Sport

Original article published in the JNS

A fixture in the entertainment marketing space, he spends a good deal of time with pro-athletes, hip-hop artists and other high-profile people at such events as the NBA All-Stars, Masters Tournament, U.S. Open, Grammy Awards, MTV Awards and Sundance Film Festival.

For Eli Lunzer, the road to Super Bowl Super LVI started weeks before the team match-ups were determined. Lunzer will arrive in Los Angeles for a nonstop week of work before the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams players even get to SoFi Stadium for kickoff, scheduled for Sunday at 6:30 p.m. EST. And he will work around the clock, except for Shabbat, for a solid week.

“I am a shadchan,” says Lunzer, using the Yiddish word for “matchmaker.” Meaning, he explains, “I connect brands, athletes, influential talents and celebrities.”

The Jewishly observant Manhattan resident in his early 40s—founder and principal of Eli Lunzer Productions—describes himself as a sports and entertainment marketing agent.

In fact, he has become a fixture in sports marketing, branding, event sponsorship and in the Jewish social-events space, specializing in talent access, brand development, and event planning and production. And he spends a good deal of time schmoozing with pro-athletes, hip-hop artists and other high-profile people at such events as the NBA All-Stars, Masters Tournament, U.S. Open, Grammy Awards, MTV Awards and Sundance Film Festival.

“We create events in conjunction with the NFL draft, the Super Bowl, the ESPYs and more. We take brands and introduce them to celebrities and athletes, get endorsement deals and look for opportunities for them to build their brand on and off the courts.” As part of his job, Lunzer also arranges appearances at various events for such celebrities and athletes as the New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley and New York Yankees’ legend Johnny Damon.

Lunzer also puts on entertaining events in the Jewish world, including the annual “Official Xmas Eve Bash for Young Jewish Professionals in NYC” and “The Official NYC Purim Bash.”

Eli with Otis Anderson, the 1991 Super Bowl MVP from the New York Giants. Credit: Courtesy.

But for now, a great deal of his energy and attention is on Super Bowl week. After all, it’s big business: In 2021, some 96.4 million people watched the 55th Super Bowl with 2020 having an even larger audience at 99.9 million viewers. The average ad spot for the 80 to 90 commercials during the Super Bowl costs $6.5 million per half a minute.

Pro-athletes ‘understand routines’

Lunzer, who has attended the past 10 Super Bowls, described the week before as “a convention for the sports industry,” where he will be meeting with current and prospective athletes, managers and agents and brands, and helping plan, produce and attend events. He will have three other members of his team on the ground in Los Angeles. “I am always adjusting (I may have six events in one night). But I am happy if I get to two!”

One event he attends will be an “invite-only” red-carpet, music and food event, where 25 major brands such as Under Armor, a CBD company and a private jet company will meet and reach out to sports legends. “It is the closest opportunity for the brands to get their products in their hands.”

Lunzer and his company also sell Super Bowl packages that include tickets and tailgate parties. His company also arranges an after-party for one of the teams.

Yet he is clear about one thing—Shabbat is a true day of rest—even during the frenzy of this week. “No matter what happens, Shabbos is Shabbos. My phone is off.”

He acknowledges that it is “super-hard” since many events take place on Friday nights and Saturdays. “I have missed some of the biggest events,” he acknowledges. On the flip side, he adds that he has also “walked hours and hours” to synagogues in various cities and has had Shabbat meals with interesting people in the industry.

Lunzer has found athletes to be interested in and supportive of his Jewish religious practices. “I daven [‘pray’] three times a day and eat only kosher anywhere I am in the world. Pro-athletes are often more understanding than others since they understand regimens and daily routines. They work out at the same time, eat at the same time, sleep at the same time; they understand routines.”

A graphic displaying Super Bowl LVI featuring the Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals. Credit: Kovop58/Shutterstock.

He recounted that he had an interesting experience when some pro-athletes walked in on him praying early one morning. They saw him with his tefillin on his arm and head. When he explained what they were, some asked if they could also put them on.

