A fairly comprehensive list of Diaspora Jews at the Tokyo Olympics
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A fairly comprehensive list of Diaspora Jews at the Tokyo Olympics

Among the Jewish athletes to win medals in Tokyo are, left to right, Avishag Semberg, Team Israel Judo, Jessica Fox, and Artem Dolgopyat. (Getty Images)
Among the Jewish athletes to win medals in Tokyo are, left to right, Avishag Semberg, Team Israel Judo, Jessica Fox, and Artem Dolgopyat. (Getty Images)

Since 2002, every two years I have pored over rosters of Olympics-bound teams (except for Israeli teams) to find the Jewish athletes. It is a time-consuming and often difficult task. I would find about 80 percent of the Jewish Diaspora athletes going to the Olympics — I knew that because just about the time the Games ended, I would receive my copy of Jewish Sports Review magazine. The JSR’s Olympics issue inevitably would have everybody I listed — plus about another 20 percent.

My Olympics article usually came out about week before the Games. The JSR Olympics issue usually was mailed to subscribers a day or so before the Games began, and JSR would not share its list with me until the Olympic issue was in its subscribers’ hands.

This year, now-resolved health problems prevented me from putting in the time and effort to find these athletes. But the JSR Olympics issue lists 22 Jewish athletes from the Diaspora. And the good news is that the JSR mailed its Olympics issue out early to its subscribers, and I am now free to share its findings. I am doing that here.

Here is JSR’s list of Olympics-bound Jewish athletes from countries other than Israel. To be clear, JSR also lists the Israeli team members

The List

Olympians from the United States

Basketball: SUE BIRD, who at 40 is the oldest player in the WNBA and the longest tenured; she played played with the Seattle Storm for 20 years. She’s a native of Syosset, on Long Island.

Beach Volleyball: ALEXANDRA “ALIX” KLINEMAN, 31, from Manhattan Beach, CA, was a four -time All-American at Stanford U. This is her first Olympics.

Equestrian: ADRIENNE STERNLICHT, 28, from Greenwich, Conn. She competes in the show jumping division , and earned a team gold at the 2018 World Equestrian Games. This is her first Olympics.

Fencing: ELI DERSHWITZ, 25, Eli, who is from Boston, earned a #1 national ranking in the sabre in February 2018 and a #1 world ranking in July 2018. This is his first Olympics.

JACQUELINE “Jackie” DUBROVICH, 26, from Paterson. She got a medal (foil) at the 2019 Pan-American Games; this is her first Olympic Games.

JACK HOYLE, 27, from Philadelphia, won a bronze individual medal for Epee and a gold for Team Epee at the 2018 Pan-American Games. He is ranked #1 in the U.S. and #12 in the world for epee. This was be his first Olympic Games.

NICK ITKIN, 21, from Pacific Palisades, Calif., won a gold medal for the foil at the 2018 Jr. World Championships, won NCAA championships in 2018 and 2019 while at Notre Dame and is world ranked #7 for the foil. He won a bronze medal as part of the U.S. foil team.

NICOLE ROSS, 32, who is from New York, competed in the 2012 Olympics, finishing 25th in the individual foil and 6th in team foil. Nicole and her teammates won the team gold in the 2018 World Championships.

Gymnastics: JEFFREY GLUCKSTEIN, 28, from Red Bank, competed in the trampoline division of men’s gymnastics. He is is a seven-time U.S. champion and won a silver medal in the men’s individual event at the 2019 Pan American Games in Peru. Jeffrey is a first time Olympian.

Track & Field: SAM MATTIS, 27, from East Brunswick, took first in the discus at the 2019 Outdoor U.S. Track & Field Championships. This is Sam’s first Olympics. He is the son of an African-American father and a white, Jewish mother. An Ivy League grad, he gave up a lucrative offer to work on Wall Street to train for the Games.

Olympians from other countries

Argentina

Tennis: DIEGO SCHWARTZMAN, 28, from Buenos Aires, has captured 4 ATP singles titles and in October 2020 reached his highest world ranking of 8th. This was his first Olympic Games.

Australia

Canoe: JESSICA FOX, 27, an Aussie born in France, competes in the women’s canoe slalom. She earned a silver medal in the 2012 London Olympics in the K-1 women’s slalom.

Judo, 66KG: NATHAN KATZ, 26, and his brother, Josh, were both in the 2016 Games. Due to qualifying problems, brought on by restricted travel due to covid, Josh did not make the Tokyo team and Nathan was added to the team at the last minute.

Race Walking: JEMIMA MONTAG, 23, from Melbourne, won gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the 20K race walk. This will be her first Olympic Games.

