A historical film in the making by Michele Kupfer shows the connection “of all of us—Jewish people from Israel and the Diaspora—as part of a big nation with a long tradition.”
Swimming has always been at the center of Michele Kupfer’s life. She swam as a child growing up in Florida, she swam during her childhood summers in Israel, and she had the amazing fortune to swim for the Israeli National Swim Team from 1977 to 1982.
Kupfer was also a member of the 1980 Israeli Olympic team, though sadly did not compete in Moscow because of the U.S. boycott of Russia. Fortunately, one year later, she had the opportunity to experience what she describes as her “personal and athletic coming of age.” She and her teammates took the gold at the 1981 Maccabiah Games in Israel.
Kupfer’s Maccabiah experience was so personally inspiring and life-changing that she has found innovative ways to share the games with the rest of the world. In fact, she is reuniting her championship swim—40 years later—to complete in the 21st Maccabiah Games in Israel this month from July 12 to July 26 (the opening ceremony takes place on July 14).
In the process, she has been capturing meaningful stories of the game’s participants, as well as revisiting such inspiring and chilling chapters in Jewish sports history—namely, the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 games in Munich.
‘The perfect opportunity to tell this story’
The first Maccabiah Games were held in Tel Aviv just before Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and 16 years before the founding of the modern State of Israel. That year, the Maccabiah brought together more than 400 Jewish athletes from Europe, North America and the Middle East. The games quickly grew in importance and showcased the talents of such future Olympians as American backstroker Lenny Krayzelburg and nine-time champion Mark Spitz.
Kupfer has stayed connected to many swimmers and coaches in the Maccabiah swimming world, including Krayzelburg (four Olympic gold medals and a former world record-holder), Nir Shamir (a team member from both the Olympic and Maccabiah team) and Dr. Naama Constantini, one of her first coaches, and now professor of sports medicine and director of the Heidi Rothberg Sports Medicine Center at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, several events and insights got Kupfer thinking about making the film.
First, noted being touched when she saw her former teammates rallying around a team member who was dying of cancer. “It got me thinking: What is the story here?” Kupfer did some research and discovered that there was no in-depth movie about Maccabiah, despite it being the third-largest athletic competition in the world behind the Olympics and the FISU World University Games.
Kupfer said she began to observe the rise of anti-Semitism in the world, as well as what she describes as “Israel’s big PR problem with our youth.” She notes what others have said, that young Jews often feel disconnected and even apathetic. She thought that this was “the perfect opportunity to tell this story, a human-interest story. And it is not political!”
And so, she started a 501(c)(3) charitable organization that is currently raising money to cover the costs of filming. She has already acquired Maccabiah footage going back to 1932 and will be filming this month at the Maccabiah Games. She is also aware that the clock is ticking on interviewing some older Maccabiah athletes, noting that “we are at a pivotal point—some won’t be alive much longer.”
Kupfer hopes the film will be completed sometime in 2023.
‘We were all in’
Given Kupfer’s deep and extensive ties to the swimming world, as well as to Israel and the Jewish people, she is well-suited for the film project. She grew up in a strongly Jewish-identified and Zionistic home in South Florida and was a self-described “big Florida swimmer” by age 12.
Her late father, Dr. Sanford Kuvin (who died in 2015), was a physician and world-renowned researcher of infectious and tropical diseases. In 1970, he was invited to lecture at Hebrew University. When her mother, Gabrielle, went to Israel for the first time soon after his visit, she felt that Israel was where she truly belonged. The Kuvins considered aliyah (immigration to Israel), but Kuvin’s medical practice in the United States made that difficult.
Still, the family began splitting their time between Israel and the United States.
“We were all in; we bought an apartment in Israel and spent three to four months a year in Israel,” reported Kupfer. In 1976, her father founded and acted as the chairman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Sanford F. Kuvin Center for the Study of Infectious and Tropical Diseases, the world’s leading research center for malaria and other infectious diseases.
Kupfer looked forward to their months each year in Israel, though noted that she was worried she might not be able to continue swimming. “I said to my dad: I can’t go to Israel and not swim!” She joined the YMCA in Jerusalem and began to swim regularly at the pool there. “In 1977, I was 14, and Israel was already thinking about the 1980s Olympics. Kupfer remembered thinking, “Israel swimming is pretty damn good as a team, but they wouldn’t have made it to the [medal] podium.”
