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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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From seminary to Olympic skating

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(JTA) When Josh Groban’s cover of the 1965 song The Impossible Dream blares from the loudspeakers at Beijing’s Capital Indoor Stadium on 18 February, its lyrics will ring true for the Winter Olympian figure skaters Hailey Kops and Evgeni Krasnopolsky.

That’s because as recently as 8 June, when she returned to the United States after a gap year of study at a Jerusalem seminary, Kops had put competitive skating behind her.

A modern Orthodox Jew from West Orange, New Jersey, Kops has plans to attend Touro College’s nursing school in Manhattan. But she put those plans on ice after Boris Chait, the Israel Ice Skating Federation’s New Jersey-based president, telephoned that afternoon to offer Kops a chance to vie for a spot on the country’s Olympics team.

By late September, after practicing together for just three and a half months, she and Krasnopolsky secured an Olympics berth by finishing fifth at an international qualifying event in Obersdorf, Germany.

That occurred on a Friday night, and Steven and Lisa Kops – who had accompanied their daughter abroad and, like her, are Shabbat-observant – embraced the pair in the arena’s concourse but couldn’t celebrate by calling loved ones back home.

“It means a lot to skate to that music,” Kops, 19, said in an early January phone conversation. “I didn’t necessarily see myself coming back to skating. But the opportunity [Chait] offered was something it would be crazy to refuse.”

Modern Orthodox athletes who observe Shabbat are an extremely rare sight in the Olympics – even on Israel’s teams, Chait said.

But in Beijing, Kops and Krasnopolsky will be skating on Shabbat. Kops explained that she’s comfortable with balancing her commitments to skating and religious observance.

The pandemic-driven, bubble-like conditions at the Olympics also mean that the skaters’ families, like all athletes’ loved ones, won’t be in Beijing to cheer them on.

“Of course, I want to be there,” said Lisa Kops, who until 2016 was her daughter’s skating coach. “I wish I could be there to support her.”

This will be the third Olympics for Krasnopolsky, 33, who at the age of three moved with his family from Kiev, Ukraine, to the small Israeli town of Metula, home to the country’s premier ice rink, where he trained.

Kops lauded Krasnopolsky’s experience. “Having him as a partner is also like having him as a mentor [who has] helped guide me through this crazy journey,” she said. “Without him, none of this would be possible.”

The pair practice each day for nine hours, beginning at 07:15 at Codey Arena in Montclair, New Jersey.

“Their chemistry and how they understand each other, work together, and communicate with each other – that’s been really exciting to be around,” said Galit Chait-Moracci, the pair’s coach and a three-time Olympics ice dancer for Israel. She is also Boris Chait’s daughter.

Israel’s other four athletes heading to Beijing are figure skater Alexei Bychenko (coached, too, by Chait-Moracci) and short-track speed skater Vladislav Bykanov, both making their third Olympics appearances, and Alpine skier siblings Noa and Barnabas Szollos.

Krasnopolsky was selected to bear Israel’s flag at the opening ceremony on 4 February. “It’s one of the best things that could happen to me,” he said of the honour.

Like most of Israel’s elite athletes who compete internationally, the six 2022 Olympians train abroad: the figure skaters in New Jersey, the skiers in Austria, and Bykanov in the Netherlands.

Kops and her mother became Israeli citizens in 2013, when Hailey joined Israel’s national juniors figure-skating team. Aside from the gap year, Kops spent a summer in Israel and has made what she called “numerous” skating-related trips there, including for three national championships.

One Israeli who will be closely following the Olympics competition is an 11-year-old girl who was paired with Kops in a programme for children in foster care based at the Jerusalem seminary last year. The two spent many afternoons together.

They have stayed in touch, and the girl plays Kops’ skating videos on YouTube, proudly promoting the Olympian to her peers.

“It’s crazy to think that an 11-year-old girl could inspire me,” said Kops. “I look at her as like a little sister.”

That’s understandable, given that Kops is sandwiched between two older brothers and two younger ones. That dynamic brought about Kops’ nickname: Bird.

As a child, she bemoaned her fate as the lone daughter, and demanded explanations. Steven played along, telling Kops that she was hatched from an egg and found by her parents in a nest. The gag stuck, and eventually fit when Kops entered figure-skating, which entails graceful soaring and leaps.

While no one predicts that she and Krasnopolsky will emerge with medals, it’s no longer an impossible dream.

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A Jewish guide to the 2022 Australian Open

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(JTA) The Novak Djokovic COVID-19 scandal may be stealing the headlines ahead of the Australian Open, which starts next week, but there are several Jewish players looking to win big at the year’s first Grand Slam.

