United states

Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

My recent college graduate daughter and I hoped to visit three hard-to-get-to Western states, hike two national parks and see bison, bears, wolves, elk and moose all before arriving in Jackson, Wyoming, for a restful Shabbat. We picked up our pickup truck at the Bozeman Yellowstone Airport, stopped in a local supermarket where we were pleasantly surprised to find more than enough kosher-certified products, and spent one night in Bozeman before setting off for Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. 

We naively thought we might be the only observant (though well-disguised with baseball caps) Jews in the area and wouldn’t see any easily identifiable Jewish people or hear any Hebrew for days. This lasted until the Canyon Village snack bar and gift shop, near the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, where a pack of 40 girls in bright yellow sweatshirts with the name of a Jewish camp plastered in Hebrew across the front seemed overjoyed to find Sabra humus in the middle of a national park in Wyoming.

On our way out of the park that evening, en route to a lodge in nearby Idaho, we followed the cars ahead of us as they pulled over to the side of the road – a sure sign of nearby wildlife. As we grabbed our binoculars and cameras, we couldn’t help but overhear a family in a nearby car listing all the animals they had seen: ze’ev, ayal, dov.

After three days of in Yellowstone, where we hiked, spotted a wolf, observed the geothermal pools, numerous hot springs and geysers and the world-famous Old Faithful, we continued just south of Yellowstone to Grand Teton National Park. The snow-capped mountains look as beautiful and picturesque in person as they do in the postcards. 

We covered most of the park by car and on foot before discovering the ferry which shuttles passengers across Jenny Lake, allowing access to waterfalls, lakes, breathtaking views, and miles of trails deep into the canyon. I hadn’t paid attention to my hiking outfit of the day – which included one of my dozens of Camp Ramah T-shirts.  A fellow hiker ascending as we came down the trail – likely a veteran of an American Jewish summer camp – noticed my shirt, smiled and said, “Mah nishma?” So much for anonymity.

After days of eating sandwiches and fruit, we could almost smell Shabbat – and our first hot meal in ages. We had paid ahead for the tasty Shabbat dinner at the Chabad of Wyoming in Jackson just a few miles from the southern exit of the Grand Tetons. Thankfully, Shabbat in July starts late, and Chabad is kind enough to not bring in Shabbat early. We had time to explore the quaint town with art galleries, coffee shops, and the town square where each entrance gate is covered in elk antlers. No surprise given its proximity to National Elk Refuge. Each winter, as many as 7,000 elk come down from the high country to the valley floor. 

WE ENTERED the home of Chabad emissaries, Rabbi Zalman and Raizy Mendelsohn, through a large white tent which was erected on their driveway hours before. Following a spirited Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv service which didn’t quite have a minyan (a quorum for prayer), guests helped transport food from the kitchen, through the study, and to the driveway for a delicious, multi-course dinner, with a local touch of moose napkin rings.

In typically inclusive Chabad fashion, guests included a few locals; an elderly Chabad couple who rented a motor home and drove from Denver, Colorado; a Jewish woman from Vancouver, Canada, who traveled (with her horse!) to Jackson for a few months; and a handful of Israelis from New York City who spend the summer season working beauty shops in Jackson. They were making their first appearance at the Chabad and expressed appreciation that they had finally taken the plunge – after three summers in town – to set foot in Chabad.

 We returned to Chabad the next morning in time for prayers. Although there was no minyan, we still managed to have a Torah reading. The rabbi asked various men and women to read each aliyah in English, and led an extensive discussion. Who ever thought my daughter would be able to read Torah at a Chabad House?

We made it back to the Cowboy Resort Lodge and enjoyed Shabbat lunch outside on our picnic table. We walked a few blocks to an off the beaten track attraction. Vertical Harvest is an impressive state-of-the-art, three-story hydroponic farm that trains and employs many local residents with disabilities. They offer tours several times a week.

We settled in to a long Shabbat nap and were awakened by the sound of a loudspeaker in the distance. As we listened more closely, we realized it was the sound of the Jackson Hole Rodeo about to get underway. My daughter and I looked at each other and right away knew we had to at least walk over to the rodeo. Who knows? Perhaps we’d be able to talk our way in. Might we be able to explain the Jewish Sabbath at the rodeo? We had no ID, phones or money. 

We took our chances and explained Shabbat. It only took three attempts before we reached the manager, who kindly stamped our hands and waved us in to the stadium. As we entered, the announcer, who just half an hour earlier had woken us from our Shabbat slumber, was in the midst of an impassioned speech to the crowd. All 1,000 or so guests – most donning the characteristic cowboy hats and boots – were on their feet and silent, awaiting the singing of what he called “America’s number one song, the Star Spangled Banner.” 

