power, impaired passive range of movement, limb deficiency, leg length difference, short stature, muscle tension, uncoordinated movement, involuntary movements, vision impairment or intellectual impairment.”

Yehoshua Dekel, president of Israel Paralympic Committee, is excited about the Israel team, which will set off for Tokyo in shifts, with each group arriving close to their days of competition. While he hopes the athletes will “bring home many medals,” he’s pleased that each athlete serves as a dugma—a role model—for Israeli children with and without disabilities.

“Our athletes are heroes,” reports Dekel, noting that they regularly make appearances at Israeli schools to share stories of their disabilities and their journeys to their sports accomplishments. “They are an example of what is possible.”

Dekel is also pleased that the Israeli government has become increasingly supportive of Israeli Paralympic athletes in the past five years. He notes that additional support also comes from the private sector.

The Israeli Olympics and Paralympics delegation competing at the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo attends a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on June 23, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.

She had me at ‘bonjour’ …

Yuval Wagner, the founder and chairperson of Access Israel, who is also a person with a disability, will be cheering the Israeli athletes from his home in Israel. “Access Israel is excited about the Israeli Paralympic delegation for being role models for all of us aiming for excellence and on the journey for the medal, promoting awareness for inclusion and accessibility.”

Jamie Lassner, executive director of Friends of Access Israel (FAISR), is particularly excited to watch two Israeli rowers compete. Pascale Bercovitch, who leaves for Tokyo on Aug. 25, reports, “I am so happy the Paralympics are happening. I am genuinely so happy to be part of it!”

She notes the difficult years of training, waiting, anticipating and hardships. “Preparation was really complicated because of the coronavirus pandemic,” says Bercovitch, who at times trained on a kayak machine in the garden behind her apartment, and at times was able to train in the Yarkon River once athletes were given special permission despite multiple lockdowns.

Bercovitch, 54, is one of the oldest Paralympians in this year’s competition. She has competed in previous Paralympics, including in 2012, where she placed sixth in a handcycling. In 2016, she competed in paracanoe.

She is also a writer, filmmaker and motivational speaker, speaking candidly about her experience losing two legs in a train accident as a teenager, making aliyah alone from France and serving in the IDF, and training and competing as an elite athlete.

FAISR’s Lassner adds fondly, “Pascale had me at the first bonjour when we met on the Tel Aviv promenade in the summer of 2019. She is a mentor, a motivator and my only friend headed to a fifth Olympics in a row. Her warmth, smile and joie de vivre are infectious.”

Lassner is similarly impressed with Paralympian Moran Samuel, who has also competed in more than one sport. “What amazes me is that she went from being a leader on an Israeli basketball squad—a team sport—to the solitude of rowing. She is a true athlete with an incredibly focused heart.”

The Paralympics traditionally take place two weeks after the Olympics end and are held in the same city and venues. Many around the world have become familiar with the competition through the 2020 Netflix film, “Rising Phoenix,” which tells the story of the Paralympics. In the show’s words: “Elite athletes and insiders reflect on the Paralympic Games and examine how they impact a global understanding of disability, diversity and excellence.”

Following on the anticipated success of the upcoming Tokyo Summer Olympics, Israel hopes to also send a delegation of participants to the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing.

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