Here they are:

Mens singles tournament

Diego Schwartzman, seeded no. 13, is looking to make it past the fourth round of the Australian Open for the first time in his career. Last year, he lost in a surprising upset in the third round to Aslan Karatsev (more on him below). Schwartzman is coming off a strong showing at the start of the season. He notched his first win ever against a top-five player on hard courts, beating Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-7(5), 6-3, 6-3. He has a tough draw, however, as he could face American John Isner in the third round (Isner has won their only meeting), and no. 2 seed Daniil Medevev in the fourth round (Medevedev has won all six of their match-ups). Still, I have faith – Schwartzman has taken down bigger players before.

Denis Shapovalov is also coming in strong. With fellow Canadian Félix Auger-Alissime, he helped Canada win the 2022 ATP Cup, defeating Spain in the finals. Shapovalov, seeded no. 14, was born in Tel Aviv to a Ukrainian Jewish mom and Russian Orthodox Christian dad, and he often wears a cross when he plays. But his mom (who is also his coach) considers him Jewish. Though he was born in Israel, his family moved to Canada before his first birthday. Last year, he made it to only the third round of the Australian Open.

At the 2021 Australian Open, Russian-Israeli Aslan Karatsev had a historic run. For Karatsev, who has Jewish heritage and lived in Israel for nearly a decade, it was his first appearance in a Grand Slam tournament – he had to play in the preceding qualifying tournament just to make the draw. But he made it all the way to the semi-finals before losing to eventual winner Djokovic. His ranking rose from 253 to 15 last year. He’s seeded no. 18 this year, with a possible third round match-up against Rafael Nadal. Karatsev’s paternal grandfather is a Russian Jew, and he still says Israel feels like home. He made aliyah when he was three, speaks fluent Hebrew, holds Israeli citizenship, and his mom and sister still live in Holon, Israel.

Women’s singles tournament

Does Elina have a path to victory? OK, before we dive into Elina Svitolina, she has unconfirmed Jewish heritage. She’s Ukrainian, and many articles identify her parents as Jewish, but she has never commented on the issue. Make of that what you will (she’s Jew-ish?). The women’s field has been wide-open for the past few years, with many first-time Grand Slam winners. Will Svitolina add her name to that list this year? She’s seeded no. 15 at the Open, and will probably go up against former world no. 1 and two-time Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka in the third round.

In her tenth try, can Camila make it past the third round?

Italian Jewish star Camila Giorgi made her professional debut on the women’s tour back in 2006 (at just 16!). She’s now set to play in her tenth Australian Open. She’s never made it past the third round before, but last year was a big year for Giorgi: She claimed her first WTA 1000 event, winning the 2021 Canada Masters. Seeded no. 30, she has a tough third-round match-up, set to face world no. 1 Ash Barty. But let’s end with a fun fact about the Jewish athlete: her favourite book is The Diary of Anne Frank.

Unseeded American Madison Brengle is ranked no. 59 in the world. The 35-year-old made it to the fourth round of the Australian Open back in 2015, and she has played in the tournament (either the main tournament or the qualifying rounds) since 2007. The Jewish player from Dover, Delaware, faces world no. 102, Ukrainian Dayana Yastremska, in her first round, and Brengle has won their only meeting. If she wins next week, she’s up against powerhouse Naomi Osaka, reigning Australian Open champ, in Round 2. The last time Osaka and Brengle played was back in 2013, when Brengle won 6-2 6-2. Obviously, a lot has changed in the past nine years, but we never rule out a Jewish player pulling off a stunning upset.

Other tennis Jews of note

Israeli veteran Dudi Sela lost in the qualifiers, as did American Jewish player Jamie Loeb. Loeb’s fellow Jewish New Yorker, Noah Rubin, isn’t in Australia, instead playing on the ATP Challenger tour in Brazil. As of writing, it’s unclear if Canadian Jewish doubles champ Sharon Fichman is playing in Australia this year – she reached the Open’s doubles quarterfinals last year.

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Esports a green field for soccer pro Larry Cohen

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Larry Cohen trained with football stars like Gareth Bale, Harry Kane, and Gianluigi Buffon during his playing career, but now he’s cheering for the likes of Bale and other renowned players in the world of esports.

Cohen decided to hang up his boots in 2016 after playing for Jomo Cosmos, Chippa United, and Moroka Swallows in the top tier of South African football. However, he’s still involved with the game – albeit the simulated version.