She was pleased when asked to consider joining the national team. “It didn’t take me a second to say, ‘Are you kidding me … YES!” She then became an Israeli citizen. She recalled that “it wasn’t easy. Some had the feeling I was taking a spot from another Israeli while I was going back and forth” from Israel to America.
Kupfer made the 1980s Olympic team as a 17-year-old. “I was a little scared; there was so much hatred. We discussed it with our peer group. We figured we’d go as a team, and [for safety] they wouldn’t let us out.” The Israeli team ultimately did not go due to the boycott of the Moscow Olympics.
But in 1981, Kupfer got her chance to swim on a large world stage. “The 1981 Maccabiah Games became a huge focus. I wanted to represent Israel and show the world what we were capable of.” The team won the gold medal, and Kupfer said she still becomes emotional looking back at the awards ceremony. “Playing ‘Hatikvah’ (at the medal ceremony)—there is nothing like it!”
‘The power of sports’
Kupfer has continued to swim for most of her adult life as a way to stay in shape. “I never thought of competing … until now!” In just a week, she will have an opportunity to both swim and produce a film that will tell the important story of the Maccabiah to the world.
Former teammates and members of the Israeli swimming community share Kupfer’s excitement for both the reunion and the field. Constantini, the sports-medicine professor, proclaimed that the reunion is “very exciting.”
She pointed out an especially poignant personal connection: “For me, it is also a kind of memorial for the late Lior Birkhahn, who I coached from the age of 8, and who swam with Michele.” Birkhahn was an Israeli swimmer who died of cancer at age 56 in May 2020; her 14-year-old daughter, Gili, is competing this year in the Maccabiah games.
As for Constantini, she is swimming in memory of her late mother, Aliza Wirz, who won in the Third Maccabiah Games in 1950. “That was 70 years ago!” she says proudly.
Constantini said Kupfer’s film is important because it shows the connection “of all of us—Jewish people from Israel and the Diaspora—as part of a big nation with a long tradition.”
Krayzelburg, 46, who runs a swim academy for kids, continues to be a big supporter of both the Maccabiah and the film. “Maccabiah is an incredible celebration of Jewish heritage in our eternal homeland. Through the power of sports, it is able to bring together Jews from all corners of the world to Israel with a meaningful purpose to celebrate and honor our rich culture and heritage. Being part of this incredible event has always been a humbling and touching experience for me, and Michele’s film will share some unique and inspiring experiences of athletes that ‘lived’ the games and how it has impacted their lives.”
Thanks to the Maccabiah Games, some 10,000 athletes from 80 countries will soon arrive in Israel to compete in more than 40 sports. And thanks to Michele Kupfer’s passion and to “Parting the Waters: The Story of The Maccabiah Games,” the impact of the Maccabiah will be felt for generations.
Soon, these elite athletes will resume high-level training for the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad, Paris, 2024. And as usual, most of the training will take place out of sight.
We thought that Israel achieved new heights this summer at the Tokyo Olympics by bringing home its first two gold medals out of four total. But then the Israeli Paralympics team made us even prouder in Japan by nabbing an incredible nine medals in the games that ended just before Rosh Hashanah.
A delegation of 90 athletes, 55 men and 35 women, competed in 15 different sports at the Olympics – almost double the previous number of 47 athletes who represented Israel at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. This number was bolstered by the 24 baseball players representing Team Israel. The much smaller Israeli Paralympic delegation of 33 athletes –18 women and 15 men – competed in 11 sports and returned home with nine medals in two sports: swimming and rowing. These medals are triple the number of medals won at the Rio Paralympics in 2016. It is the highest medal total since 2004 in Athens, when it took home 13 medals, and the greatest number of gold medals it’s won since the 1988 Games in Seoul, Korea. Israeli Paralympic athletes have won a total of 129 gold, 125 silver and 130 bronze medals in the Paralympics to date.
Paralympic athletes differ from Olympic athletes in several key areas. For one, Paralympians are assessed and then placed into competition categories, or 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.” There are no such designations for Olympians.