Lunzer, who says he takes his role as an ambassador for Judaism seriously, responded as to how Jewish men use them, saying “at the end of the day, it is about being good, doing good and giving the Jewish nation a good name.”

‘Always action going on’

How does a nice Jewish boy, who attended MTA Yeshiva University High School for Boys create a career path that has taken him from a childhood in both Englewood, N.J., and New York to the NFL, NBA and many high-profile events?

Lunzer notes that he especially enjoyed growing up in New York, where “there was always action going on.”

He adds that “I was never a traditional student. I always went with my passions. There was no real path. I always did what I loved to do.”

Lunzer holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing and management from Touro College, as well as a master’s degree in events and entertainment marketing from New York University. “My first job was selling season tickets for the New York Knicks. I wanted to work at Madison Square Garden,” he says.
Eli at the ESPY Awards with members of the 2016 Denver Broncos Super Bowl team. Credit: Courtesy.

This led to a six-year stint at MSG, where he eventually headed up a sales and marketing initiative for the New York Rangers and New York Knicks. He then worked in a senior management position with a large food manufacturer where he was able to focus on consumer branding and marketing.

His love for MSG and for sports continues. He proposed to his now-wife, Yosefa, on the court at MSG during a New York Knicks game. Lunzer enjoys playing tennis, golf, basketball and surfing. He spends a great deal of time volunteering for a wide range of organizations, including Yachad, Save a Child’s Heart, Project Sunshine, Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem and Chabad of the Upper East Side. His desire to help others may come in part from his close relationship with a younger brother with developmental disabilities.

Lunzer also serves informally as a veritable shadchan—a “matchmaker” for real. He says he has successfully brought at least 33 Jewish couples together.

All of these important activities, however, may need to wait a few weeks until the Super Bowl and the NBA All-Star Game (Feb. 20) are behind him.

And while the job may look glamourous, Lunzer is quick to point out that it’s a tough business: “There are a lot of no’s. People see the outcomes and that you get to meet the players, but a lot of work goes into it.”

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“He is the pride of the Jewish people. We always come out to support Deni,” says Matisyahu Zamir, a student at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach.

Original Article Published in the JNS

The Zamir family came to Madison Square Garden from Woodmere, N.Y., hoping to see their beloved Deni Avdija and the Washington Wizards play against the New York Knicks. Elad Levi and his son came all the way from Tel Aviv — part of a 24-person tour group hoping to see their fellow countryman Avdija, the only Israeli in the NBA, play in several games.

Yet their luck was running out after the Washington Wizards’ game against the Brooklyn Nets on Dec. 21 was postponed due to a coronavirus outbreak within the Nets’ roster. They came with their signs and Israeli flags and jerseys, and prayed the Wizards’ Dec. 23 game versus the Knicks would go on.

Four hours before tipoff, Wizards star Bradley Beal entered the league’s health and safety protocols. It is unclear whether he had received a positive test result or whether it was a matter of contract tracing. He joined fellow starter Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was already in the protocols.

Ultimately, the Zamir and Levi families fished got their wish. But just barely. Avdija scored in double digits for the fourth game in a row, with 14 points, as well as five rebounds and a career-high three blocks. It was his fifth multi-block game this season. The Wizards defeated the Knicks, 124-117.

“I like that [Avdija] is a really good shooter and his defense is pretty amazing too,” reports Matisyahu Zamir, a student at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach in Woodmere. “He is the pride of the Jewish people. We always come out to support Deni.”

The Zamirs, all clad in custom-made red number 9 Avdija jerseys, enjoyed their view from the first row, close to center court. Like other Jewish and Israeli fans, they enjoy following 20-year-old Avdija’s continued growth in his second year in the NBA. Very few fans saw Avdija play in person last season.  He made his first appearance at the Knicks’ home of Madison Square Garden on March 23, 2021, and scored 14 points before fouling out in a Wizards loss. Due to COVID-19 rules at the time, the arena was at 10% capacity. One month later, on April 21, 2021, Avdija suffered a season-ending right fibular hairline fracture, followed by a long period of rehabilitation.

