Hailey Esther Kops of West Orange has been figure skating most of her life. And even now, at 19, poised to compete for Israel at the Winter Olympics, she remembers her mother’s advice to pray before hitting the ice.
“Now I know most of the davening by heart,” she said. “When I was younger, I only knew ‘Ashrei’ and ‘Sh’ma’ by heart, and I would almost always say them as I was putting on my skates.”
It has been challenging for Hailey to maintain an observant Jewish life while building her skating career. She withdrew from Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston in the middle of eighth grade to be home-schooled, a result of her training and competition schedules. Travel to competitions involved meticulous preparations around Shabbat and kashrut.
But devotion to both skating and Jewish tradition runs deep in the Kops family — Hailey’s parents, Steven and Lisa, and her brothers, Corey, 24, Max, 21, Evan, 17, and Ty, 13.
“Skating in the Kops household is mandatory,” Steven said. “I played ice hockey growing up and Lisa is a United States Figure Skating Association gold medalist, an accomplished figure skater and coach. When Lisa first put Hailey in skates at 3 years of age, her two older brothers were already flying around the rink.”
When she was 5, Hailey joined the youngest of the Synchroettes, a synchronized skating team at the Essex Skating Club. In time, she moved on to singles competitions.
Her father, Steven, said he sees religion as a marathon in which each “runner” charts a personal course of beliefs and practices that may change along the route of life.
“Lisa and I allow our children to play sports on Shabbat, but the difficult task was getting to the various sporting events, because we don’t drive on Shabbat or use our phones,” he said. “We would try our best to stay at hotels near the rink. We would contact the local Chabad emissaries to assist us in lodging, food, or other religious needs.”
Summers in the Kops family means Camp Lavi in the Poconos. But after her bat mitzvah, Hailey was at a level where she couldn’t take eight weeks off from practice. At that point, Lisa, a Camp Lavi staffer, entrusted the summer coaching of her daughter to Galit Chait Moracci, with whom Lisa had skated in her early days at Sport-O-Rama in Monsey.
A two-time Olympian, Galit is head coach of the Israel Ice Skating Federation. Skaters must be in a federation to compete internationally, and Galit encouraged Hailey to try out. She won a spot and was paired with a talented young skater named Artem Tsoglin.
Because there aren’t adequate rink facilities in Israel, serious skaters train abroad; today there are 12 living in northern New Jersey and practicing at Montclair State University’s rink, just 15 minutes from the Kops home.
Hailey had to be an Israeli citizen to belong to the federation. So she and her mom filled out the paperwork and took a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight to Israel, where they got their ID cards and spent three weeks with Steven’s siblings, who live in Israel.
Since then, Hailey has been to Israel many times, and spent her gap year in the Midreshet AMIT seminary in Jerusalem.
“It’s been a dream of my family to make aliyah, so to be the first to become a citizen and go back and forth was really cool to me,” she said. “I always had a connection to Israel and skating under the Israeli flag means a lot to me.”
Hailey and Artem placed seventh in the Junior World Competition in Croatia in 2019. After the competition, however, she made a difficult decision to hang up her skates.
“Hailey already sacrificed traditional high school and traditional summer camp experiences, and she would now have to miss out on seminary in Israel, starting college at the regular time with her friends, and other life goals, because skating would need to be her main focus until at least 22 to 23 years of age,” Steven Kops said. “It was Hailey’s choice to make, and it wasn’t an easy one.”
Some choices we make, and other choices are made for us. Hailey came home from her year at Midreshet AMIT on June 8, 2021. That very day, her father received a phone call from Boris Chait of Paramus.
Boris is Galit’s father, and he is the president of the Israel Ice Skating Federation.
Boris explained that Evgeni Krasnopolski — who’d competed for Israel in pairs figure skating in the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics — needed a new partner in his bid to qualify for the Olympics at the Nebelhorn Trophy event in Oberstdorf, Germany, in September.
Boris’s wife, Irene, team leader for the federation, felt Hailey was the best candidate.
Before accepting the offer, Hailey consulted with Rabbi Jonathan Friedman at Midreshet AMIT. She’d known him since his staff days at Camp Lavi and has long looked up to him as “a relatable rabbi.”
“It’s not a coincidence that this happened the day you landed back,” Rabbi Friedman told her. He said that her year of spiritual growth in Israel had prepared her to be “an inspiration for others. You’re not just doing this for yourself,’” Hailey recalled him saying.
That perspective resonated with her.