Another key difference is in number and types of events. In the recent Paralympics, 4,400 athletes from 160 countries competed in 539 events in 22 sports. In comparison, more than 11,000 athletes from 206 nations competed in 33 Olympic sports, five of which were featured at the Olympics for the first time.
How the two Israeli delegations fared
Israel Olympians won two gold and two bronze medals. Artistic gymnast Artem Dolgopyat, who also made news for his inability to marry in Israel due to his non-halachic (Jewish law) Jewish status, won the gold medal in the men’s floor exercise. Rhythmic gymnast Linoy Ashram won the gold medal at the women’s rhythmic individual all-around event. Avishag Semberg won the bronze medal in the Women’s 49 kg taekwondo category and the national judo team won another bronze medal in the mixed team event. Several Israeli athletes almost won medals but fell short, advancing to the finals of their respective events.
Israeli Paralympians won six gold, two silver and one bronze medal in Tokyo. All but two of Israel’s Paralympic medals came in swimming, where three Israeli standout swimmers — Mark Malyar, Ami Dadaon and Iyad Shalabi broke world records. Shalaba, 34, who won two gold medals – in the 100m backstroke and 50m backstroke in S1, the most severe disability category – was born deaf and became paralyzed when he fell off a roof as a child. The 34-year-old Israeli Arab from Shfaram was competing in his fourth Paralympics and medaled for the first time in Tokyo.
Malyar, 21, who has cerebral palsy, won three medals – gold in the 200m medley and the 400m freestyle in the S7 disability category, and bronze in the 100m backstroke. Ami Dadaon, competing in the S4 category, also won three medals including gold in both the 200m freestyle and the 50m freestyle and silver in the 150m medley.The Israeli delegation competed in athletics, bocce, goalball, kayaking, powerlifting, rowing, shooting, swimming, table tennis and wheelchair tennis. Co-flag bearer and rower, Moran Samuel won a silver in the single sculls competition. She was the only Israeli non-swimmer to win a medal.
Which delegation was more successful, or is this the wrong question?
So which of Israel’s two delegations was more successful and why? Both teams have reasons to celebrate – this was Israel’s most successful Olympics ever. The Olympic team even won more medals than Israel won in the three previous Olympics combined. Yet, the fact that the larger Olympic team brought home far fewer medals than the Paralympians may suggest the latter delegation was more successful and begs the question of why? Is it due to funding, levels of competition in a given sport, differences in athletic competition, or something else? Or, perhaps the comparison based solely on numbers is not a fair one. While five medals separate both delegations, both teams share many common characteristics. Athletes train mainly out of the public eye for four (in the case of the 2021 Olympics, five) years. Few Israelis pay attention to either group and don’t know much about the athletes or sports they are training for. And there are shared funding and financial support realities. A Jerusalem Post report in 2016 explored the financial reality both organizations face. The report looked at sources of funding and payout for athletes.
They reported that only a select few actually earn a respectable living while the rest compete for the funding that remains. At the time, the Olympic Committee of Israel’s (OCI) yearly budget was around NIS 20 million, with some NIS 13 million going to the athletes, coaches and their needs and another NIS 4 million toward promoting the “Olympic idea.” The OCI receives around half of its income from the Israel Sports Betting Board (TOTO) and the National Sports Council, with another NIS 6 million coming from sponsorship deals and support from abroad. Only Israel’s top Olympic athletes receive a monthly stipend from the OCI and the amount they are granted is allocated according to their success.
According to the 2016 report, athletes are split into four squads: gold, silver, bronze and senior. Those in the gold squad – which in 2016 only included five names: judokas Yarden Gerbi, Sagi Muki and Golan Pollack, triple jumper Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko and windsurfer Ma’ayan Davidovich – received NIS 8,500 a month. The athletes in the silver squad received NIS 6,000, the bronze squad received NIS 4,500 a month and the senior squad NIS 3,000. The Israeli Olympic delegation traditionally competes against similar-sized countries with far greater budgets. This may account, in part, for Israel’s nondisabled Olympic team receiving fewer medals when compared to other countries.
