Tag Archives: Gold Medal

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)

Jew of the Week: Mickey Berkowitz

Israel’s Greatest Athlete

Moshe Berkowitz (b. 1954) was born in Kfar Saba, Israel. At the young age of 11, he joined the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball youth club. Within a few years, he made the junior team, and at just 17 years old, was already playing on the senior team in the Israeli Basketball Premier League. The same year, he took the Israeli under-18 team to the FIBA (International Basketball Federation) European Championship finals, and was the overall leading scorer of the whole tournament. Shortly after, he led the national team to a gold medal in the 1974 Asian Games in Tehran. This came at a time when Israel was still reeling from the devastating Yom Kippur War, and Berkowitz became a symbol of Israeli strength, success, and vitality. He has since been credited with playing a key role in re-inspiring Israeli youth in the wake of the war.

In 1975, Berkowitz took a short break to play a year of college basketball in the US (with the top-seeded UNLV Runnin’ Rebels). Returning to Maccabi, he transformed the team into a top contender, and in 1977 led Maccabi to its first FIBA European Cup. The team won the championship again in 1981, with Berkowitz scoring the winning shot. He also played on five European All-Star teams, and made history when his Maccabis beat the NBA champion Washington Bullets in 1978, becoming the first FIBA team to ever beat an NBA team. Back home, too, Maccabi was an unstoppable force, with Berkowitz leading the club to 16 national league championship titles and another 13 Israeli State Cups. After a silver medal at the 1979 EuroBasket (and being voted the tournament’s MVP), Berkowitz got flooded with offers from the NBA. However, he was unable to break his Maccabi contract and was forced to stay in the Israeli league. In 1991, Berkowitz was voted among FIBA’s 50 Greatest Players of all time, and more recently made the list of 50 Greatest EuroLeague Contributors. He officially retired in 1995 and wrote a bestselling autobiography. Last year, Berkowitz was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame alongside Shaquille O’Neal and several other greats. In the run-up to Israel’s 70th birthday, he was voted the nation’s greatest athlete. Despite being ranked the 35th most famous Israeli, and once being hailed as “king of Israel”, Berkowitz always carried himself with utmost humility and was a natural role model. Two of his sons continue to play pro-basketball in Israel today.

Words of the Week

The thought, the inspiration, and the culture of the Jews has been one of the vital dominants in world history. There are none of the arts or sciences which have not been enriched by Jewish achievements.
– Winston Churchill