Saturday, October 15, 2005

Skiing in the Holy Land? Winter Sports Alive and Well in Israel October 7, 2005

copyright 2005 Dov B Levy

Skiing in the Holy Land? Winter Sports Alive and Well in Israel

DOV BURT LEVY Jewish Journal North of Boston

Talk about a niche job: Lionel Gaffen, photojournalist for the Jerusalem Post, is the only journalist in Israel writing almost exclusively about winter sports. And he's got a lot to write about.

Who would have thought that the land of milk and honey, half of it a hot desert, would produce so many world-class skaters and other cold-weather athletes?

Mount Hermon, at Israel's northernmost point, has been a ski resort since the early 1970s, serving several hundred thousand skiers, both amateurs and aspiring professionals. Many of the latter head to Europe and North America for advanced training.

Metulla, a village bordering Lebanon and just a mile north of Kiryat Shmona, is home to the Canada Centre, the country's major ice-skating rink and only Olympic-sized ice surface. The Centre serves as the winter sports training ground where Israeli amateurs have learned to compete well in international competition.

The Canada Centre was finished in the early 1990s, a project organized by the late Yossi Goldberg, who was then mayor of Metulla, and financed to a large extent by the Canadian Jewish community.

What exactly is going on at the Canada Centre? What sports are in play and how are the Israeli athletes doing?

In figure skating, ice dancers Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovsky won a bronze medal in the World Championships in 2002 and will be competing in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. Another ice dance couple, Alexandra and Roman Zaretsky, who grew up in Metulla, finished fourth in this year's World Junior Championships.

The short track speed skating junior teams now compete with Europe's best, and some of the youngsters have begun to win competitions in their age groups.

The senior national ice hockey team just won a gold medal in its division of the International Ice Hockey World Championships, while the under 18 national squad, playing against teams that were as much as a year and a half older, won a bronze medal.

The Israel Ice Hockey Federation will host the World Championship Division III Under 18 Tournament next spring at the Canada Centre.

There is even an Israeli bobsled team, whose original bobsled is on permanent display at the Centre.

All of this is happening in a winter sports program that is just over 10 years old, although hockey has been played in smaller rinks since 1989.

Photojournalist Gaffen, like every Israeli, has his unique story of aliya, work, career and family. He brought his family to Israel from Montreal in the late seventies. Shortly thereafter, they moved to Kfar Giladi, a kibbutz located just between Kiryat Shmona and Metulla. His five Canadian-born children have so far produced nine grandchildren, all living in Israel.

Gaffen, like all who live on a kibbutz, has held a variety of jobs, ranging from construction manager to bus driver to hotel night manager. (Visit the Kfar Giladi Kibbutz Guest House and meet Lionel in person.) On his own time he became a professional photographer, having been a serious amateur since his college newspaper days in Canada.

About being the lone winter sports journalist in Israel, Gaffen says he owes thanks to the late writer Sam Orbaum, also a Canadian, who covered the 1997 Maccabi Games at the Canada Centre for the Jerusalem Post.

Lionel was taking photos for the Centre and Sam suggested he submit some to the Post. The editor bought a number of pictures and asked Lionel if he knew of a local writer who could report future games. Gaffen recommended himself. Since then, he has written more than 250 stories on sports and other subjects.

Is this not a quintessential Israeli story – Zionist and Jewish values, happenstance, plus enough insight and chutzpa to create an opportunity?

By the way, don't think Lionel Gaffen's winter sports beat is my only unique Israel story. Some day I will tell you about my Jerusalem barber, Eric Knutsen, an Aleut Eskimo from Alaska whose wife used to be the only Jewish woman in Naknek, and now, living in Jerusalem, he is the only Eskimo.


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At 7:59 AM, Blogger LyGaffen said...

Great stuff DBL- I couldn't have done better myself. Keep up the great work. LG.

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