In order to make up for its inability to pay high salaries, the OCI has worked to connect athletes with companies and businesses in the private sector. In 2016, approximately 45 athletes had sponsorship deals with 34 different bodies. At the time, OCI president Igal Carmi explained that increased funding would allow the OCI to implement more professional programs, which Carmi felt would ultimately result in more success on the international stage. “There is no doubt that increased funding will be translated into professional plans that will improve the infrastructure of Israeli sport and will eventually raise our level of success.”
The Paralympic Committee of Israel’s (PCI) budget at the time of the report was only NIS 4 million, with almost all of it coming from the Israel Sports Betting Board (TOTO) and the National Sports Council. The PCI also has gold, silver and bronze squads. Those in the gold only received NIS 2,500 a month, with silver and bronze receiving NIS 2,000 and NIS 1,500 respectively.
The PCI turned to the High Court of Justice demanding to receive the same public funding as the OCI, but despite a ruling in its favor, a government committee ultimately decided there is no such need. Paralympians typically have a more difficult time attracting sponsors.
The Olympic Committee of Israel, founded in 1986, reportedly has a 2021 budget of NIS 48,273,701. Bruria Bigman, head of marketing and public relations for the Olympic Committee of Israel reports, “The Olympic Committee of Israel is budgeted by the State of Israel and 40% comes from sponsorships of business entities, donations in Israel and around the world.” The committee does more than simply send elite athletes to compete at the Summer Olympics every four years. Bigman adds, “The Israel Olympic Committee is responsible for sending the Olympic delegations to the Olympic Games (summer and winter for adults and youth, and the European Games for adults and youth) and is the umbrella organization for Olympic sports in Israel.”
The Paralympic Committee of Israel budget is reportedly NIS 6,982,878. Dr. Yehoshua-Shuki Dekel, chairman of the Paralympic Committee, is 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.
Medalists from both Olympic and Paralympic teams receive additional financial bonuses.
Olympians receive more funding, Paralympians win more medals, yet both groups remain mostly upbeat
The Israeli Olympic team may receive more funding than the Israeli Paralympic team, but a more apt comparison is how much the Israel Olympic team receives when compared to other countries it competes against. The Olympic Committee of Israel has a very small budget compared to other countries of a similar size, and certainly when compared to powerhouse countries like the US, Russia, China and the UK. This is a major reason why other countries tend to win more medals than Israel. Israel does not suffer from a lack of talent and potential – they have elite athletes in most summer sports, but harnessing the talent from a young age and maintaining strict training regimens until the athletes are ready for international competition requires large sums of money for coaching, equipment, facilities, etc. Israel is dealing with insufficient funding when compared to other countries.
While the Israeli Paralympics team receives less funding than the Olympic team, they continue to win more medals than their nondisabled counterparts. According to some, the playing field in Paralympics is more level for Israel than in the regular Olympic sports as all countries are dealing with a similar lack of funding to allocate. While certain nations still have much more money (and sponsorship) to power their Paralympics programs and athletes and so they will still come out on top, Israel is adequately placed to compete for medals among countries of a similar size. The financial disadvantage is felt less strongly by Israel’s Paralympics team than by Israel’s Olympic team.
This is reflected in Israel’s success rate at the Paralympics, with 380 medals overall to date (including 126 golds) and No. 19 global ranking versus 13 total Olympics medals (including 3 golds) and No. 82 global ranking.
Despite these very real issues, the two organizations remain upbeat, positive and encouraged. IOC spokesperson Bigman proudly reports, “This was Israel’s largest delegation: 90 athletes, and 53% of the delegation participants were women (if the baseball team is not taken into consideration).”
Bigman is pleased that Israel won two gold medals and that both are in new disciplines – instrumental gymnastics and artistic gymnastics. And that, “For the first time in history, Israel has an Olympic gold medal for a woman. And, for the first time having a coach leading to a gold win.”
She is also proud of the relationship between the Olympic and Paralympic Committees, which she describes as an “excellent relationship” with lots of collaboration.” She adds, “The Achievement Sports Unit is in charge of the Paralympics and we, as an Olympic Committee, help them a lot in professional matters.”
