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Jewish golfers on their “A” game

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Sport

Jewish golfing champions are a bit of an anomaly in South Africa. However, right now two young Jewish golfers are on a winning streak.

Professional golfer Stacy Lee Bregman, and Mikail Behr, a 16-year-old scholar at Reddam House in Bedfordview, each won a golf tournament in August.

On 7 August 2021, Bregman played a crucial role in Team Buhai winning the Aramco Team Series against Team Storm at Sotogrande in Spain.

Playing in what was a three-day competition, part of the Ladies European Tour, Bregman holed a putt from the back of the green in the final round to complete an inventive birdie. Knowing she had just handed Team Buhai the clubhouse lead, Bregman celebrated by hugging her three teammates, including captain Ashleigh Buhai. “It was quite a crucial moment,” she said.

Although Team Storm then levelled the combined score, the Johannesburg-born Buhai won the playoff, and Bregman could celebrate her sixth win since she turned professional in November 2006.

“The tournament was a great experience,” said Bregman. “Since I won the world amateur [Espirito Santo Trophy in October 2006] with Ashleigh Buhai, this was one of the only times I experienced playing in a team because golf is an individual sport. So, it was pretty cool to be playing a team event again.”

Eight days later, Behr won his first Gauteng Provincial Under-Nineteen Tournament by carding a three-under-par 69 to finish ahead of the 59 other golfers competing in the one-day Junior Central Gauteng Golf Union August Break 18 Holes at Glenvista Country Club.

Behr took up golf when he was 12. “I took him to Huddle Park, gave him one or two clubs to play with, and that’s how he started,” said his dad, Ross.

Bregman, now the sixth highest-ranked South African in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings at number 659, started playing golf when she was 13. “I played golf a few times on holiday with a friend and I wasn’t that interested in playing or anything,” she said.

However, her dad encouraged her to play at Killarney on Sundays, and she participated in all the junior camps there. One day, he took her to play nine holes and Neville Sundelson, the World Amateur Champion 1973 and bronze medallist at the 1969 Maccabi Games, was playing leisurely in front of them.

“He asked me to join, and took me under his wing,” said Bregman. “He saw potential and he pretty much got me into the sport. He mentored and coached me, and that’s why I’m playing golf professionally.”

Behr, on the other hand, doesn’t have a full-time coach. “He’s done this all on his own,” said his dad. “I mean, I was a tennis player in my day, and I thought he would follow the same path, but he got into his golf and he enters the tournaments on his own. He nags me to go. I don’t put any pressure on him, he’s done this all on his own.”

A member at the Royal Johannesburg & Kensington Golf Club, where he was crowned 2020 Junior Club Champion, Behr practices most days of the week.

Behr doesn’t play any other sports as he is concentrating on golf. The left-handed golfer is working towards a scholarship once he matriculates. “We are busy planning that now. He wants to go to the United States,” said his father.

Behr recalls once walking nine holes with Gary Player at Killarney. “Go get a club in the clubhouse; I want to see how you hit,” the three-time Masters champion told him. In spite of not being in his golf uniform, Behr found a left-handed club and hit a great shot.

The achievements of Player, Ernie Els, and Charl Schwartzel are well-documented, but the sporting successes accomplished by the other Johannesburg-born golfer, Bregman, have gone under the radar.

After receiving the Maccabi SA Junior Sports Star Of The Year Award in 2003, Bregman won the Sports Woman Of The Year Award at King David Linksfield school in 2004 and a gold medal for golf at the 2005 Maccabi Games.

Bregman achieved provincial colours for athletics and South African colours seven times for karate, a sport that taught her so much about the importance of staying focused, she has become known for her intense demeanour on the golf course.

She went on to be named Maccabi SA Senior Sports Star Of The Year in 2007 before bagging five wins on the Sunshine Ladies Tour, the last being the Canon Ladies Tshwane Open in 2018. In the same year, she won the Investec Order of Merit and the Sunshine Ladies Tour Order of Merit.

“I haven’t had an amazing victory yet in Europe, but I’ve finished second quite a few times and finished in the top 10 in the Order of Merit of Europe twice,” says Bregman. “So, I have had quite a lot of success in my career.”

