Category Archives: World of Sport

Jews in the World of Sport

Jews of the Week: Irene and Abe Pollin

The Couple that Brought Sports to Washington, D.C.and Saved Lives

Irene Sue Kerchek (1924-2020) was born in St. Louis, Missouri. She met her future husband Abraham “Abe” Pollin (1923-2009) when she was just 17. The couple married and settled in Washington, D.C. Abe worked for his father’s construction company before he and Irene started their own business in 1957. Together, they built a prosperous real estate empire, raising up both affordable and subsidized housing projects as well as luxury properties. The Pollins went on to found and own the NBA’s Washington Wizards team, the NHL’s Washington Capitals, and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, working hard to bring those three clubs to the city. They also built the Capital Center and what is now Capital One Arena (formerly the Verizon Center), and were credited with reviving Washington’s downtown core. In 1963, the Pollins lost their teenage daughter to heart disease, and Irene lost both of her parents to heart disease that same year. She fell into deep depression and, when nothing seemed to help her, decided to go study psychology and social work herself. She went back to university and earned two degrees. Pollin opened two pioneering therapy clinics, and wrote two acclaimed books on mental illness and counseling. Her greatest mission in life, however, was to combat heart disease. In 2008, she donated $12 million to Brigham and Women’s Hospital (of Harvard) to establish a heart wellness program. In 2012, she donated $10 million to Hadassah Medical Center in Israel to create a heart health institute, and another $10 million to do the same at Johns Hopkins University. The following year, she gave another $10 million to establish one more heart health centre in Los Angeles. After discovering that more women died from heart disease than from breast cancer, Pollin started a number of organizations to increase awareness of female heart disease and to get more women screened on time. The most famous of these organizations is Sister to Sister: The Women’s Heart Health Foundation. Through their efforts, and the screening clinics they set up across America, the lives of countless women have been saved. The Pollins were generous philanthropists and gave millions more to many other causes, including Washington’s Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, the National Symphony, and research into brain disease, which ultimately took the life of Abe Pollin. The Pollins had a summer house in Rehovot, Israel, and were close friends of Yitzhak Rabin. It was Rabin’s assassination in 1995 that was the major reason why they renamed their Washington Bullets basketball team to the Washington Wizards (the new name was selected in a public contest). Irene Pollin also sat on the National Cancer Advisory Board, to which she was appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1986, while Abe Pollin was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame as the longest-serving owner of an NBA franchise (46 years). Sadly, Irene Pollin passed away last month at the age of 96.

Words of the Week

If you were born with a healthy heart, keep it that way.
– Irene Pollin

Jew of the Week: Alan Veingrad

The Super Bowl Champion Who Keeps Kosher

Alan Stuart Shlomo Veingrad (b. 1963) was born in Brooklyn and grew up in New Jersey and Miami. He went to Hebrew school as a child, then to Miami Sunset High School where he was captain of the football team. Veingrad was also an All-American track and field athlete. He went to what is now Texas A&M University on a sports scholarship. In 1984, he was voted the Lone Star Offensive Lineman of the Year. Despite working out round-the-clock and gaining over 100 pounds he was still considered too small for the NFL and went undrafted in 1985. Still, he was able to sign with the Tampa Buy Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent. The following year he signed with the Green Bay Packers and played on the starting line up as a right offensive tackle. In 1991 he signed with the Dallas Cowboys and was instrumental in helping the team win Super Bowl XXVII in 1993. After earning his championship, Veingrad retired from professional football. Since then, he has worked in real estate and finance, as a motivational speaker, and an AIPAC advocate for Israel. One Friday, his cousin invited him for Shabbat dinner, which lit a spark inside him. Veingrad then went to a Torah class to learn more, and soon found new meaning in life. He eventually became fully Torah-observant, and has since been called the “only Orthodox Jew to wear a Super Bowl ring”. He has traveled around the world to share his story, and also made an excellent series of 1-minute Jewish motivational videos, called Shlomo’s Playbook. Veingrad was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2010 and was the NYPD’s Person of the Year in 2012.

Words of the Week

The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity. In reality today there is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people, since Arab national interests demand that we posit the existence of a distinct Palestinian people to oppose Zionism…
Zuheir Muhsin, member of the PLO Executive Council, in a March 31, 1977 interview with Dutch newspaper “Trouw”.

Jews of the Week: Oren Smadja & Sagi Muki

Judo World Champion

Oren Smadja

Shay Oren Smadja (b. 1970) was born to a Tunisian-Jewish family in Ofakim, Israel. He was the son of Israel’s first judo coach, Morris Smadja, who played a key role in introducing the sport to Israel. Trained by his father, Oren Smadja won his first gold medal in judo at the age of 12. Seven years later, he was Israel’s judo champion. Smadja went on to represent Israel at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics where he won a bronze medal. Three years later, he won the silver medal at the 1995 World Judo Championships. In 2008 he was a participant in the Israeli TV version of “Dancing With the Stars”. Altogether, Smadja won a medal or championship in 14 professional tournaments. He retired after competing in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and turned to coaching judo full time.

Sagi Muki

One of Smadja’s first students was a four-year old Sagi Aharon Muki (b. 1992) from Netanya, Israel. At the young age of 8 he had to choose to pursue either soccer or judo, and went with the latter. Under Smadja’s tutelage, Muki went on to win the under-20 European Cup in Berlin in 2011. The following year, he was Israel’s judo champion in his weight class, a feat that he repeated in 2013. He continued to win in multiple international competitions, and was ranked second in the world by 2015. That year, he took gold at the European Games and the European Judo Championship. Muki represented Israel at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Unfortunately, he failed to win a medal after severely injuring his spine. Bedridden for months, it seemed that Muki’s career was over. Undeterred, he refused surgeries and instituted an intense healing and training regime. Muki got back into shape and returned to judo at the Grand Prix Tashkent in October 2017. Silencing all of his critics, Muki won gold. Half a year later, he took another gold in the European Championships. Earlier this year, Muki climbed back to the world number 2 spot. Last week he won gold at the 2019 World Judo Championships in Tokyo, making him the first Israeli world champion. Muki also served in the IDF and carries the rank of sergeant. He takes great pride in representing Israel around the world, and is expected to bring home another gold at next year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

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Words of the Week

Who can challenge the rights of the Jews in Palestine? Good Lord, historically it is really your country.
– Yusuf Diya al-Khalidi, Ottoman politician and Muslim scholar (1899)