HE DIRECTED everyone’s attention to a woman racing across the arena on a horse in a red, white and blue riding outfit and carrying a larger than life American flag. As the announcer narrated her ride, my daughter and I understood what it truly means to be American. “Whether you are a school teacher, a cowboy, or a broker on the New York Stock Exchange, that is the American spirit that is represented in this horse.”   

Well, this clearly was our first rodeo! It was underway and we had no idea what to expect, or where to look. The first event, to our immediate right, was bull-riding. One person carefully opened the gate where a rider was holding on for dear life as the bull tried to knock him off. Three wranglers were skilled in directing the bull pack into his pen without first harming the rider who was now on the ground. Another man observed from a barrel, near the bull-riding competition.

The next event, barrel-racing, featured women on horses. The rider and her horse started sprinting from one end of the arena and raced down the course in an attempt to complete a cloverleaf pattern around preset barrels. Unlike in swim meets that I have witnessed at countless JCCs, where the timers strive to be accurate to the hundredth of a second, the timing for both of these events seemed more approximate than exact.

As we observed the various events, we slowly began to understand how certain expressions worked their way in to the English language: taking the bull by the horns, for example. And why one of America’s top-selling blue jeans is known as Wrangler. 

We held off offering any comments about animal cruelty, though seeing calves lassoed and their legs tied up made us uncomfortable. Calf-roping, also known as tie-down roping, is another timed event where the rider throws a loop of rope from a lariat around the calf’s neck and tries to “rope” and restrain it by tying three legs together. 

There were even some family friendly audience participation events as well, and some simulation booths. In the sheep scramble, hundreds of kids lined up on the arena dirt. Three sheep are released, and the excited children had to fetch red bandanas tied to their horns. 
In another on-field event, a dozen over-eighteen year olds were blindfolded and competed in a dance competition.

We saw a five-year-old girl on the rodeo grounds trying her best to ride a mechanical bull while her mother tried getting her to hold the bull with her left hand and wave with her right. “That’s how the cowgirls do it!”  

The announcers told somewhat racy stories and jokes throughout the evening. On a more serious note, at one point, they asked all veterans to rise so the crowd could pay tribute. They thanked them for their service and for “making it possible for cowboys to travel the country.” I was now beginning to understand and appreciate the father-to-son transmission of a culture, and of the community aspect of the rodeo.

I didn’t expect to be religiously inspired at a rodeo, but as the stars came out indicating that Shabbat was over, we looked up and thanked God for a week of new experiences, beautiful scenery, and for this newfound appreciation for America.

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Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

Jewish New Yorker aims to qualify for US Open, starts program to shine light on deep issues facing pro tennis players

Jewish tennis player Noah Rubin has been doing great things with rackets – on and off the court – since he was a little boy. The 23-year-old, 195th-ranked ATP professional from Long Island, New York, had a tennis-themed bar mitzvah, enjoyed a successful run as a junior, and has already had some memorable on-court moments since turning pro in 2015.

Rubin has beaten top tour players such as John Isner (2018 Citi Open in Washington DC), and he has given Roger Federer a run for his money, losing 7-5, 6-3, 7-6(3) in the second round of the 2017 Australian Open.  Rubin continues to hover around No. 200 in the rankings and travels the world participating in both the ATP Pro Tour and Challenger Tour events.

He is also active and vocal off the court, advocating for more equitable earnings for all tournament players, and helping humanize the sport through his “Behind The Racquet” project on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.  The initiative features many of the world’s best tennis players posing behind their rackets and telling personal stories of depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse and more.

This week, Rubin is working to secure a spot in the main draw of the US Open in New York at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. He is no stranger to the Grand Slam event; Rubin has played in either the US Open Qualifying Tournament or the main draw every year since 2013.  To earn one of 16 coveted spots in this year’s main draw, he must first win two more matches in this week’s qualifiers.

A local favorite who was surrounded by family and friends during his first-round match, Rubin easily defeated Italian Gianluca Mager 6-2, 6-3 on Tuesday to set up a second-round duel with 166th-ranked Spaniard Guillermo Garcia-Lopez late Thursday night.

Rubin comes from a tennis family.  According to his mother, Melanie, Noah began playing tennis while “still in diapers.” Melanie and her ex-husband, Eric, would get up at 5 a.m. and drive daughter Jessie and Noah to a 6-8 a.m. indoor tennis clinic on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Jessie Rubin McNally, who met her husband on a Birthright Israel trip, went on to play as the captain of the Binghamton (NY) University tennis team, but her younger brother took tennis to another level.

