Friday, August 10, 2012

Reform Judaism's Gold Medal Gymnast Aly Raisman

Olympian Aly Raisman's Rabbi Says Her Gold Medals Inspire Jewish Community reads the headline of an article written by Jaclyn Reiss for the Boston Globe on August 8, the day after Aly won two Olympic Medals, one Gold and one Bronze, for her spectacular showing in women's gymnastics.

The article begins with the Raisman's Rabbi, Keith Stern:

The rabbi of the Newton synagogue where Aly Raisman attends said he and the Jewish community have been proudly looking on over the last few weeks as she has made her way to Olympic glory. 
The Raismans joined Temple Beth Avodah, a reform synagogue, in Newton about 15 years ago, and put Aly through Hebrew school starting when she was in pre-school all the way up until her Bat Mitzvah at age 13, said Rabbi Keith Stern, who has been at the temple for 16 years.
 "I would say her family is a very proud Jewishly-connected family, in terms of their sense of who and what they are," Stern said in an interview Wednesday. "It reflects on what they do in the world and on their basic values."
Stern said that he has known Raisman since she was a little girl, and praised her caring personality. 
"Truly, from pre-school on, she has always been a sweet, confident, very focused person, who always comes through and who cared about other people," Stern said. "She has a natural inclination to make sure people are okay and to make sure they're happy." 
He also said that Raisman's personality traits shone as she served as captain and led the American gymnastics team to gold.

Before continuing on with the article, the exceptional personality traits that Rabbi Stern refers to can be seen quite well in the following short video on Aly Raisman's Olympic Workout produced by Yahoo Sports posted last month:

And now, to return to the article, Reiss continues with another quote from Raisman's Rabbi:

"Watching her during Olympics, she is the perfect captain because she has this ability to look at the group and make sure everybody is okay, and does it in a way that’s so natural for her," Stern said. "I think it significantly reflects the idea that being a Jew is worrying not just about your own immediate family, but also the people you’re with - their welfare, their needs. That’s a significant reflection of a Jewish upbringing." 
Stern said he liked Raisman's choice of "Hava Nagila," a popular Hebrew folk song associated with celebrations, as the background music of her floor routine.

And here is some amateur footage of her doing her individual all-around routine to Hava Nagila on July 29th:

She tied for 3rd place, but lost the Bronze Medal on the tie-breaker, coming in fourth on that event, although she did receive a Gold Medal as part of the USA's fab five winning the Women's Gymnastics Team event (where she also did a floor routine to Hava Nagila).  But on August 7th, she won the Bronze Medal in the balance beam final, and then went on to win a Gold Medal in the floor final, once again to the tune of Hava Nagila! NBC isn't allowing us to embed the video, but you can watch her amazing performance on their Olympic coverage site.

Back at the article, Reiss returns once again to Rabbi Stern:

He said the version Raisman used "rocked the way she needed it to rock," and speculated that Raisman might have used it to pay tribute to the 40th anniversary of the 1972 terrorist attack on 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. 
"In a way, it indicates Aly’s Jewish life is so integrated into her entire soul, that I don’t think she was looking to make a statement as a Jew," he said. "I think it was so natural to her that it's more like, why wouldn’t she use the Hora? It shows again her confidence and tradition in a really fundamental way." 
Stern said he thinks Jewish Americans feel connected to Raisman, and have been cheering her on at the Olympics. Rabbi Jay Perlman of the Temple Beth Shalom in Needham hit a similar theme in a recent blog post, mentioning the song she chose and her connection to the community. 
"Aly, not surprisingly, was exceptionally gracious following (as she was graceful during) yesterday’s individuals competition. She celebrated her teammates. And she expressed appreciation for all that she had accomplished and for those who have supported her,'' Perlman wrote. "We are so happy to see Aly shine as a role model of dedication, hard work, and team work. And I know that we all look forward to – soon – welcoming her and her family home to Needham.''

In his blog post, Rabbi Needham also said that "a number of people have commented that they found it refreshing that Aly chose 'Hava Nagila' for her floor routine….. that Aly so proudly shared her Jewish identity with the world."