This season, Avdija is thriving on and off the court, though he could do without the day-to-day uncertainty of the pandemic. “To be in question is a bummer,” he says. “It is not fun, but we have to keep being safe. We have to just keep working ourselves.”

Avdija worked hard to return this season and he feels it is paying off. “I see progress every day and hope I will maximize my potential until I retire,” he says. “I learn new things every day and get better every day as I become a more complete player.” For instance, Avdija describes that he is “more mature” and “knows what spots to shoot from,” and is learning to “trust my shot and not think too much.”

Wizards Head Coach Wes Unseld Jr. likes what he sees and has been giving Avdija more playing time. “He has progressed well,” he says. “We are putting him in different situations. I am learning to trust him more. His teammates are learning to trust him more. He is stepping up and making big plays —facilitating, scoring, and we have seen the defensive side of it. So, I think he is starting to put together a nice run here. If he can play this way night in and night out, this is going to be great for us.”

Unseld also admires Avdija’s energy and attitude. “His energy is always good. He is a very positive guy, doing things for his teammates,” he says.

Despite the many precautions in place due to COVID-19, Advija has had some opportunities to get to know the local Washington, D.C., Jewish community — and he enjoys speaking with Israeli media. Avdija recently lit Hanukkah candles, signed autographs and answered questions from fans at the Rockville Town Center in Montgomery County, Md., 20 miles north of the team’s Capital One Arena.

When asked what was his best moment of the year, Advija enthusiastically reports that it was being back in Israel for the first time and seeing friends, family and all of the support he has been receiving.

And Avdija’s New Year’s resolution? “That by the end of 2022 I will be better than I was at the end of 2021. That’s all I’m asking for. Just to be a better person, learn more, know more, and be a better player and to be healthy. That’s really important.”

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Original Article Published on the JNS

Washington Wizards forward Deni Avdija is proudly representing Israel and Judaism on and off the court.

The 20-year-old Israeli is having a good second season in the NBA and finally having opportunities to interact with the local Jewish community. Avdija lit the menorah on the fifth night of Chanukah at the Rockville Town Center in Montgomery County, Md., 20 miles north of the team’s Capital One Arena.

He wore a white kipah, chanted the blessings, signed autographs, answered questions from fans and expressed appreciation to the members of the Jewish community who helped him celebrate his first Hanukkah away from family.

“I want to say thank you to the people who came here and supported me and light the menorah with me. Those little things with the community, especially with the Jewish community, it’s not easy to celebrate the first Hanukkah out of home,” he said.

Avdija elaborated on Thursday night’s “in-person-with-fans” event during Friday’s post-practice media session. “It was pure enjoyment to meet and share this special moment,” he said. “The love and support the Jewish community game me is unreal!”

Avdija, who is currently the only Israeli playing in the NBA, has always looked to the example set by Omri Casspi and Nadav Henefield—Israelis who also had distinguished basketball careers in the United States. “I saw what they did and knew I wanted to do that, too. I aimed for that from a young age.”

In fact, he takes his role quite seriously. “It is great representing Israel; I am trying to do my best on and off the court to give pride to my country.”

And he noted that he has always loved the “Festival of Lights.”

“My mother had a special connection to this holiday,” he related. “This is the holiday we focused most on. It is just good vibes—this holiday in Israel when I was growing up. You had sufganiyot everywhere, the songs, the menorahs … everywhere. It is just one of my favorite holidays for sure. And I wait every year to celebrate it again and again.”

On a health digression, Avdija reported that he was “not feeling well” and was “a little tired.” He is listed as “questionable-non-COVID illness” for the Friday home game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Wizards, 14-8, are coming off an eight-point win against the Minnesota Timberwolves, marking their eighth home win of the season.

On Sunday, the Wizards begin a three-game road trip versus Toronto, Indiana and Detroit, and will play the next nine of 10 games on the road.

Avdija is averaging 6.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 20 minutes of playing time per game. He is second on the team in blocked shots.