Bregman has competed against all the world’s top golfers, including number one-ranked Nelly Korda and eleventh-ranked Minjee Lee.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report this week, Bregman had just ended her four-month stay overseas, returning to Johannesburg where she lives when she’s not travelling.

Asked about the impact of COVID-19 on golf, Bregman admitted that she had “struggled quite a lot” in adjusting to new protocols and not playing competitively between April and July last year.

“Travel has become a lot harder, especially from South Africa,” she said. “Lots of COVID-19 tests, lots of isolation. Even on tour, it’s like literally just a golf course and hotel. You can’t be ordering Uber Eats all the time. You used to be able to go to restaurants, explore the town, and stay at Airbnbs. You can’t do much of that anymore. So, it has taken a big toll on a lot of people’s mental health. That’s why I just came home for a week – this is my only opportunity to come home, see family, friends, and just have a little bit of normality before I go back overseas until December.”

During the first few months of lockdown, Behr practised by chipping into the golf net at home. “Obviously the clubs were closed for a while, but now everything has opened up,” said his dad. “There are protocols now. When he plays in these tournaments, we aren’t allowed to go and watch as no spectators are allowed.”

Bregman has sound advice for Behr and other young golfers in South Africa. “If you have the determination and dedication, and you show some kind of shine, this is definitely a profession that you can enjoy. It’s a game for all. This and tennis are probably the only two sports that you can really make a good living out of. The prize money and the gap is starting to narrow between men and ladies. There’s hope for women’s sport, and golf is definitely one of them.”

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Lifestyle

Hatzolah’s invasion tour brings freedom back

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I’ve never thought of us as the invading type, we’re more “people of the book”, but for five amazing days, even if in our own minds, we invaded the roads of the Overberg region on the 2021 Hatzolah Cape Invasion Tour.

As a first-time invader, and yes, I have to say it, in a COVID-19 year, I wasn’t sure what to expect and how I would feel being in a hotel for five days with a group of guys, many of whom I didn’t know, and riding in a mask-less peloton. This was in addition to the real fear of whether my “pins” (legs) would hold up for the 500km of riding and more than 5 000m of climbing that was necessary to claim a full invasion.

What I hadn’t taken into account was the “Hatzolah factor”. Here is an organisation whose mission it is to care, keep our community safe, save our lives when called upon to do so, and in doing so, to help create “a future that looks brighter together”.

In some respects, the riding was secondary. The operation to keep the invaders safe in all aspects was the real show, and the stakes were high for Hatzolah, which has been our knight in shining PPE (protective) suits throughout the pandemic. And what a show it put on! Led by rosh riding, Mark Kruger; rosh logistics and anything else you could think of, Sharon Newfield; and rosh medical, Yudi Singer, the Hatzolah team of Bernard Segal, Justin Gillman, Albert Ndlovu, and Sisqo Buthelezi were simply exceptional. I can tell you from personal experience that to have Segal following you in a red ambulance and then pull up next to you and offer you a “red ambulance” (an ice-cold Coke) when you’ve been dropped by the group is really quite remarkable.

As were the unbelievable marshals who worked the traffic and kept us moving safely in every direction, and our bike mechanic, Sylvester, who kept our Dogmas, Canyons, and Treks rolling smoothly on the open road. An essential function for a group full of Jewish bike mechanics.

The riding was exceptional. From the spectacular descent into Gordon’s Bay to the golden fields of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, from Pringle Bay to Villiersdorp and Hermanus, we were treated to the best of our beautiful country.

One of the biggest challenges for the invaders, on top of riding and climbing, was to return from the invasion weighing less and not more than when we started. Avron of Avron’s in Cape Town made sure that was almost impossible. The food was top class. How do I know? No one complained.

Not everything was smooth sailing. On day three, one of the more accomplished riders in the group, who was beginning to glow like a lava lamp, discovered that he had been shmeering himself with sanitiser and not sun block, but even that was quickly fixed.

And just when it couldn’t get any better, it did. Each evening, we were treated to a virtuoso performance of Pavarotti, Bocelli, and beautiful chazonis from one of – actually probably the only – multitalented rider on the tour, Ezra Sher.