Running: STEVE SOLOMON of Sydney, 28, is a sprinter who specializes in the 400m Dash. He represented Australia in the 2012 London Olympics.

Canada

Tennis: SHARON FICHMAN of Toronto, 30, plays singles and doubles tennis but mostly doubles in recent years and will play doubles in Tokyo. Her highest world ranking in doubles was #31 in May 2021 and #77 in singles in May 2014.

Fencing: SHAUL GORDON, 27, who was born in Tel Aviv but now lives in Montreal, is a fencer specializing in the Sabre. In the 2019 Pan American Games, he earned a bronze medal in the sabre. This is his first Olympics.

ELI SCHENKEL, 28, who was born in Los Angeles but lives in British Columbia, is a fencer specializing in the Foil. He captured two team medals at the 2019 Pan American Games. Like Gordon, he is a Olympic Games rookie.

Gymnastics: SAMANTHA SMITH, 29, was born in Toronto and trains in Vancouver. She is a trampoline gymnast who won a bronze for Team Trampoline at the 2019 World Championships.

Italy

Tennis: CAMILA GIORGI, 29, was born in Macerata, Italy, and lives in Pisa. This veteran tennis player reached a career high world ranking of #26 in 2018. This will be her first Olympic Games.

Japan

Basketball: AVI SCHAEFER, 23, was born in Osaka and holds dual US-Japanese citizenship. The 6’10” center, who graduated from Georgia Tech, has played for the Japan national basketball team since 2016. As the host country, Japan automatically qualified for the Japan Olympics.

Ukraine

Tennis: ELINA SVITOLINA, 27, was born in Odessa, and was ranked #3 in September 2017 and again in September 2019. This is her first Olympic Games.

Footnotes:

Tennis: American SOFIA KENIN, 22, was born in Moscow but grew up in Pembroke Pines, Fla. After being named to the U.S. Olympic women’s tennis team, Sofia decided to decline the honor because she was not permitted to take anyone with her. Not included in the “22” count above.

Two JTA Olympics articles have said that Russian Olympic team member Lilia Akhamikova, 24, is Jewish. An artistic gymnast, Akhamikova just won a gold medal in the vault event.

Bottom line: there were no Jewish details in the stories about her and there are other reasons to question her identification as Jewish. She may or may not be Jewish.

About the Jewish Sports Review

The Jewish Sports Review is a print-only publication that puts out six 24-page issues a year. It doesn’t have long profile articles and it has only a few photos. The biographical sketches of the athletes vary in length, but they are rarely more than a few sentences. What makes the publication great is the breadth of its coverage and its accuracy.

The listings are tied to the beginning of a sport’s season. For example, the May-June 2021 issue listed all the Jews now playing Major League Baseball. After each name, there is a short bio (hometown, previous season stats, etc.).

Next, there is a list of all the Jewish players in the minor leagues. (Some are former major leaguers, and that is noted.)

The April-May issue covered all the Jews in college baseball.

The Review also creates Jewish All-American college teams. In the May-June issue, there were three All-Star teams of Jewish players—women’s college basketball; men’s college basketball; and men’s college hockey. That issue also listed Jewish college women who play hockey and lacrosse, and Jewish male college wrestlers.

The May-June issue also had a bonus—a list of every Jewish Olympic medal winner since 1968.

Near the end of every issue are several pages of brief updates on Jewish athletes in just about every sport, and at the end of every issue there is a page or two of fun facts about Jewish athletes from any era, as well as a fun quiz.

Naturally, the athletes mentioned in the Review get a bit of a thrill, and so do their family and friends. If they make a JSR All-American team, it often appears in their biography on their college team website.

I find it fun to see athletes from the area I grew up in, where I live now, and from my undergrad college. Sometimes I share local Jewish athletes with friends around the country, “Did you know your [insert college] starting quarterback is Jewish?”– that sort of thing.

The Review is a labor of love by two dedicated guys: Ephraim Moxson, 79, and Shel Wallman, 83. They have no staff. A yearly subscription is $36. The subscription revenue just about covers the cost of typesetting, printing, and postage.

Moxson and Wallman live largely on their pensions. Shel is retired now; he taught social studies, and then as dean of students, and then a social studies teacher again, all in Queens. Ephraim, who also is retired, was a social worker and then became parole officer in California.

Shel is a New York native, the son of immigrants. Ephraim also was born in New York, moved to Cleveland when he was 1, and then to Los Angeles when he was 15. That’s where he still lives. When he lived in Cleveland, he delivered newspapers to Jewish baseball Hall-of-Famers Al Rosen and Hank Greenberg—but he never met them.

