KFAR VITKIN, Israel (Jan. 26)
Mekora Tarapeh would run up the steep, pine-covered hills on the outskirts of Addis Ababa for hours with friends, not realizing that his running talent would eventually help bring him to Israel.
Tarapeh, 19, along with several other Falash Mura teenage boys, was identified by an Ethiopian-Israeli running coach as having professional potential. Soon after, Tarapeh and his family’s request to immigrate was granted, after an eight-year wait at a transit compound for Jews in Ethiopia.
Lithe and focused, Tarapeh now rises at dawn for morning runs with a view of the Mediterranean Sea. He’s training as a long-distance runner at Hadassah-Neurim, a boarding school near Netanya that helps immigrant students fulfill their athletic potential.
“Here I’m with other athletes all day. It helps me train. If I had, for example, been sent to study at a religious school, there would have been no time for my running,” he said. “My dream is to reach the Olympics, with God’s help. I love training. I cannot imagine a life without sports.”
The school’s new athletic stadium and track were officially inaugurated as the Marlene Post Athletic Center with a track-and-field meet earlier this month.
As a former Hadassah national president, Post had the honor of choosing a project that would bear her name, and she decided the youth aliyah enterprise spoke most loudly to her.
“In sports you think differently, you approach life differently, you psych yourself up to move forward, to become a winner,” Post said. “It’s a wonderful way to build up one’s physical and mental abilities.”
Post said she hopes the student athletes will take what they learn about themselves on the playing field out into the world.
As part of the inauguration ceremonies — attended by Hadassah’s entire national board — Post donned a pair of sneakers and sprinted down the track with a student athlete.
The boarding school, known in Israel as a youth village, is funded by both Hadassah and the Jewish Agency for Israel, and has about 500 high-school aged students. Many come from homes that are struggling financially.
Most are immigrants from Ethiopia or the former Soviet Union, although there are native-born Israelis as well.
Some of the students are chosen by the school’s coaches, who travel the country searching for potential athletes who might be a good fit in the school’s combined program of study and training.
Being an athlete can be an expensive pursuit. There’s little national funding in Israel for young athletes, especially young immigrant athletes, so the school offers a rare opportunity to achieve.
Many students focus on track-and-field events, training up to twice a day with professional coaches, including many who are immigrants themselves. The school also provides daily high-protein meals to supplement the study and workouts.
Athletes from the school have won hundreds of medals in Israeli championships, and have traveled abroad to compete.
Among the school’s top athletes is Regina Abdurashitov, 15. She was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and immigrated to Israel with her family in 2000. Her parents were both athletes in Uzbekistan and before immigrating worked as physical-education teachers.
In Israel Abdurashitov’s parents had to find other work, so her mother worked 12-hour shifts in a chocolate factory and her father worked as an auto mechanic. It would have been impossible for them to support her athletic training in track and field, where she’s focusing on javelin throwing, Abdurashitov said.
At the school, Abdurashitov has her own coach and training regimen, which includes weight lifting, running and technique instruction. She’s ranked first in the country in her age group for javelin throwing.
Her dorm room is full of medals, which she hangs in a long row on the wall.
Abdurashitov’s almond-shaped, hazel eyes shine and she smiles as she speaks about what the school means to her.
“All you could ever ask for is here — friends, facilities and lots of help. I love it here and cannot imagine being without it,” she said.
She trains about three hours a day, and has classes in the mornings and afternoons. She’s part of a training group of 14, the so called “throwers,” all of whom are led in javelin or shot-put by coach Alex Grigorivker, 53.
Instruction is often in Russian: The entire group comes from the former Soviet Union and Grigorivker himself is from Ukraine.
Grigorivker had taught at an athletic academy in Ukraine, where methods were perhaps more rigorous, but in Israel he has tried to be more flexible while not giving up on standards.
“I feel like a father to them,” Grigorivker said of the students. Like them, he lives on campus during the week and returns to his family on weekends.
Grigorivker has to deal with a heavier load than your average coach — dealing not just with issues of physical training and performance but often helping the students work out issues in their complicated home lives.
“They know that here they study and train, creating a very full schedule, and this helps. The training is intense and they learn through it that they can rely on themselves to accomplish things, and this will help them also later in life,” Grigorivker said.
Abdurashitov, who has been at the school for three years, said athletics have helped define her.
“It gives me a feeling that I can accomplish goals. There is a feeling that all this effort is worth something when you see yourself progress.”
At the inaugural track meet, a strong, cold wind blew in from the sea, and Abdurashitov jumped up and down next to the track, trying to stay warm.
When it was her turn to compete in the long jump, she narrowed her eyes and focused on the sand pit ahead of her. Her muscular legs carried her down the track before she jumped, feet forward, and soared through the air.