I almost forgot. How do you know you’ve got Chabadniks on the ride? You have a shul set up complete with a Torah and guys lining up to put tefillin on in the morning. Love it!

From the COVID-19 tests that were required from all riders prior to arriving at Arabella, to the dedicated dining area, to the support teams and riders who made up the invading party of 2021 in a COVID-19 year, it almost felt normal. Like we were back.

This year’s tour was as much about the riding as it was about re-claiming just a little bit of our freedom that has been taken away from all of us over the past 18 or so months. It was about being careful, which allowed us to be carefree. It was about being part of a remarkable community of riders supporting the remarkable organisation that Hatzolah is. There aren’t many quotable quotes when one thinks of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but when it comes to the Hatzolah Cape Invasion for 2022, one springs to mind. “I’ll be back!” May the wind be at our backs.

  • Herschel Jawitz is on the board of the SA Jewish Report.

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“The Cheetah” sets the pace in ju-jitsu and judo

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Mila Ben David, known as “The Cheetah”, became the youngest ever person to be crowned Woman Achiever of the Year at the Johannesburg Women in Sports Awards held on 8 October.

A Grade 4 student at King David Linksfield, the feisty 10-year-old martial artist won the accolade based on her achievements in ju-jitsu and judo.

“Thank you so much for inviting me and for this beautiful award,” Ben David told all the attendees, including Banyana Banyana forward Rhoda Mulaudzi. “I’m so glad to be recognised for my hard work and dedication.”

Ben David went on to thank her family, coaches, and Moonira Ramathula, who founded the Awards in 2018.

Ben David’s Israeli-born father, Amir, told the SA Jewish Report, “The nominees were all women, adults, and then a young girl actually wins. Normally these awards go to sports like rugby and the more popular sports. So, this is a big thing for ju-jitsu and judo. But the unique thing about Mila is that, in South Africa, she’s always fighting in the boy’s division and keeps winning.”

She has 24 gold medals for ju-jitsu and four gold medals for judo. She won the 2018 World Jiu-Jitsu Championship in Los Angeles, the African Continental Jiu-Jitsu Championship (boy’s division) three times in a row, and the Israeli Championship. In addition, she came second in the European Championship.

In South Africa, she has been dominating competitions against boys for the past three years.

In a recent interview screened on Disney Junior (DStv channel 309), Ben David explained why she no longer competes against girls. “After my first fight, the first competition, the girls decided that they didn’t want to fight with me,” she said. “So, I moved to the boy’s division, and my coaches said that it was a good challenge.”

Born in Madrid, Spain, Ben David emigrated with her family to South Africa when she was five.

“She speaks Spanish, her first language, and Hebrew,” says her father. “When we came to South Africa, she couldn’t speak a word of English. Now she speaks a very good English.”

Ben David was motivated to get involved in judo when she watched the sport during the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. “My dad asked me if I wanted to try that kind of sport,” she recalled. “The next day, we went to the gym and I met my coaches. Since then, I haven’t missed one training.”

Her dad encouraged her to take up martial arts that have a grappling instead of striking style. “I think it’s a better style for a girl. She does box and does kickboxing, but she’s not competing in that.”

Judo and ju-jitsu are grappling arts that trace their roots back to feudal Japan. Whereas judo focuses on standing and throwing techniques, ju-jitsu concentrates its efforts on controlling and submitting opponents on the ground. In short, judo is 90% standing and 10% on the ground; ju-jitsu is the opposite.

Ben David practices judo and ju-jitsu every day of the week, and trains at Gracie Barra, a martial arts school in Illovo, Johannesburg. In addition to the “The Cheetah”, they also call her “Mila the Killa”.

Storm Conrad, Ben David’s coach since she started martial arts, said, “She’s not the type of student that comes every day. She wants to fight the bigger, stronger kids. She’s always up for a challenge. She’s the most diligent, hardworking individual I’ve ever come across.”

Said her father, “She’s extremely dedicated. In King David, she brought the medal from the awards to the school and her interview on DStv was played in assembly on Friday. In a recent competition, once again, she was the only girl in the boy’s division and won all the fights by submission, not even by points. It’s quite extraordinary when a girl does that.”