Neither of the JSR editors played on athletic teams when they were in high school or college. But both played sports that guys do—like gym basketball—and both have long had an interest in who is Jewish in sports.

I’ll put it this way—they both have strong ties to their Jewish identity and they take pride in being Jewish—and that’s part of why they do the Review. The hundreds of good athletes in every Review issue undermines the false belief that Jews, compared to most other groups, are not good athletes.

Moxson’s parents were born in what is now Belarus, but met and married in Warsaw, then they moved to then-Mandatory Palestine in the 1920s. It’s still a bit of a confused story—they made trips back and forth from America to Palestine. But, by the late 30s, they were settled for good in America. Both before and after Israel’s creation, his father was a fundraiser for Zionist causes.

In 1972, Shel put a small ad in the Sporting News asking for subscribers to a newsletter about Jewish athletes he was writing, called the Jewish Sports Review. Ephraim replied and subscribed and they began writing back and forth about sports and other things. In 1974, Shel shut down the Review. For the next 20 years he wrote a column on Jews in sport for a now-defunct Indiana-based Jewish paper that had a national circulation.

Before internet research tools, it was very hard to determine if an athlete was Jewish. But Shel wrote letters to the athlete, or his or her parents or coaches. He also made some phone calls. Ephraim was one of Shel’s unpaid stringers. He gathered West Coast info.

The two guys became great social friends over the years. They discovered that they had a lot in common besides sports. They had similar cultural interests and similar politics. They, and their Jewish wives, often vacationed together.

Both guys are fathers. Shel is still married to his only wife. Ephraim became a widower 17 years ago; fortunately, he found a great woman who has long been his romantic partner.

In 1997, the Indiana paper said it could no longer pay Shel even a modest fee for his column. So, working with Ephraim, he revived Jewish Sports Review, and the two of them, in effect, have been the Review ever since.

The internet was up and running by 1997, and it made it easier to research who is Jewish. You easily can get access to reliable articles that tell you whether an athlete — particularly a pro or a college star — is Jewish. You can find addresses much more easily and you can email a question instead of sending a paper letter.

But, to a surprising degree, the JSR guys rely on the phone. They cold-call the homes of athletes they think are Jewish and ask them (or their parents or coaches) if they are Jewish.

Ephraim told me that once they explain why they are asking, virtually everyone is cooperative. If they aren’t Jewish, they say so; they are not offended by the question. If they are Jewish, they usually are happy to tell Shel or Ephraim so. Ephraim can recall only one time that a person grew really angry at the question.

Ephraim told me that they constantly look for many good sources to confirm that someone is Jewish.

Over the years, they developed criteria to determine whether to include someone in the Review. If the athlete has at least one Jewish parent, and was raised Jewish or secular, that person will be included. However, in almost all instances they contact the athlete or their representative (like a parent) and ask if the athlete is okay with being identified as a Jewish athlete in the Review. If the answer is no, they are not in the Review. Only about a dozen otherwise qualified athletes have ever asked not to be in the Review.

Both editors, I am told, devote about four hours a day to Review research. Of course, they don’t try to contact everyone on a team roster—but if there are rational clues (like a usually Jewish, or often Jewish, last name)—they try to contact the athlete.

I have been running down Jewish celebrities for a long time, first for a biographical website, and later for a Jewish newspaper column. I am pretty good at what I do—but I am in awe of these two guys, how hard they work and how much attention they pay to accuracy.

Before they were on the scene, almost all articles and books about Jews in sports were shot through with errors. Somebody who wasn’t Jewish would appear in a book on Jews in sports, and other authors would repeat the same mistake for decades.

Every Jewish media outlet should subscribe to the Review and credit it for the use of its research. Sadly, many of these outlets make mistakes because they don’t know about the Review or they don’t care about accuracy. Even sadder, there are media outlets that simply lift their lists without credit.

The saddest thing to me is the fact that these two guys long ago decided that the Review will end when one of them can no longer do the work. I wish they would train successors, but that’s not their plan.

I predict that within a few years after the Review ends, the bad old days will return. There will be more and more lists of famous Jewish athletes that erroneously include many non-Jews. These lists will be published or posted in the Jewish media and elsewhere, because the people creating these lists just doesn’t do the hard work.

There also will be lists in the Jewish media that are very incomplete. Many Jewish athletes, including Olympic athletes, simply will not be identified as Jewish in the Jewish community media.

But the good news is that the JSR guys are still here, still working, and still in pretty good shape. Please consider subscribing and take one worry away from them—where they will get the money to put out the next issue.

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