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SA-born kicker shows prowess in NFL

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Sport

South African-born Greg Joseph is the only Jewish kicker in the National Football League (NFL), and has been for years now. Last Sunday, he revelled in being in another one of the mentally taxing do-or-die situations.

With two seconds left to go in a tied game against the division-leading Green Bay Packers, Joseph kicked his Minnesota Vikings to victory with a 29-yard field goal, keeping the team’s playoff hopes alive. He was carried off the field by his teammates.

Joseph, who attended Jewish schools in Florida after immigrating from South Africa, said he dealt with the pressure of being a kicker by working on having “faith in my abilities”.

“I know on my worst day, I’m still good enough, and my underlying technique and fundamentals are still good enough,” he said last week.

The 27-year-old’s career as one of the league’s handful of Jewish players has been a rollercoaster ride, ranging from the lows of being released by multiple teams in a year to the highs of a steady starting role. This season, he is the starting kicker for the Minnesota Vikings, making 84% of field goal attempts so far on a team trying to claw its way to a playoff spot.

Through it all, he has remained engaged with the local Jewish communities of the cities he has travelled through. In Cleveland, he showed up to a five-year-old’s birthday party at a Jewish school and put up his mezuzah with the help of a local Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi.

“That sense of community, no matter where I’ve been, you have people reach out and offer their support – Shabbat dinners, anything you need, home cooked meals. All just because they hear I’m Jewish, which is pretty crazy,” he said.

Joseph is also comfortable being a symbol of Jewish pride in the NFL – see his pose in a Chanukah sweater with fellow Browns players for an Instagram post in 2018.

NFL kicker might not sound like the natural goal for a Jewish kid born in South Africa, on a continent obsessed with soccer. His first dream was in fact to go pro in soccer – specifically to play for his beloved Manchester United, and “follow in David Beckham’s footsteps”.

His family moved from Johannesburg to Boca Raton, Florida, when he was seven years old. Most of what he remembers of his early childhood in South Africa centres on Sydenham Shul, the congregation his family belonged to and where he attended school with his two brothers.

“Growing up in South Africa, I remember having a pretty decent-sized Jewish community and going to shul every Saturday with my parents,” he said. “My whole upbringing is based on religion and sport, essentially.”

But those two worlds rarely overlapped for Joseph in the United States, where he attended the Donna Klein Jewish Academy school until ninth grade.

“When soccer became more serious and I played travel soccer, I was usually the only Jewish kid out there, or one of two. Same when I started playing football,” he said.

The exceptions were the Maccabiah Games, held every four years, known as the “Jewish Olympics”. He played soccer with the Boca Raton delegation, participating in junior Maccabiah Games in Baltimore, San Diego, and Israel.

He switched to American football extremely late in the game – during his senior year at American Heritage School in Delray Beach, Florida.

“I realised that in this country, there’s more opportunity to get a scholarship and go professional in American football as opposed to soccer,” he said. “It was at that time that kicking was new to me – it was exciting and something I wanted to pursue.”

After attending Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton on a football scholarship, Joseph wasn’t selected in the 2018 NFL Draft but was signed as a free agent by the Miami Dolphins, then released at the start of the season. The Cleveland Browns quickly signed him, and he made his first game-winning field goal in the fifth week of the season. Throughout the season, his NFL debut, he made 17 of his 20 field goal attempts, and 25 of 29 extra points.

Then, after a brief stint with the Carolina Panthers, he joined the Tennessee Titans practice squad, before moving to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice squad. In February 2021, he finally landed in Minnesota.

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Sport

SA-born rugby star helps beat the Boks

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South African-born rugby player Sarah Levy scored a hat-trick as the Barbarians trounced the Springboks 60-5 at Twickenham in London. A record crowd for women’s rugby – 29 581 spectators – attended the 27 November match.

The Barbarians, an invitational all-star side known as the Baa-Baas, went into half time 38-0 up with winger Levy having crossed the whitewash twice. The number 11 grabbed her third try after the break to seal the biggest win for the Barbarians women’s team since its first match in November 2017.

“I was so honoured to play with the Baa-Baas, and to play against my birth country makes it even more special,” Levy told the SA Jewish Report. “I’ve never played against a South African team, and to play against them with the Barbarians makes this experience even more special.”

Levy, who plays for the New York Rugby Club, the oldest rugby club in the United States, was born in Cape Town to a South African father and an American mother. When she was two years old, her family made aliyah to Israel. A couple of years later, they moved to San Diego in California, where she grew up.

Her father Denis and uncles Rob, Nelson, and Peter all played rugby. By being selected to represent the Barbarians, she has now joined her great-grandfather, Louis Babrow, as a life member of the famous club. In 1931, Babrow become one of the first Jews to play for the Springboks. The first Jewish Springbok was his cousin Morris Zimmerman. A medical doctor and lifelong opponent of apartheid, Babrow played for the Baa-Baas in England before going to fight in World War II.

The Baa-Baas roll of honour reads like a who’s who of the history of rugby, featuring famous names like Jonah Lomu, Francois Pienaar, and Bryan Habana.

Receiving an invitation to don the club’s famous black and white hooped jersey is a source of enormous pride to players.