Said a male opponent, “Mila is one of the hardest opponents for me to face – I think I can speak for a lot of the children at [Gracie Barra]. Mila is very focused when she starts ju-jitsu and I don’t think anything can get her unfocused.”

During the COVID-19 lockdown, Ben David took part in Zoom martial arts classes. “But it wasn’t like the real combat sport. I was happy to move back to gym,” she said.

Ben David also trains in rock-climbing and Muay Thai, a combat sport characterised by its use of stand-up, kicking strike actions. Although she enjoys dancing and cooking, she wants to succeed in martial arts.

“My dream is to be a world champion and a black belt,” she said. “I was also thinking of being an astronaut because I love space, or a palaeontologist because I like dinosaurs, so I’m not really sure about it yet.”

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Sixteen-year-old Club Champ cuts swathe on the green

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Sixteen-year-old Jessica Bennett started playing golf regularly only in 2021. So she was overwhelmed when she won the ladies division of the 18-hole Gauteng Provincial Club Champs on 26 September.

A member of the Killarney Country Club, Bennett beat Club Champs from other Gauteng clubs by carding 38 points, two more points than had she achieved her handicap, according to the Stableford scoring system.

“I really didn’t expect to win, so I’m surprised, but I have to say I was very proud of myself for the way I played and also for the fact that I haven’t played golf for that long,” says Bennett.

The Grade 11 student at Kingsmead College in Rosebank, Johannesburg, qualified for this tournament courtesy of her victory in the 36-hole women’s B division at Killarney Country Club’s Club Champs in May this year.

“When I played that tournament in May, I really wasn’t expecting to win at all – I just played it for the fun of it,” says Bennett. “Winning it was something that made me believe I could really get good at the game. It was a two-day tournament, and after the first day, I was at the top of the leader board. I actually shot a lot better on the second day than I did on the first because I had learned from mistakes I made on certain holes. In golf, you have to believe in yourself. It’s a very difficult game to play if you don’t believe you can play it.”

Bennett now has the chance to be crowned the ultimate Club Champ in South Africa when she competes in the national tournament against Club Champs from nine provinces.

Her enthusiasm for the sport stems from her dad, who has been a member at Killarney for more than 20 years. “As my grandpa was also a member there, my dad has wanted me to play golf for so long. He bought me my clubs at the beginning of 2018, and I played two or three times a year during that year and in 2019.

“I was pretty good, and had a lot of potential. I believed that because I played a lot of ball sports – not to sound arrogant, but I’m quite a sporty person in general – if it was something I could practice, I could get quite good at it.”

She started swinging her clubs a bit more after the COVID-19 lockdown resulted in her school sports – tennis, water polo, swimming, and netball – being cancelled. “Golf was just something I could do during COVID-19 and something I could do to spend time with my dad, which was also really nice.”

Over the past few months, Bennett has been going for lessons every week and playing two games on the weekends to improve.

“It’s more like a fun thing for me, and I really enjoy it because I’m quite good at it. It’s also something that I feel I can keep improving on.”

If she does keep improving her game and succeeds in bringing her handicap down, she would ultimately like to get a scholarship to study overseas after school.

“I know there’s a lot of scholarships for women golfers in America, and they want to recruit women golfers from overseas. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go pro, but that’s what I would like to do – just to get to the point where I would be eligible for a scholarship.”

The golfer she looks up to is her dad. “He is a good golfer so if I did make it on to the PGA tour, he’s someone who I would love to be my caddie. He’s very supportive of me, he really inspires me, he also motivates me to keep getting better, and he helps me. He got me the clubs, takes me to my lessons, and is a very important figure for me to get better at golf. I wouldn’t be able to do any of this without him.”

Golf aside, Bennett used to play the drums. “When I started high school, I didn’t have the time for that. I try to prioritise academics. It’s quite important for me if I want to get a scholarship overseas because golf isn’t necessarily going to be the only thing that’s going to take me there. Golf is like my primary hobby at this point, but otherwise I focus on school and trying to get good marks at the end of Grade 11.”

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