“I feel stronger, more experienced,” he said, “am getting fewer foul calls and am learning something new and getting better every day.”

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Original Article Published on the Jerusalem Post

When Pascale Bercovitch made aliyah from France at age 17, she had no money, no friends, and no legs. But the always upbeat Bercovitch arrived with a positive attitude, determination to serve in the IDF, and a firm commitment from the esteemed Brig.-Gen. Aharon Davidi to make that happen – even if she was a recent amputee.

Now, the 54-year-old Tel Aviv resident is a seasoned Paralympian, motivational speaker, writer, mother of two and very happy longtime Tel Aviv resident. The Paralympic medalist, who has participated in three sports – handcycling, rowing and kayaking – over four Paralympics, recently returned from the Paralympics in Tokyo. Back home, she is also a local hero at the boathouse along the Yarkon River, and an advocate for accessibility and for people with disabilities in general.

Bercovitch took off 10 days to rest after returning from the recent Tokyo Paralympics, then immediately got back in her kayak. “I have to paddle! It is like with hunger – a person has to eat!”

She is still seriously considering competing in the 2024 Paralympics, which are to be held in Paris, not far from where she grew up. For now, Bercovitch has been good to herself. “I am training daily but doing one instead of two workouts a day.”

Bercovitch has many projects on her to-do list. “I have a lot to do, including a book about my life.”

 HANDBIKING IN London, 2012.  (credit: IPC)
HANDBIKING IN London, 2012. (credit: IPC)

She is also a sought-after motivational speaker. And she wants to spend more time with her daughters – 12-year-old Mica will soon celebrate her bat mitzvah, and 20-year-old Eden, who is a soldier with elite sports status. Eden just so happens to excel in the same sport as her mother – rowing, and is a member of the Israeli National Kayaking Team.

Bercovitch’s interest in Israel is remarkable, given how little she knew about Judaism or Israel growing up in France.

She was born in France to two parents who were also born in France. She was a good student, and enjoyed literature and French culture. Despite her strong French upbringing, she recounts, “I had a feeling from a young age that I didn’t fully belong to France, but I couldn’t say why.”

The precocious and contemplative Bercovitch was always thinking of ways to positively impact the world. “From age 13, I dreamed of living in a new country and building it.”

She had a sense that France was already “set,” and that there was little she could do to effect change. Everything in France and Europe is stuck, she thought, and turned her sights to other places in the world, including Africa.

She secretly began sending her weekly allowance money (“meant for things like buying croissants!”) to Doctors Without Borders. “My parents eventually discovered it when I started getting mail from the organization!”

As Bercovitch dreamed of living in another country and helping the local people, she was hearing stories from her father of the hardships people living in Communist countries were experiencing. He spoke of relatives who had lived in Poland and Romania, and he explained about life in Soviet countries.“

I wanted to go there. I wanted to change the world,” offers Bercovitch.

HER LONG journey to Israel started at age 15 when she chanced upon a Jewish radio program by Gérard Benhamou. “I began to listen to the Jewish radio. We had one frequency for Jewish radio in French; we do until today. I secretly listened to the program three times a week, under my blanket at night!” reports Bercovitch. “I knew I am half Jewish, but didn’t know what it means. Suddenly, I heard about this small country that has a very big vision and I thought, okay, I am also small and I also have a big vision.”

Bercovitch notes that her identification with Israel was in its early stages and she was very excited when Benhamou had a special guest – Brig.-Gen. Aharon Davidi, speaking about his new Sar-El program.

“We are inviting guests, Jewish or not, to have a three- or four-week experience in the army – and we pay for the ticket,” said Davidi.

Bercovitch was trying to recall whether the program paid for all or part of the ticket. But she vividly remembers her reaction to hearing Davidi speak. “I felt like I got a big boom on my head from a hammer – I jumped from bed, got a pen and paper to write down the contact information, and called the next day.”

She was disappointed to learn that she needed to be 19 but was not discouraged. “I won’t wait a year and a half!”