His business, 38 Entertainment Group, brings together the world’s top footballers to play FIFA against each other, and Cohen enjoys egging them on, just like he supported his teammates sitting in the dugout as a substitute during his playing days.

“Sitting on the bench, you could watch but you couldn’t do anything, yet you still got that thrill of your team participating, winning, and you doing well,” he told the SA Jewish Report. “That’s the way it is with esports, because you have no control over the guys, but you’re there supporting.”

His father, Martin, whose gritty flair anchored the Highlands Park midfield in the 1970s, was his hero growing up in Morribrook Avenue in Linksfield North, Johannesburg.

“As a footballer, my dad was one of the best in the country,” says Cohen. “I always looked up to him. I got to see only a few clips of him playing, but he always guided me in the right direction without being pushy.”

Cohen’s time at King David Linksfield taught him the values, camaraderie, and what he describes as “the KDL fight” needed to believe in yourself and do well in life.

He admits he wasn’t the best student and got into a lot of trouble because his priority was “the beautiful game”, and playing for SuperSport United Academy occupied a lot of his time.

“In matric, I used to come to school quite late because I was training with a professional team,” he says. “Principal [Arnie] Altshuler wasn’t very happy with me. But it was a great experience. I loved being at King David, and the Jewish community is always close to my heart.”

Jomo Cosmos coach Jomo Sono gave Cohen his first professional contract at the age of 19. Having just returned from training with West Ham in England, he was thankful that his potential was noticed by the man who had played alongside his dad in a mixed-race South African team’s 5-0 win against a rebel Argentina XI during the apartheid era.

“It’s always not easy getting your first contract and to break into the professional ranks, but then it’s even more difficult to stay there,” says Cohen.

When Cohen was 22, he trained with English club Tottenham Hotspur.

“I could never play in England because I had a South African passport so I couldn’t get a work permit. I saw it as an opportunity to improve my game. I was training with the likes of Kane in the reserve team. A few days a week, I would mix up with the first team, which included Bale and Emmanuel Adebayor.”

A highlight of Cohen’s career occurred during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

He was set for an off-season break from playing duties at Wits when the club’s head of development, Eric Tinkler, gave him a call.

“One of the Italy players got injured,” said the former Bafana Bafana midfielder. “Would you mind training with them for the next 10 days?”

Cohen jumped at the chance. “Training with the likes of Gattuso, Pirlo, and Buffon was an incredible experience,” he says. “They were really friendly and welcoming. I remember going back to the hotel to have lunch, and Buffon, the Italian goalkeeper who is an absolute legend, pushed one of the players out the way and said, ‘No, Larry, you come sit here, my friend.’”

While playing for Moroka Swallows, where he recalls forming a great centre-back partnership with Roger da Costa, he almost played for Lithuania against the Wayne Rooney-captained England in a Euro 2016 qualifier at Wembley.

He was called up to the Lithuanian national team after finally receiving citizenship. Playing against England at Wembley would have been an absolute dream for the great-grandchild of Lithuanian emigrants to South Africa.

“It’s a pity it didn’t happen,” he says. “FIFA denied my call up, saying my citizenship had to come through my grandparents. It was heartbreaking, having worked so hard to reach that level.”

Bafana Bafana Coach Gordon Igesund then chatted to Cohen about playing for South Africa. “He said he was going to call me up,” says Cohen. “Unfortunately, about two weeks before the game, I pulled [a muscle in] my groin, and I was out for about a month. So, I had a few unlucky breaks in my international career.”

At the age of 28, he retired from playing because he had fallen out of love with the game. The unsuccessful call up to both national teams was “a bitter pill to swallow”. “It was always my dream to play overseas. I was at the age where I thought to myself, ‘I’ve done well, I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve in terms of becoming a professional footballer, I’ve enjoyed my time, and I’d rather call it on my terms.’ I wanted to pursue other dreams.”

He moved to London, and co-founded 38 Entertainment Group with fellow King David alumnus Jonathan Kark. “The business has two brands,” says Cohen. “One of them is Elevens esports, which we run and code with Gareth Bale. Working with him is great; he’s an absolute superstar. We have a professional FIFA team, so the guys enter competitions around the world. Currently, our FIFA team is second in Europe and sixth in the world.”

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the business starting an initiative called Combat Corona, in which 10 footballers played FIFA against each other live on Twitch. The likes of Bale, Paulo Dybala, Luke Shaw, and Mason Mount participated in the event, which raised money to help the United Nations Children’s Fund fight the pandemic.

“During our three events to date, we’ve worked with more than 150 celebrities from around the world and received just more than 10 million live views on Twitch,” Cohen says.

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