 Aly's choice of Hava Nagila was was especially poignant in light of the International Olympic Committee's refusal to observe a minute of silence in memory of the Munich 11, the eleven Israeli athletes murdered by Palestinian terrorists, with the aid of German neo-Nazis, forty years ago at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany (see our previous post, One Minute of Silence for the Munich 11).  In a New York Post article by Leonard Greene dated August 8 and entitled Jewish Gal Shows Up IOC with a Gold Salute to Munich 11, he opens with a quote and a reference to IOC President Jacques Roggue:

“I can only imagine how painful it must be for the families and close personal friends of the victims.”

But by refusing to hit the pause button for a measly 60 seconds, Roggue and other organizers have committed a sin nearly as grave as denying there was ever a Holocaust.

Were it not for young Aly and her wedding dance/bat mitzvah accompaniment, the Munich dead may have never gotten their due.

“I am Jewish, that’s why I wanted that floor music,’’ Raisman said.

“I wanted something the crowd could clap to, especially being here in London.

“It makes it even much more if the audience is going through everything with you. That was really cool and fun to hear the audience clapping.’’

The significance of Raisman's musical statement was driven home by Meredith Bennett-Smith in a piece written for the Huffington Post, also date August 8th, under the title of
Aly Raisman, Olympic Gymnast, Honors 'Munich 11' And Her Jewish Heritage After Winning Gold:
Aly Raisman was not alive when the Black September Palestinian militant group infiltrated the Olympic Village at the 1972 Munich Games, but on Tuesday, the 18-year-old gymnast said she would have supported a moment of silence in their honor.
 In light of the 40th anniversary of the tragedy -- which resulted in the death of 11 athletes and coaches -- relatives and supporters of the Munich victims had redoubled their efforts to have a moment of silence observed during the opening ceremonies in London. 

But in a decision that drew widespread criticism, International Olympic Committee President Jaques Roggue refused to allow any such remembrance, announcing in May that the "IOC has officially paid tribute to the memory of the athletes on several occasions," and would not be doing so in London, according to USA Today.

However, after Raisman mounted the podium to accept her individual gold medal in the women's floor exercises Tuesday, she showed maturity and poise as she addressed the Munich controversy head on.

Bennett-Smith goes on to reference Green's New York Post article:

“If there had been a moment’s silence,” Raisman said, “I would have supported it and respected it," the New York Post notes.

For many, the gymnast's routine, which was performed to the traditional Hebrew folk tune, “Hava Nagila,” added an extra layer of poignancy.

“Having that floor music wasn’t intentional,” Raisman told reporters. “But the fact it was on the 40th anniversary is special, and winning the gold today means a lot to me.”

The Jewish community has rallied around the young star, much as it has other athletes who have found their own ways to honor their fallen peers.

The next paragraph makes reference to a survivor of Auschwitz, Max Goldschmidt, who moved to France after the war, and married Fabien Gilot's grandmother:

Fabien Gilot, a French swimmer, made headlines with his own moving tattoo tribute. The Hebrew lettering on his arm: אני כלום בלעדיהם, meaning, "I am nothing without them," was a tribute to a Jewish grandfather figure, Gilot said.

The article continues, citing the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

The Italian delegation also made its own moving gesture of solidarity earlier in the games, holding a minute of silence with a number of Israeli representatives inside the Olympic Village, Haaretz reports.

The Haaretz article, filed July 30th with the title, In Solidarity with Israel, Italy Holds Munich Olympics Memorial, relates the following:

The Italian delegation to the 2012 London Olympiad made an emotional gesture at the Olympic village on Sunday by holding a minute of silence together with a number of Israeli representatives for the 11 victims of the 1972 Munich massacre. 

Over 30 members of the Italian delegation - headed by Sports Minister Piero Gnudi, Italian Olympic Committee president Giovanni Petrucci and International Olympic Committee member Franco Carraro - held the ceremony near the Israelis' quarters. 

Israel was represented by Zvi Varshaviak, chairman of the Olympic Committee of Israel; Efraim Zinger, head of the Olympic delegation; shooter Sergey Richter on behalf of the athletes; and Guy Strik on behalf of the coaches. 