Bigman and Dekel are unfazed by the overall medal count, as both feel there are obvious and understandable differences between the two sports. Bigman praises the Paralympics delegation for their accomplishments but notes. “There is a fundamental difference: about 4,800 athletes participate in the disabled games. At the Olympics 11,500 athletes compete for 999 medals. In the disabled, there are many more categories in each industry because of the types of disability and hence many more medals.”
Dekel adds, “I am proud and excited with all the people of Israel for the incredible achievements of our athletes at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo. They are truly superheroes and have done above our expectations. And they deserve all the praise and thanks.”
Dekel, who is former head of the Israel Sports Administration, feels there is a simple explanation as to why Paralympic athletes win more medals than Olympic athletes.
“It is not right to make a comparison between the Olympics and the Paralympics. Because they are not similar in many parameters. Over the years we have developed a tradition of professionalism, we have combined new research and technology, we have developed training methods and techniques, we have progressed in improving the personal equipment of the athletes. We have brought some of the best coaches from abroad to certain sports in the world. We have developed special facilities and more. So all the parameters together is the answer. “
Paralympians weigh in
In the field of disabilities inclusion, there is a well-established concept of “nothing about us without us.” It refers to involving people with disabilities in discussions and policy making when it comes to people with disabilities. Toward that end, several of Israel’s Paralympians shared their Tokyo experiences and their successes and struggles leading up to the Paralympic games.
Pascale Bercovitch, 54, is one of the oldest Paralympians and a veteran of several Paralympics in a range of sports. Bercovitch was a rower at the 2008 Paralympics; she competed in para-cycling at the 2012 Summer Paralympics then switched to paracanoe, competing in the women’s kayak single KL2 200m events in several World Championships and the 2016 Summer Paralympics.
Bercovitch is also a writer, filmmaker and motivational speaker. She made aliyah alone from France after losing both legs in a train accident as a teenager, and she served in the IDF.
Bercovitch was excited to compete in Tokyo, where she participated in the women’s KL2 canoe sprint, though the Paralympic experience during the pandemic was a different experience from previous Paralympics.
“It was wonderful and well organized. Of course in corona times, it was not easy for us. We were tested every day and couldn’t go out of the Olympic Village. The only minus for me was not feeling the Japanese public, which we knew would be amazing, so it was sad,” she reports.
Bercovitch also feels that Paralympics have helped change attitudes toward people with disabilities.
“We had the feeling there is more acceptance from the outside world (toward disabilities) than ever. There was more coverage and more media investment than ever before. The message we are bringing to the world is heard more than ever.”
Rower Moran Samuel, who won a silver medal in the women’s PR single sculls rowing, had a similar experience. “The Paralympic games are always exciting. I think it was unique because of COVID 19. On one hand, there was no crowd. We were tested every day and we couldn’t leave the Paralympic Village. On the other hand, it was the biggest win over the pandemic and the organizers and the volunteers did a great job. Crossing the finish line in Tokyo felt amazing. It’s always a mix of feelings, a big relief together with happiness. It’s a moment where the whole journey is crossing in your mind.”
Samuel was in the sportai mitstayen (outstanding athlete) program while serving in the Israeli Air Force and played on the Israel women’s national basketball team. In 2006, she became paralyzed in her lower body after having a spinal stroke. She became a physical therapist and worked with the Paralympic Sports Association team and their wheelchair basketball team. Samuel competed in wheelchair basketball and in 2012 transitioned to rowing.
Both athletes had a lot to offer about the tremendous challenges they and other athletes face around funding and support. Samuel is pleased to report, “There has been a great improvement in the development and the investment in Para sport in Israel.” And it is paying off. “We could see the results of that in the swimming pool. This graph should continue upward.” But she cautions, “The competition is getting harder across all sports. If we want to repeat or even improve the results in more sports, then we need more money.”
SAMUEL ALSO notes the importance of sponsorship and has experienced this herself.
“I think that part of an athlete’s success in the elite level depends on the support of sponsors. More and more companies understand how important it is to get involved in sport and specifically in Paralympic sport. The values are so strong – determination, overcoming obstacles, erasing the “dis” of disability. People identify with us because we all face challenges in life and we show them how you can make the most out of what you have.”
