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  Chapter 25 from
Echoes Of The Maggid
Heartwarming stories and parables of wisdom and inspiration.

By Rabbi Paysach Krohn 


Other Available Chapters
4  5  42 


Wheels of Fortune

Throughout history, Jews who endured hatred and persecution only because they were Jews, were tormented regardless of whether or not they were religious. Anti-Semitism did not recognize particular religious stripes. Those who shed their exterior Jewishness usually realized that it made no difference. The bitter malice was spewed at their identity -- which for the most part they could not conceal.

Thus, in 1966, Sam Zeitlin of Brooklyn, a member of the American National Cycling Team, was grieved but not surprised when he became the target of a constant barrage of anti-Semitic jibes. He was sure that his teammates’ comments were tinged with jealousy, for he was one of the fastest and most capable cyclists in America. After all, he had won the New York State Sprint Championship in 1965 and “The Jewish Boy” was heralded everywhere in the cycling world.

Cycling had been a passion for Sam since his early childhood, and he had won race after race, both locally and nationally. One afternoon as Sam was cycling in Kissena Park in Queens, in training for a national race, slanderous remarks were aimed at him by some beer-drinking hoodlums sitting in the stands that rimmed the track. He tried to put them out of his mind, for clearly they were trying to intimidate him. That night, however, as he was cycling home on his road bike, a car behind him swerved from its lane and lurched towards him. With the swift reflexes of a gifted athlete, Sam turned sharply onto the sidewalk. He looked back at the car and saw that it was his chief rival on the cycling team driving with one of the hoodlums from the stands. “You’ll never stay on top, you dirty Jew,” the driver roared as he sped by.

Sam had to admit that he was unnerved by the bigotry and the resentment.

A few months later in 1967, in the Grand Prix of The Americas, in Northbrook, Illinois, Sam finished first -- only to be disqualified. Citing a rule that had never been enforced either before or since, the officials claimed that Sam had raised his hands in victory prior to crossing the finish line, and by taking his hands off the handlebars had endangered the safety of nearby spectators. Sam was convinced that the decision was tainted with anti-Semitism, and he decided to leave the United States and pursue his goals in another country.

He rejected Canada because the winters were too cold and he rejected Mexico because, with its high altitude, the air was too thin. If he was going to travel overseas, then Israel, where sports were popular, seemed a logical choice. And even though he was a secular Jew, Israel was the country of his people.

He came to Israel later that year and immediately contacted the authorities of the cycling division of the Hapoel Tel-Aviv Sports Club. His reputation had preceded him, since he had won the 1965 Maccabiah Games Cycling Sprint competition. Nati, the team’s general manager, realized that if Sam became the team’s trainer, as well as a member, he could bring the Israeli cycling team to world-class standards. Nati took a liking to him as Sam confidently proclaimed that he could enable Israeli cycling to compete for medals in the upcoming World Olympics.

One night, after strenuous training, Sam went to the Kosel HaMaaravi. He had never been there, but he knew that it was a place where people prayed. As he made his way across the plaza, he recalled the Shema Yisrael prayer he had learned in a Hebrew school in Brooklyn. He walked up to the huge sacred stones of the golden Wall, gently kissed them and recited the Shema. He said a few prayers in English and then began scanning the crowd for a familiar face. He was curious at how others at the Kosel seemed to be praying endlessly. What were they saying, what do they know that I don’t know, he wondered.

He walked over to two religious-looking young men and began asking questions of a religious nature. The two brothers, R’ Chaim and R’ Dovid Goldberg of Chicago, were former talmidim of the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland. At the time, Chaim was a student of Rav Dovid Soloveitchik, and Dovid was a student of Rav Berel Soloveitchik.

After a lengthy conversation, the brothers recognized that Sam was sincerely searching for guidance and inspiration. They directed him to their native Chicago friend, Rabbi Gershon Weinberger, who was known for his warm personality and incredible hospitality. An architect who lived with his wife and family in the Kiryat Sanz section of Jerusalem, R’ Gershon had a home that was a “home away from home” for dozens of young men and young women who had come to study in Israel. Their apartment was always accessible. Meals and Torah discussions were always available.