Varshaviak said the gesture was beautiful and moving. "It's a brave sign of solidarity and friendship between the Olympic family of Italy and that of Israel, which has continued for many years," he said. 

Zinger thanked the Italians and explained to them that his committee is doing everything to memorialize the 11 Munich victims as Israelis. However, he said, it is important to remember that they were also Olympic athletes, coaches and judges who were murdered during athe Olympics. 

"Therefore they are children of the Olympic movement and in our opinion it is the moral obligation of the International Olympic Committee to find a suitable way to perpetuate their memory," Zinger added.

To Italy, we send our most heartfelt grazie tanto, grazie mille!

And back at the Huffington Post, Bennett-Smith ends her article by noting

Before the start of the games, a petition with more than 107,00 signatures, including that of Barack Obama, was presented to Roggue in London, asking that he reverse his decision and allow the moment of silence to be observed. 

Roggue, however was unmoved.

Now, returning to Raisman, did you happen to see the front page of Wednesday's New York Post? If not, have a look:

And let's return to Leonard Greene's New York Post report:

Raisman’s eyes opened as wide as the gold medal she would win when the judges announced her score of 15.600 points after her mistake-free routine.

Her top finish was the first by an American woman in the Olympic floor exercise, and the win gave Raisman her second gold medal. Raisman admitted the 40th anniversary of the Munich Games made her “hora” gold even more special.
“That was the best floor performance I’ve ever done, and to do it for the Olympics is like a dream,’’ Raisman said. 
Raisman did not go to the Games with the star power of her teammate Gabrielle Douglas or the résumé of world champion Jordyn Wieber.

But those who know her best said she works as hard as anyone, and, more importantly, her heart is in the right place.

‘’I’m so happy for Aly,” Douglas, the first African-American to win the all-around title, said after the floor competition. “She deserves to be up on that podium.’’

Greene went on to quote Rabbi Stern as well:

She is a focused person,” said Rabbi Keith Stern, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Avodah in Newton Centre, Mass., where the Raisman family are members.

“She’s very proud and upfront about being Jewish. Neither she nor her family explicitly sought to send a message. But it shows how very integrated her Jewish heritage is in everything that she does.”

Stern said he remembers picking up young Aly from preschool, and never imagined she’d be some sort of megastar.

He described the US team captain as a big sister-type who is a mother hen to all her younger siblings.

“I can’t wait to have her at the temple to talk about her experience,” he said.
“I know her sister’s bat mitzvah is coming up, so maybe I’ll catch up with her then.”

Stern said that he, too, was stunned by the IOC’s refusal to hold a moment of silence.
“I’m happy to hear any other explanation,” Stern said. “But short of some racist grudge somebody is holding, I can’t figure out why it would be a terrible thing to do.”

Stern said he watched the routine and was blown away. Even so, he said he is more proud of Raisman’s gold mettle than he is of the new jewelry around her neck.
“I have to say, the statement just warmed me to the very depths of my being,” Stern said.

He compared it to the iconic black-power, raised-fist protest made by track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the medal stand at the 1968 Mexico City Games.

“They’re not going to forget that,” the rabbi said. “I certainly won’t.”

Finally, getting back to the Boston Globe, let's hear from Rabbi Stern one more time:

Stern, in an interview Wednesday, added: "I think we’re all puffing out our chests as far as we can go - we’re all so proud of her," he said. "Jewish people often do this - if something happens to another Jewish person, it becomes personal, and now every Jewish family feels related to Aly in some sort of unique way, and feels pride in her success."

"The idea of a highly-trained, highly-successful athlete really reflects a kind of pride of who and what we are as Jews living in the world today, particularly as American citizens," Stern said.

And when Raisman finally steps off the plane from London next week?
"I’ll be in line to greet her with Wheaties and Sports Illustrated," Stern laughed. "We’ll be waiting at the temple whenever the Raismans are ready to join us."

And there she is, showing us her Gold Medal, Alexandra Rose Raisman, one of America's, and Reform Judaism's, finest atheletes!  Mazel tov, Aly, mazel tov!

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