A glorious year for blue-and-white athletes

Plenty of accomplishments for Israelis in baseball, judo, rhythmic gymnastics and more with Olympics on tap

Israel's national baseball team (photo credit: MARGO SUGARMAN)
Israel's national baseball team
(photo credit: MARGO SUGARMAN)
In just a few days, Jews around the world will hear the sound of the Shofar and welcome in the new year of 5780. Whether one is in Israel, Argentina, Russia or the United States, the Jewish people will look back at the year that was of 5779 and ahead to the year that will be.
Israeli sports certainly had a wonderful year and the future is brighter than ever, especially with the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo on the horizon for next summer. Add to that the blue-and-white sports teams across the Holy Land and there is much to be proud of, while being excited about the new year to come.
One of the most amazing accomplishments as we close the year is seeing how many Israeli athletes have already qualified for next summer’s Olympics. But what makes it even more incredible is that Israeli sports truly represent the in-gathering of the exiles. Whether American, Ethiopian or Russian, everyone has the opportunity to represent Israel at the highest stage and that’s exactly what has happened in a number of sports and disciplines. Of course, that is not to take away any of the amazing achievements that native Israelis have notched this year, and in fact there were plenty of them as well.
Let’s begin with one of the most improbable sports stories of the year and perhaps in the history of the State of Israel, the national baseball Team. Just this past week, the blue-and-white ball players punched their ticket to Tokyo and will be one of only six nations playing for an Olympic medal. Not only has Israel qualified in what should be considered a modern miracle by defeating top European teams such as the Netherlands, Italy and Spain, but it did so in outstanding fashion.
Unlike the World Baseball Classic in 2017 – in which participants just needed to qualify for citizenship for the country they were representing – this team, composed of primarily minor league American ball players had to make aliyah and obtain Israeli citizenship in order to be allowed to play in the early qualification rounds.
Israel beat all of the other European powerhouses in the six-team Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifying Tournament, all of whom it had lost to the prior week at the European Championship. The Israelis certainly saved the best for last.
The architect of this feat is the president and general manager of Israel Association of Baseball, Peter Kurz, who was able to construct a team that represented not just Israel but the Jewish people as a whole throughout the world.
However, while it’s important to note that Israel Baseball will receive headlines in North America and will offer a plethora of positive public relations for Israel at the highest of levels, it is crucial to note that this also helps grow the game in the country itself.
The baseball diamonds that have been marked to be built across the country will actually be built and the players and administration will be obligated to reach out to the Israeli youth and not just those who are children of North American immigrants.
The Israeli equestrian team will also be heading to the Olympic Games, as native New Yorker Danielle Goldstein Waldman and Colombian-born Daniel Bluman will be part of the delegation. Earlier this summer they advanced to the Olympics by winning their respective qualifiers in Moscow.
On the track, Israel has a number of olim heading to Japan, including Ethiopian Marhu Teferi, who will run the men’s marathon, while his wife Selamawit Dagnachew will take part in the women’s 5,000 meters.
Add to the mix Lonah Chemtai Salpeter, who is originally from Kenya and will be participating in three disciplines, and Israel has once again shown how international a country it really is.
Bracha “Beatie” Deustch is still in the process of qualifying, as is Diana Vaisman, so watch out on the track and keep an eye on these special stories.
Sergey Richter, who is originally from the Soviet Union, will take part in the Men’s 10-meter air rifle competition in Tokyo, while swimmer Yakov Toumarkin, from Russia, will also most probably be at the Games after meeting the Olympic criteria, though he has yet to achieve the Israeli requirements.
Netanya native Sagi Muki is riding high after winning the World Championship in Judo in the -81kg category in August, and he will be a serious medal threat for Israel, as will rhythmic gymnast Linoy Ashram from Rishon Lezion, who took home six medals in September at the Worlds in Baku. Nicol Zelikman will also compete, as will the blue-and-white rhythmic gymnastics squad in the all-around group event.
Heading over to the basketball court, Maccabi Tel Aviv will look to improve its standing in the Euroleague after a number of years with mixed results in continental play. Greek coach Ioannis Sfairpoulos will look to take the yellow-and-blue to the Final Four, a place where Maccabi hasn’t been since it won the 2014 title.
Domestically, Maccabi is the defending league champ and will look to defend its title, while Hapoel Jerusalem captured the State Cup this past year and will want to continue to build on the project that ownership and coach Oded Katash are working on.
For a second year in a row, Israel will not have a team playing in either the Champions League or the Europa League and that’s a shame as Israel won’t be represented once again on the biggest soccer stages in Europe.
Maccabi Tel Aviv is the title holder and is currently in first place in league play, Bnei Yehuda is the State Cup holder and Beitar Jerusalem captured the Toto Cup just this past Tuesday.
Along with lacrosse, American football, handball, surfing and many more, Israeli sports fans have plenty to look forward to this coming year.
So make sure to head to an arena or stadium near you to enjoy the finest sports experiences the country can offer, something that should never be taken for granted considering that not so long ago, sports was at best a secondary consideration in Israeli media coverage.
Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel sports adventures for tourists and residents (www.sportsrabbi.com). Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi or feel free to contact the Sports Rabbi at [email protected].