Rabbi Weinberger and Sam became very close friends, as the rabbi took an active interest in Sam’s road back to Torah Judaism. They studied together during the week and every Shabbos. Sam, now known as Shimon, was regularly at the Weinberger home, participating with family and guests in the lively zemiros (Shabbos melodies), and stimulating divrei Torah.

After a few months, Rabbi Weinberger suggested that Shimon enroll in a yeshivah. “I have a very close friend, Rabbi Noach Weinberg, who is opening a yeshivah in Bnei Brak,” said Rabbi Weinberger. “You will get individualized attention. You should consider it.”

Shimon Pesach Zeitlin thus became the fifth talmid in Yeshivah Magen Avrohom, which was the forerunner for the world-renowned Yeshivah Aish Hatorah, of which Rabbi Weinberg is the founder and Dean.

For Shimon, moving from the hills of Jerusalem to the flatter terrain of Bnei Brak was a tremendous asset for his cycling practice. Shimon would attend morning seder (session) and then, with the encouragement of Rabbi Weinberg, he would cycle for three hours in the afternoon with his custom-made English Holdsworth bicycle along the coast roads towards Caesarea or on the Tel-Aviv Haifa highway, tucking behind huge Israeli army trucks hauling tanks, so that he could pedal in the highest gear with no wind resistance. Shimon would practice his aerodynamically correct racing tactics, using his innovative techniques to gain power and speed, all the while singing to himself the quickly paced niggun, Shabbos Hayom LaShem, that he learned from his mentor, Rabbi Gershon Weinberger. His swift pedal cadence would parallel the tempo of the song.

As Shimon progressed in his observance of Torah and mitzvos, he tried to influence some of his cycling teammates to become Shabbos observant. His pleas fell on deaf ears. The cyclists and their coaches were fueled by their goal of an Olympic medal and international fame.

As the Olympics drew near, trials were to be held to determine which cyclists would represent Israel’s team. The Israeli Sports Federation announced that the trials were to be held on Shabbos! Shimon was appalled. As much as he appealed to them, they were totally unsympathetic. Shimon knew the level of cycling talent of other countries. “You don’t have world-class cyclists that can compete at Olympic levels unless I represent you,” Shimon said.

“We don’t change policies for anyone,” he was told firmly, “even for you.”

An internal conflict raged within Shimon. He had struggled for thousands of lonely hours, training, lifting weights, doing calisthenics, jumping rope, riding hills and valleys through rain, cold, sleet, and heat, all so that he could participate in the Olympics. If he could win an Olympic gold medal he would carve his name in sports history. His name would become a household word in millions of homes throughout the globe. Yet, Shabbos had taken on new meaning in his life. Shabbos defined his being -- a subservience to a Higher Power that governed his life -- and the chant of Shabbos Hayom LaShem had become the anthem of his identity. In the end, Shimon’s decision was clear. Life as a religious Jew meant more than that one blazing moment of possible glory.

In the summer of 1972, Israel did not send a cycling team to the 20th Summer Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. The Israelis realized that their cycling team was not up to par. But they did send officials and athletes to compete in weight lifting, wrestling, fencing, and rifle shooting. During the games, Palestinian guerrillas attacked the Olympic Village and killed two Israeli athletes and took another nine hostage by helicopter to a nearby airfield in Munich. As the world looked on in shock, a shootout took place between German police and the Palestinians. The helicopters were blown up and the Israeli athletes were shot to death.

* * *

Back in Bnei Brak, Shimon heard the tragic news on the radio. It was all anyone in Israel talked about. There was shock and outrage, sadness and mourning.

As he reflected on the tragedy, Shimon shuddered when he thought of a phrase of another Shabbos song, “Ki eshmerah Shabbos, Keil yishmereini,” If I safeguard the Sabbath, Hashem will safeguard me.

Today, more than a quarter of a century later, when Shimon and his family sing around their Shabbos table,“Ki eshmerah Shabbos,” he often utters a silent prayer of thanks to Hashem for his being led to become a shomer Shabbos and Torah-observant Jew.

 
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