Alex Sternberg
A Jewish Activist

Orthodox Jews and the Olympics- Is there a chance?

I once heard a novel definition of  “Bar Mitzvah.”

According to this “golden oldie,” it is the age when a Jewish boy first realizes that his chances of owning a major league professional sports team are much better than actually playing on one! How much more true if that boy happens to be Orthodox?

Has an Orthodox Jew ever competed in the summer Olympics?

Additionally, should we even encourage Orthodox kids to take any sport seriously?

Those of us who have coached  elite level Jewish athletes, are all too aware of events scheduled for the Sabbath or other major Jewish holidays, forcing the athletes to choose. But if the athlete is Orthodox, such conflicts are magnified many fold. We remember Sandy Koufax who famously refused to pitch in the World Series that fell on Yom Kippur.

Beatie Deutsch, an American- born Orthodox mother of five now living in Israel has dreams to be first Orthodox athlete to reach the summer Olympics. Beatie, or “Speedy Beatie” as she is known around Israeli marathon circles, qualified by being in the top 80 finishers worldwide.

Her dream to run for Israel in the Olympics however, have hit a snag. With the Olympics postponed due to Covid 19 to 2021, all events were rescheduled. The women’s marathon, usually run on a Sunday, has now been scheduled for Saturday- the Jewish Sabbath.

Running might not seem like an obvious violation of Shabbat, but because it is Deutsch’s job — the Israeli Olympic Association pays her to train — it’s forbidden.

“Speedy Beatie”  has steadfastly refused to run on the Sabbath and  has asked the International Olympic Committee to make a date change. With over a year to go, this should not have been an issue. After all, the Olympic Games made a similar change to accommodate Moslem athletes’ who didn’t want to compete during the Moslem holiday of Ramadan. But the IOC turned down Beatie’s request.Beatie is appealing the IOC’s  decision with help from Akiva Shapiro, a partner at Gibson Dunn, a US based law firm.

Beatie is not the only one being forced to choose between her religion and an Olympic berth.

Long Island native, 18 year old  Estee Ackerman, a nationally ranked US table tennis champion, missed her qualifying event, scheduled for a Saturday.  The principled young woman will not compete on her Sabbath, choosing to forego her Olympic dream rather than engage in a non-Sabbath like activity. Like Beatie, she petitioned for a day change and like Beatie was turned down.   So, for Estee her Olympic dreams have been put on hold, while Beatie is still hoping for a miracle decision. Schedule conflicts plaguing Orthodox athletes, are hardly new, however.

In 1982, the US Karate Federation announced that the qualifying event for the upcoming World Championships would be held on Rosh Hashana. As a coach of the US National Team, I immediately petitioned for a date change on behalf of 4 national champions who were Jewish. Two of them were Orthodox.  With over three month’s lead time, I was sure we would be accommodated. But as Beatie and Estee, we were turned down as well.   With help from famed Harvard attorney Alan Dershowitz, the athletes were afforded a special “run off” competition to qualify. Our threat to take legal action, however, had a serious and negative impact on our careers for years to come.

I coached national karate athletes for 35 years. Events scheduled on Jewish holidays plagued us constantly. Many promising athletes, forced to choose between that gold medal or Shabbat, chose to abandon the medal for which they had trained for so long and so hard.

The bottom line is, that for an Orthodox athlete, winning higher level competition is elusive not due to lack of talent, but due to scheduling.  Additionally, Orthodox parents see benefits of dedicated training far less frequently.

Recently, my 16 year old son Yonatan, decided to quit gymnastics after a 13-year effort.Although he excelled at it, winning in most of the meets he entered, the frequent missing of important events due to schedule conflicts was frustrating.

Yonatan, a junior in a yeshiva HS studying a double curriculum, realized that it was time to choose between endless hours training or devoting that time to study. Although he was aspiring to make the 2021 Maccabiah Gymnastics team, after much soul searching, he decided, to give up his passion and pursue his future.

Dov, Yonatan’s older brother, was a multiple US National Karate Champion, and silver medalist in the Pan Am Games. He stopped competing at the top of his game, due to Shabbat schedule problems.

The truth is that every Orthodox athlete has faced such challenges. Despite this, the benefits gained from  competitive sport outweigh even the frustrations.

I recently spoke with Estee Ackerman, the ping-pong would-be Olympian. Although, she was disappointed at not being able to try-out she was remarkably upbeat. Would she counsel young Orthodox athletes to abandon hopes for success in sports based on her experiences-she was asked?  “On the contrary” she answered emphatically. “I would tell them to shoot for the stars, to go for it” She explained that training and competing have their own intrinsic benefits. “why quit without even trying”? she wondered.

She maintained  that “ hard training is filled with rewards”. She has become  more confidant, she explained, as a result of participating in high level competition. “The discipline, the focus of attention from training, transforms your personality”. “Win or lose, you benefit from trying”

Estee echoes what I have always heard from athletes. Not one ever regretted the sacrifice and hard training they endured. They developed a  more disciplined and competitive focus.

So, while we await the first Orthodox Jew’s debut in the  summer Olympics, we encourage our athletes to keep on training. Whether they ever make it to the Games  (and very few make it to the Olympics anyway) the years of training and competing become a life changing experience.

So, listen to Estee and “ shoot for the stars- Don’t get discouraged. Go For it ”!

Sometimes to seek, may be better than to find!

Dr. Alex Sternberg

Coach: USA National Karate Team (ret.)

Author of: “Recipes from Auschwitz– The Survival Stories of Two Hungarian Jews with Historical Insight”

website:  www.alexsternberg.com

About the Author
Born in Hungary, emigrated to US 1961. Became USA Karate Champion and teacher. Joined the Kahane led JDL teaching karate and becoming an activist. Receiving doctorates in physiology and Public Health, was the Director of the Pulmonary Function and Exercise Physiology Lab at Downstate Medical Center for 30 years. A leading figure in US Karate, he was a master instructor for close to 50 years. Presently, an author writing about the Holocaust, and lecturing on Jewish history.
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