Samuel reports, “Before I had my sponsors, I was 4th, 5th place in the world. In the same year that Altshuler Shaham [an investment house] decided to join my journey, I won the silver medal in the world championship (2014). A year later I was the world champion and have been on the podium ever since.” One of her sponsors faced financial difficulties as a result of COVID, which had an impact on Samuel’s training. “
There were a few months where I had to work more and train less. Fortunately, I was able to find a new sponsor just a few months before the games [SKAI] and it makes all the difference. It means we can put all our efforts into training without any financial worries. When you sleep well at night knowing you can provide for yourself and your family, you can get the most out of your training.”
Bercovitch approaches the question of funding more broadly. “The question (really is) whether Israel invests enough in sports (in general). It is hard to make a distinction between Olympics and Paralympics. It is not a question of budget and money but of supporting athletes and bringing young people to sports. Sports is just beginning to be a priority. It is quite new and we have to include sports from a young age and offer support for youngsters. Until now, parents pay everything until one year before the Olympic Games. This is not right. It is not equal. I would like to see Israel approach sports more like Norway, New Zealand and Australia, where parents don’t have to pay. Here, the only time you get support is when you are already a high-level athlete and even then, you don’t get what you need.”
Bercovitch continues to face major funding challenges and other obstacles. “I have to fund most of my training and expenses. I don’t get so much support and also the support is very institutional, meaning I am not free to choose my own coaches, and how I want to train. This is a big problem because when you are an experienced athlete, you need to train the way you think is right for you.”
She notes that her funding is received only one year before the Paralympics.
“Before that, I have to manage alone.”
Bercovitch feels some of the issues she faces may have to do with her age.
“Because I am one of the oldest Paralympic athletes in the world, they don’t want to fund me. I get the least among athletes since I am the oldest. They don’t want to help me go further, even if they don’t have others (who are younger) to fund. It is tiring. I have to fight and find funding by myself for everything.”
Israel’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes arrived back in Israel before Rosh Hashanah to enjoy needed rest and family. Hopefully, they were able to focus more on the excitement of representing Israel on the world stage than on the very real issue of financial support. Perhaps these incredible athletes and human beings will take some time this High Holy Day season to pray for additional funding which will somehow better level the playing field so that both delegations can continue bringing home even more medals for their country.
Soon, these elite athletes will resume high-level training for the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad, Paris, 2024. And as usual, most of the training will take place out of sight, away from the glitter and shine of the precious medals.
When Eric Brodkowitz left home in Potomac, Md., to study at Yale University and to pitch for the Yale Bulldogs baseball team, his mother, Jill, did what any concerned Jewish mother might do: She turned to her local Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, who reached out to Chabad on Campus at Yale.
“Rabbi Shua Rosenstein at Yale was open and very inviting,” says Brodkowitz, today an investment analyst with Goldman Sachs and a pitcher on Israel’s national baseball team, which will compete in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. During his time at Yale, Brodkowitz—who in his senior year at Yale was a unanimous first-team All-Ivy League selection and finished the season with a 2.80 ERA—grew close to Rosenstein and his wife, Sara, co-directors of Chabad at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. “The rabbi invited me and my friends to Shabbat dinner. It was just a very welcoming environment.”
During his junior year, Brodkowitz lived on the same street as the Yale Chabad and began wrapping tefillin twice a week at the Chabad House.
“When Eric was on campus, we would meet often to lay tefillin,” recalls Rosenstein. “We always joked that it would help him as a pitcher.”
It certainly didn’t hurt.
Brodkowitz, who was discovered by Team Israel manager Eric Holtz towards the end of his senior year in 2018, has had a successful run so far with Team Israel. The right-hander started two games in the July 2019 European Baseball Championship B-Pool in Bulgaria—winning one game and striking out 15 in 9.1 innings pitched—as part of Israel’s sweep into the playoffs. Team Israel beat Lithuania in the best-of-three playoff series, qualifying for the 2019 European Baseball Championship, from which Israel emerged as one of six teams heading to the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Even post-graduation, Brodkowitz has continued to stay in touch with the Rosensteins. He recently stayed at their home in New Haven for the weekend of this year’s Harvard-Yale football game, and after being selected to play for Team Israel in the Olympics, he gifted a prized team jersey to one of the rabbi’s children.