Bercovitch told her parents some of the story of the opportunity that potentially awaited. “I told my parents I found a way to have a free holiday abroad. I told them I was too young, but I didn’t tell them it was for Israel.”

Her parents, knowing how mature and beyond her years Pascale was, said that they would explain to the program organizers that she was “not a usual kid!”

BERCOVITCH MADE her first trip to Israel at age 17. “I didn’t want to come as a tourist – I wanted to come and help!”

She loved the experience and was overjoyed when Davidi came to visit France. Davidi, who died in 2012, was the head of the IDF Paratrooper and Infantry Corps, became the director of Community and Cultural Activities of the Golan and Jordan Valley, and was the founder of Sar-El. He came to France and told Bercovitch, “I heard you were the youngest on the program!”

She shared her passion for Israel and her desire to one day serve in the army. “He loved me! He gave me his business card and said, ‘If you come, I want to help you.’”

Then she experienced the unimaginable: On her way to school one wintry day when she was 17, she slipped on ice at a train station and was pulled under a train. The driver did not see her as it was early morning. As Bercovitch waited for help to arrive, she realized both of her legs had been severed at the thigh.

In spite of this life-altering event, Bercovitch set her sights on Israel. “I told my mother, ‘Please call Sara-El and tell them I’m going to be a little late [in coming to Israel and to the army].” She adds, “The accident was in December 1984, and I had a secret plan to start the army in 1985. My mother did not know what she was doing.”

To this day, Bercovitch is amazed and appreciative that Davidi came to visit her in the hospital in Paris in March 1985. “I remember it was snowing. He was a very special, generous and very tough man. I called him Paddington since he had a kova tembel [round, brimless hat] and a big beard.

“He said, ‘I heard about the accident, and despite having no legs, you are always welcome.’ He said he was ready to keep his word and wanted to help me. It was one of the best days of my life!”

She continues, “Six months after the accident, I called him and said I am coming. He asked if I was done with my treatment. I said yes. I lied! He knew. I took a ticket and flew from Paris to Tel Aviv.”

Bercovitch’s army service was a little mundane, though useful for a new olah acclimating to life in Israel. “I was preparing coffee and food. It was boring, but I learned Hebrew!”

She also reports that she spent her time in the army learning about the language, the culture of Israel, and the realities of her new physical condition.

After her army service, Bercovitch had a successful journalism career and split her time between Israel and France. “I traveled a lot and had two apartments – one in Tel Aviv and one in Paris.”

Thanks to Davidi, Bercovitch was also introduced to sports. “He arranged for me to do sports at the pool two times a week, and I was on the national swim team.”

Bercovitch then became a motivational speaker. She can’t stop speaking about Davidi. “He opened the army gates to paraplegics. All that I am today is because he believed in me.”

As Bercovitch looks back on her many years in Israel, she is pleased with all that she has accomplished, yet she remains honest about the many challenges she has faced.“

I had to always be inventive and manage. It was very tough. When I got here I had $100, a suitcase and wheelchair. I had no family support. I was 17. I was totally alone. And nothing was accessible 37 years ago. There were stairs everywhere!”

Even when Bercovitch became a Paralympic athlete at age 40, she faced challenges. “They said I was too old to do anything. And there was no money! No financial support and no psychological support.”

She has thus far managed to complete in four Paralympic games, and she just might go for her fifth. “I am not saying I won’t be in Paris [for the next Paralympic Games]. I may!”

For now, Bercovitch enjoys being a mother to her two daughters, and takes being a role model for disabled and nondisabled athletes very seriously. “People know me, and it is an amazing feeling. For example, recently a class of 10-year-olds with their teacher stopped at the boathouse and said, ‘This is Pascale!’ It is worth it to be a model to these kids. I bring the values of what I am able to do. I am aware of what I can bring. I want people to identify, to understand, to react properly.”

Bercovitch concludes, “I love Israel. I love the people, the weather and the sea. My kids are fully Israeli and thank me for raising them here. I love everything – except for the bureaucracy!”

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