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Where have South African Jewish sporting heroes gone?

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There have been some legendary South African Jewish sportsmen over time. But, these days, besides footballer Dean Furman, no one has been able to emulate the likes of Okey Geffin, Syd Nomis, Wilf Rosenberg, Ali Bacher, Mandy Yachad, and Martin Cohen.
by SAUL KAMIONSKY | Sep 05, 2019

What happened?

Lee Gruskin, who was the first King David scholar to make the Gauteng Under-19 Coca Cola Cricket side, says, “It’s a gamble if you go the sporting route. I played for the Gauteng Academy, and I played a few games for the Gauteng Strikers, but I just never really got a break.

“I was planning to study at the time. So, I had to make a call to pursue cricket or pursue my studies. What most people land up doing is to pursue their studies,” says Gruskin.

This isn’t surprising, considering the Jewish community’s emphasis on academic learning. Not least because the risks involved in setting one’s hopes on becoming a Protea, Springbok, or Bafana Bafana player are huge.

Says Gruskin of young cricketers, “I don’t think they get exposed to a high level of sport at school level.”

Another reason for the paucity of Jewish cricketers in South Africa is the absence of the Balfour Jewish Guild. The club, which closed for development of townhouse complexes, “was very successful, and introduced many wonderful Jewish cricketers”, says former Proteas all-rounder Adam Bacher.

Bacher believes South Africa needs a traditional club where Jewish cricketers can evolve and enhance their skills. He, like other high-ranking Jewish sports officials, is aware of the dearth of Jewish sportsmen in the upper echelons of South African sport.

Ronnie Schloss, senior official at the Premier Soccer League, says the scarcity of Jewish footballers makes him sad. “I go and watch my grandsons play, and there are some good little Jewish kids, but they just seem to fizzle out,” Schloss says. “Once they get to high school, they disappear. There’s a lot of good talent, and it’s a pity.

“They should be nurtured. They should be in the professional clubs. Some of them have very good academies where they can finish their schooling, get a university entrance, and carry on playing.”

Stan Matthews, the chief executive of SuperSport United Football Club, echoes Schloss’ sentiments. “At youth level, South African Jews are as good as anything in the world, and up to the age of 13, we can compete as well as anybody.”

But, because there is a lot of competition, total commitment is required. “The kids coming to our academy are expected to drop all other sport and focus on football,” Matthews says. “If they aren’t training four or five times a week plus a match, they are not going to get anywhere.”

Matthews says young Jewish boys going for academic excellence can hardly manage that kind of schedule with everything else they have in their diary.

 “We had a partnership with Tottenham Hotspur, and in that time, I took about 30 kids over seven years for trials to play at Tottenham,” Matthews continues. “There is a level of hunger when sitting in a dressing room. There are boys from Benin, the DRC, Ghana, China, and Australia. They are all competing for one contract.”

Those people who put their all into getting that contract will be the breadwinners for their families. “We have a very high standard of living compared to the rest of the world, and I don’t see many kids who are breadwinners for their families.”

Religious restrictions are also a factor. Matthews himself doesn’t attend matches when SuperSport plays on a Saturday due to religious observance.

Also, no one ever caters kosher at sports functions. “If I don’t eat before a football function, I’m starving because I’m not going to get any food there,” he says.

But Matthews and Schloss aren’t the lone Jewish football administrators at such functions. Amongst others there are Highlands Park Directors Brad Kaftel and Larry Brookstone, Bidvest Wits Chief Operations Officer Jonathan Schloss, Orlando Pirates Finance Manager Darryl Joselowsky, and football agents Glyn Binkin and Steve Kapeluschnik.

These individuals have gone the academic route but combined it with a passion for football. So, there is a sports outlet for Jews, even if it isn’t on the top field.

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