“Rabbi Rosenstein was a big influence on me,” says Brodkowitz, who credits his mother for giving him the push he needed. “She said, ‘Go for a free dinner and explore… I had a great dinner, a great time and became very close to the rabbi.”
A Family That Focused on Traditions
Brodkowitz, who grew up in Potomac in the greater Washington, D.C. area, has always been connected to baseball, to his family and to his Judaism. His father, Ken, pitched and played outfield and first base during his student years at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore before injuring his arm. “He had Tommy John surgery and didn’t pitch after that,” says Brodkowitz. When Ken married and had children, he focused his energies on patiently and carefully coaching his children.
Brodkowitz speaks affectionately of his father, who was always “dedicated, caring and focused” with him and his two younger siblings and their sports pursuits. “He focused on mechanics, always practiced with me and never missed a game,” relates Brodkowitz, who says he continues to feel his parents’ active support.
While baseball was always a passion for the younger Brodkowitz, Jewish life holds no less an important place in his life. His family has always been affiliated, Brodkowitz attended Hebrew school and went to Jewish overnight camp for six years, and the family and continues to be connected to Chabad of Potomac.
He also benefited from a close relationship with his maternal grandfather, who he says “grew up in an Orthodox neighborhood in New York” and “faithfully practiced Judaism.” His grandfather proudly prepared Brodkowitz—and all twelve of his grandchildren for their bar and bat mitzvahs. “He is the type of guy where you learned the whole service and all the blessings; it was intense.”
Despite the high expectations, the ball player says “it was a good bonding experience.”
Wrapping Tefillin, Throwing Pitches During College
Brodkowitz continued to grow Jewishly while at Yale, even with the demands of playing varsity baseball all four years, coupled with the equally intense demands of being a double major in economics and molecular, cellular and developmental biology with a concentration in biotechnology. During sophomore year, he participated in a Birthright Israel trip, an experience he describes as “transformative.” Little did he know that only a few years later, he would become an Israeli citizen and play for its national baseball team.
As his baseball career developed, so did his Jewish engagement. Along with Shabbat meals at Chabad and regular tefillin pit stops, Brodkowitz enrolled in the Sinai Scholars program run by Chabad on Campus that integrates the study of classic Jewish texts, social programming and networking for top Jewish college students around the world.
Team Israel manager Eric Holtz first saw Brodkowitz pitch when Holtz’s son, who plays baseball for Columbia University, was playing against Yale.
“My son was a freshman at Columbia when Eric was a senior. I watched a championship game in which Eric pitched eight innings, giving up one run, and was just phenomenal. He refused to let his team down,” reports Holtz. “I didn’t know he was Jewish at all. After the game, I was looking at the stats and saw the last name was Brodkowitz. I immediately called the coach at Yale; he put me in touch with Eric, and the rest is history. Beyond being a great right-handed pitcher, he is one of the most wonderful young men you will ever come across.”
When Brodkowitz got a text from his Yale coach about Team Israel’s interest in June 2018, he was both surprised and flattered. By now a college graduate, he had just recently been hired as an analyst at Goldman Sachs, so he was also unsure of what to tell his new employers. Considering that he might need to miss some work to play in various baseball tournaments in Europe and Asia—not to mention the Olympics—it was an unusual request to say the least. Instead of rejection, to Brodkowitz’s delight his chance to play for Team Israel was met with an outpouring of support. “You have our blessing. How can we help?” came Goldman’s reply almost instantly, for which the pitcher/analyst says he is forever grateful.
In the months leading up to the Olympics, Brodkowitz stays in shape by working out in the gym and throwing baseballs daily at a field close to his work. And despite his packed work and training schedule, he is never too busy to discuss his Jewish pride with reporters or fans. “It has been a blessing and privilege to be able to wear ‘Israel’ across my chest,” he affirms.
An Active Alum with Yale and Chabad
Aside from his ongoing connection with Chabad at Yale—he remains active as an alumnus—Chabad continues to play an important place in Brodkowitz’s life in his work with Team Israel. Take, for instance, the team’s Friday-night experience while in Lithuania for a game against the country’s national team in the small city of Utena—about an hour and 20 minutes northeast of the capital, Vilnius. Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky, co-director of Chabad of Lithuania since 1994, made the trip before Shabbat to drop off all the supplies Team Israel needed to have an authentic Shabbat experience—something Brodkowitz and his teammates say they will never forget.