“I put a lot of what happens in my life in God’s hands,” she said. “I saw that hand through this entire experience. The fact that none of my competitions or practices fell on the High Holidays; the fact that Boris called on the day I landed. These little things made my connection to Hashem stronger, because I don’t think they happened by chance. I think I was given an opportunity to represent not only Israel but also religious athletes in general. Maybe I can inspire other young kids from the modern Orthodox world to pursue their dreams.”
The Chaits and Kopses met at an Israeli café in Montclair the next day, “and the next morning, Hailey was at the rink,” Boris Chait said.
This came as a complete surprise to Evgeni. Although he and Hailey are 14 years apart, they’d become friends during their mutual time in the Israel Ice Skating Federation. They’d lost touch, however, when Hailey went to Israel. He didn’t know she had returned to New Jersey, let alone to skating.
But it was a good surprise.
“I liked Hailey’s skating from her years in the juniors,” Evgeni said. “She’d try crazy stuff that most girls wouldn’t go for.”
He’d been searching for a new partner since a disappointing finish at the first of two Olympic qualifiers, in March. He figured that if he started training with someone by July 1, he and that partner would have a reasonable chance of doing well in the second qualifier, in September.
Hailey took on this challenge.
“The practices and training were extremely intense,” Steven said. “Hailey had to make up for not skating for two-plus years and also had to restrengthen her muscles and her mind to the sport.”
Evgeni said that he and Hailey had good chemistry immediately, and that she “listened hard and worked hard.”
Adjusting his training schedule in deference to Hailey’s Shabbat observance was no problem, he added. “We would anyway have a day off. It used to be Sunday and now it’s Saturday. Now our week starts on Sunday, like in Israel.”
Evgeni, who was born in Ukraine, lived in Israel from the time he was 3 until he moved to Hackensack 13 years ago. In between training and competitions, he flew home to Israel regularly to fulfil his military obligation, which took five years instead of the usual three due to his hectic schedule. Since his discharge, he’s visited about twice a year, at least pre-covid.
In August, Hailey and Evgeni participated in their first competition and finished in last place. But they were a well-oiled machine by the time they reached Oberstdorf for the September 22-25 qualifier, which coincided with the intermediate days of Sukkot. The Kopses packed a pop-up sukkah, lulav, and etrog, and flew to Germany.
“It was Friday night, Chol Hamoed Sukkot, when the wildest rollercoaster of emotions I have ever experienced went down,” Steven Kops posted on Facebook. “Lisa and I were on shpilkes —nervous, as can be, in Yiddish. This was really it. Sixteen years of skating, early mornings, combing out Hailey’s hair before practice, bumps, bruises, injuries, highs, lows… you name it… all coming down to 4:12 seconds.”
Sitting in the stands next to Boris and Irene Chait, Lisa recited Psalms. As Hailey stepped on the ice, Lisa asked Steven to recite the traditional Friday night blessing for a daughter: “May you be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.”
“It was all in God’s hands, as it always is,” Steven wrote.
Watching Hailey and Evgeni execute each move, “it was as if an angel was guiding their feet and placing them down exactly where they needed to be, even for the dreaded triple toe which she had not landed all day.” He wrote. “Miraculously, at the right time and when it mattered most, she landed it beautifully.”
He noted that “Galit made Hailey feel confident and Robin Szolkowy — their pairs coach, who was a 2010 and 2014 Olympic pairs bronze medalist and five-time Worlds Champion for Germany — knew to say the exact thing she needed to hear: ‘You can actually do this.’”
Sixteen of the 19 slots allotted to figure-skating pairs at the Beijing Games already had been filled, so most of the competitors in Germany would be going home disappointed. Nobody was putting their money on the Israeli skaters.
Yet despite training together for only three and a half months, Evgeni and Hailey beat out pairs from countries including China, France, Britain, Sweden, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, the Netherlands, and Australia to snag one of the remaining slots.
In the weeks leading up to the February 4 opening day of the Winter Games, Evgeni said, “So far I feel pretty good about this Olympics. We’ve been very consistent almost since day one in competitions and practices.”
No matter what happens in Beijing, Hailey plans to start Touro College in Manhattan next fall; she’ll study nursing or fashion.
“I don’t know what place competitive figure skating holds for me in the future, but skating will always be a part of my life,” she said. “Definitely I want to coach while I’m in college.”
What message would she give other religiously observant Jewish kids with Olympic ambitions?
“You can still be connected to Judaism while you pursue your dream, whether acting or sports or anything else,” she said. “Not everyone would agree with me, and that’s okay, but I feel there is a way to balance the two, and I hope to inspire more kids to do what I did.”