“Eric and I were a good team,” said Melanie. “He would feed Jessie and Noah balls, and I would pick up the balls and offer encouragement.”

As a young child, Rubin played tennis several days a week.  He played for the John McEnroe Tennis Academy and competed in tournaments, but also played on a soccer team and attend Hebrew school three days a week from second grade through the age of 13.

Rubin celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Merrick Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue on Long Island and organized a “mitzvah project” collecting used tennis rackets to donate to the Israel Tennis Centers (recently renamed the Israel Tennis and Education Centers).  As Rubin playfully noted, “I can recite my haftarah to this day!”

After his bar mitzvah, Rubin stopped attending Hebrew school and began to focus on tennis. He attended high school in Bellmore, Long Island, for one year before, as his training and tournament demands intensified, he switched to learning online.

As a junior player, Rubin reached No. 6 in the world in the International Tennis Federation.  In 2014, he was the No. 1 junior in the United States.  He reached the second round of the French Open juniors’ tournament in 2014 and soon after won the Wimbledon junior tournament.

One month later, Rubin won the 2014 US Tennis Association’s Boys 18s National Championships in both singles and doubles.  As a result of this victory, he received a wild card in to the main draw of the 2014 US Open. Since turning pro in 2015, Rubin has won four ATP Challenger titles and reached a high ranking of No. 131, in 2018.

The likable Rubin – who stands 5-feet-9-inches tall (1.75 meters) and weighs 155 pounds (70 kilos) – is articulate, earnest and very forthcoming to The Jerusalem Post this week in describing his first-round match, some personal struggles and the often challenging life of young professional tennis players.

“There is this anxiety which fills me at the US Open,” said Rubin. “As you can see, right behind me are my family and my friends – everybody who is close to me.  I love the support, but once I step on court it hits. There is a lot of pressure.  These are all the people who have worked so hard to get me to where I am.  I don’t want to let them down.”

Rubin said that he “loves to show off, not in front of people I know.”

Acknowledging that some of his best tournaments have been in Australia, Rubin offered: “That is because it is on the other side of the world.”

Rubin appeared to be healthy during his match against Mager.  When asked about his health in recent months, given a number of injuries in past years, he unexpectedly reported, “Another injury has stricken me and it is mental.  A lot of people don’t talk about that and that is what I am fixing.  It is a huge issue in tennis.  I have this ongoing quote that I say – tennis is not conducive to happiness.  That is a tough thing since tennis is the thing I love and I still love.  But the system of tennis doesn’t make it a viable choice to really smile each and every day.”  

Rubin tries hard to keep perspective.

“My new mentality these past five months, actually really the past two months, has been to try and just enjoy tennis, enjoy the atmosphere. People are here to support me.”

Rubin has worked hard to help fans understand the real life experience of professional tennis players and to offer insight in to how they are feeling.

“There are a lot of problems in this sport and it leads to depression, alcohol abuse, etc. I am desperately trying to get people to understand what is going on.   I want to help the world of tennis. I think nowadays people are starting to outwardly speak, but it will still take more effort.”

He is making progress through Behind the Racquet.

Rubin described the goals of the online series – to break the stigma of mental health, to allow players to share their stories and to let fans relate to players on a deeper basis.  Rubin hopes to “bring new excitement to tennis.”

Behind the Racquet currently has 13,600 followers on Instagram. Even tennis great Venus Williams has posted about it online.

Melanie proudly added that tennis legend Billy Jean King has also commented on Noah’s important contribution.  Melanie said that many players have reached out to Noah privately to “thank him from the bottom of their hearts” for what he is doing in capturing the often lonely, physically taxing life of an on-tour tennis player.

“He is really trying to do something good and help people. He has already made people’s lives better.”

His sister Jessie put Noah’s off-court work in a Jewish context.

“He is doing Tikkun Olam – he is trying to repair what needs to be repaired.”

Noah would appreciate her reference to the important Jewish concept of “healing the world.” Proud of his Judaism, Rubin plays around the world sporting a necklace he describes as “the hand of God with a chain in the middle,” which his father bought him as a 17th birthday present. He is pleased when fans engage him about being Jewish.  While he acknowledges that he represents America and New York wherever he goes, he adds, “I am a Jewish New Yorker and that means a lot to me.”

Rubin would very much like to visit Israel for the first time, but noted that his tournament schedule has made this difficult. He almost had the opportunity to play in the Jerusalem Challenger Tournament this year – “I tried to go but it was during the French Open Qualifying Tournament.”

“I will get to Israel,” asserted Rubin.  “It is not even a question. I will get there with my girlfriend or my family or by myself. I’ll run over there if I have to.”

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