“There was nothing better than being in a country like Lithuania and having Shabbat dinner driven 100 miles from Chabad so that the team could celebrate Shabbat together,” adds Holtz, the manager.
Indeed, Peter Kurz, president of Israel Association of Baseball and general manager of Team Israel, has found Chabad to be an invaluable support to the team wherever they go. “Chabad has always played an important role in helping our national teams keep the Jewish spirit while we play in overseas tournaments—be it in Italy, the Czech Republic or even Bulgaria,” he says. Chabad has enabled “our team to maintain our Jewish traditions while still playing the game of baseball.”
More than a nice sentiment, Kurz says it’s this idea that stands at the heart of Israel baseball. The importance of Jewish tradition is in “our slogan,” he says: “‘Israel Baseball: Where Traditions Meet.’”
And it’s a key to what drives Brodkowitz.
“Eric takes great pride in his Jewish identity and his ability to help Israel compete in the summer Olympics,” attests Rosenstein. “I am confident that he will continue to inspire others in his journey, both as a committed Jew and a great baseball player.”
Bruce Beck had to sing in order to get a world exclusive with Israel’s only Olympic Gold medalist.
Every Jewish man remembers his bar mitzvah. Some even remember parts of their haftarah. Rarely does this ‘feat’ get them anywhere in life. Not the case for New York’s NBC TV sports anchor and reporter, Bruce Beck. Bruce grew up in Livingston, New Jersey, 25 miles southwest of Manhattan. Following a traditional, pretty much unremarkable, bar mitzvah in 1969, he attended Ithaca College in upstate New York and became a sports broadcaster. Beck has been the weekend sports anchor for News 4 New York for the past 11 years. As part of Beck’s “dream job,” he has covered Super Bowl XLII, the World Series, the NBA finals, the Stanley Cup Finals, The US Open Tennis Championship, the US Open Golf Championship, the NCAA Final Four and the Kentucky Derby. Nothing, however, he maintains, compares to his’s coverage of the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, when windsurfer Gal Friedman became the first Israeli to ever win an Olympic gold medal. “I was down at the windsurfing venue trying to get an interview,” reports Beck. “The way it works is that you wait in the mixed zone, a little control area behind fences, with all of the international reporters.”
Beck was waiting patiently when all reporters were told that Gal Friedman would not be coming through the mixed zone. After the 1972 Munich massacre, Israeli athletes simply do not grant en-masse interviews. But Beck was determined. He called Jerusalem and got a hold of Israel’s press liaison in an attempt to find out where in Athens the Israeli delegation was staying. He was then given the name of the local Israeli press secretary in Greece. After a lot of schmoozing, and his revelation of the fact that he was Jewish, the pleasant, persistent reporter was given the name of the hotel. When Beck arrived at the location, the prospects of meeting Friedman seemed slim. Again, all the reporters were waiting behind a fence. “I just needed to get in to interview Friedman. What could I do? I couldn’t speak or read Hebrew very well. I wasn’t a very good Hebrew school student. But I have a very good memory. I am a reporter. And to this day, I remembered my entire haftarah by heart. “So I started singing my haftarah, the special one for Machar Chodesh – the lovely story of David and Jonathan – for the Israeli press secretary. He was so moved that he said, ‘Bruce, come in, we want you to talk to Gal.'” And Beck got the exclusive – he was the only reporter in the world granted access to Gal Friedman. “Gal knew the whole story. He knew that I sang for the press secretary. He laughed. We talked about Munich, the fight for survival of Jews in their homeland, what it would be like to hear Hatikvah that night as he received his gold medal, etc.”
Beck looks back fondly on the story as a rare moment when a reporter’s religious background actually opened an important door, and when the reporter became part of his own story. “Journalists from all around the world wanted to know why Gal Friedman was such a big story, and how I was picked to interview him.”
“Here I was in Athens, Greece – 4,500 miles from home, in the cradle of Western Civilization – never prouder to be an American – never prouder to be a Jew.”