Levy said it was “unreal to play with so many legends” in the Barbarians women’s team, which consists of over 700 international caps across nine nations. The New York Rugby Club player was one of four United States-based players in the squad, which included World Cup winners, current and former international captains, and even someone like Irish prop Lindsay Peat, who has played rugby, basketball, and Gaelic football.

“It’s been a fun training environment, and everyone’s very supportive,” said Levy. “It’s nice to play with new people and have a different game plan from what I’ve been doing with the US team. These connections I’m making are so special.”

Levy got into rugby after having signed up for every sport at her school’s club fair. She received a rugby email, saying that practise was in two days’ time before a tournament that weekend, and another girl convinced her to take part.

“She went from strength to strength, and made progress going up the ranks. Two years ago, she was selected to represent the United States at rugby,” said Denis.

After taking up rugby, most of Levy’s conversations with her dad were about the game. “He would tell me all about Louis’ playing days, and he gave me newspaper clippings and photos and showed me YouTube clips,” Levy told SA Rugby magazine. “That made me want to play even more. I knew I have a connection to South Africa. I always had a Springbok jersey, but I never realised the meaning behind it. Suddenly, when I started playing rugby and reading about rugby, it meant so much more. It made me feel more connected to South Africa, and Grandpa Louis and all the other men in my family who have played.”

Levy keeps up to date with everything that’s going on in South Africa, including the economy and politics. “My dad once brought me a pair of shoelaces with a South African flag on them,” she told the magazine. “I had them in my cleats all through senior year at college. My dad’s brother ended up moving to the same city as us, and we braai all the time.”

Her family members living in the US are mostly girls, and they all played soccer at school. “Our parents never thought about us playing rugby, but I wish I had started playing early because I love it so much,” she told the magazine. “It’s cool to see that I can do what my uncles and granddad used to do. My ouma sent me a newspaper clipping of her playing in a touch game with other nurses.”

Levy trains full-time with the US seven-a-side team, a hopeful for the next Olympics. “I go in four days a week for usually three sessions a day,” she said. “This consists of two rugby sessions and a weightlifting or speed session.” This season, she got selected to play for the 15s in a northern-hemisphere series against England and Ireland.

“Rugby is a very rapidly growing sport in America, especially at universities,” said Denis. “It’s not as big as in England and Ireland, but it’s growing very fast.”

Levy, a Bachelor of Science graduate studying physiotherapy at the University of California, would “love to have the honour” of being selected for a World Cup or Olympics. “I would also like for the US team to earn a medal in those events someday,” she said.

Levy has great appreciation for her roots. “I love the Jewish community, and what it provided for me growing up.”

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Sport

Leilah hip-hopping to stardom

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Hip hop national champion Leilah Jankelowitz puts her success down to hard work.

The Grade 10 student at Roedean School in Johannesburg won the 15 to 16 age group in the South African National Hip Hop Championship at the South African State Theatre in Tshwane from 2-3 October 2021.

“It felt unbelievable, as if my hard work had paid off,” says Jankelowitz.

She was invited to the national tournament, organised by the South African Body of Dance, courtesy of achieving a certain percentage in four online and in-person competitions over the past year.

“If you qualified by placing in the top three for all of these competitions, you were given your provincial colours since you were seen as being the best of the best,” the dancer says.

Originally inspired by African dance movements, hip hop dance took off during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It flourished as a new style of street dance, incorporating aspects of modern dance, tap, and swing, integrating music and complex movements to form artistry.

For Jankelowitz, hip hop dance is both a sport and an art because it demands the creativity of art and the discipline and athleticism of sport.

“I’ve always loved dancing,” says Jankelowitz. “I began working with small and basic dance studios until they said that they felt I should move to something more professional as well as more challenging. That’s exactly what happened.”

She practices with other dancers in Pretoria about two or three times a week for about three hours. On her own, she practices twice a week for about an hour.

“When competitions are coming up, we train heavily, and I usually spend seven hours or more in Pretoria on a Saturday. That’s in addition to the training sessions during the week.”

Jankelowitz hoped to compete in the World Hip Hop Championships in Slovenia in November. “I qualified by getting a certain percentage or higher and placing first in the top three at nationals,” she says. Unfortunately, the rise in COVID-19 cases in the Central European country has resulted in the tournament being cancelled.

Jankelowitz could arm herself with Michelle Leigh Openshaw’s four principles for women looking to make a career in hip hop. The first female judge from Africa to sit on the world hip hop international panel, Openshaw’s advice is to fully discover your strengths and weaknesses, believe in yourself, be an apprentice or find a mentor, and remove fear of failure.

Hip hop isn’t the only sport that Jankelowitz excels in. She’s excited to be in South Africa’s netball squad for next year’s Maccabi Games in Israel. “Netball is another one of my passions. I went to multiple trials until I made it to the final round where out of the huge group, they chose nine to 12 girls from Johannesburg and Cape Town and I was among them.”

The Maccabi Games runs in the Jankelowitz family. Both her parents were Maccabeans, with her mom participating in netball and her dad in soccer.

In addition to netball and dancing, she also plays soccer, tennis, and does athletics. “I love going on runs or going to the gym. I really love spending time with my mates and going out with them,” says Jankelowitz.

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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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