Departures/Arrivals: Who took off from and landed at Ben Gurion Airport this week?
Rotem Bernstein accompanies Israel's women's basketball team to Hungry; Reform rabbi Peg Kershenbaum is greeted from New York, with a teddy bear.
Where are you off to with all these tall girls?
To the return match in the European championship preliminaries, with the Israeli women’s team. I am their spokeswoman and also of the other women’s basketball teams.
Who is in the entourage?
The team of 12 players, a physiotherapist, a coach, two assistant coaches and the delegation head.
How many times have you been abroad this year?
Six times in the past two months.
What are the flights with the team like?
The girls are used to the flights. Some of them play both in Israel and in Europe, and they have all developed the ability to sleep anywhere. They board the plane, each with her own pillow, and immediately go to sleep.
Do fans fly to overseas games?
Not too many usually come for the preliminaries. But they come for the championship round. There is a group of women who always come and follow the team all the time. It’s easier to go to the championship, because it’s held in one place. In Belarus a group of local Jews came to root for us, which was nice. I have to say that from what I have seen we in Israel have the biggest crowds. There’s pride.
What is the team’s daily schedule abroad?
By the time we arrive it’s evening. We have a meal together and then go to sleep. They get up in the morning, eat, and then watch videos of the rival team. Then there is a training session; usually on the day before a game it’s not a full session, rather an hour to an hour and a half of drills. Sometimes there are also a few hours of rest. In the evening they generally eat and go to sleep. They never go out the day before a game, but sometimes they play group games − [the card game] Taki and other nonsense − to pass the time.
What do you do?
Communiques to the press, quotes from the players, online photos from the game for the [basketball] association’s Facebook page and updates.
Do you enjoy the work?
I wouldn’t be able to do it if I didn’t enjoy it. I see at least 10 hours of basketball a week. That is very intense. I am a fan of the sport. Maccabi Rishon Letzion is my team and I play for fun. But not the way the team plays; it’s for pleasure, it’s not serious.
Do you think women’s basketball is something serious?
Of course. And it’s hard for me personally to connect with other sports. I love basketball, even though it gets less coverage compared to soccer, for example. And exactly the same thing happens with women’s basketball: I know there is less interest in it, but my goal is to get people to take more of an interest in this sport. It’s important. That was a bit of an official answer, eh?
I have to tell you that there are a lot of men and women who like women’s basketball more than the men’s game, because they “connect” with the different style of the women’s game.
What is the difference?
The differences are exactly the differences between men and women. Women take their time, plan moves, think ahead; men are more instinctive − more sprints, action, more of a show. Women won’t do some crazy dunk and the score in women’s games is lower: They calculate things, have a strategy.
How is the national team doing these days?
There is still a small chance [at the championship]. Last year, the team made the European championships but didn’t do well enough to guarantee participation this year, which is why we are in the preliminaries. There are five groups in the prelims and the two teams with the best results from each group advance into the finals. They are in a group with Belarus, Hungary, Portugal and Ukraine. They lost to Ukraine by three points after leading the whole game, and beat Belarus 60-58. If they win the next two games they will enter the finals, so let’s say that a win today is crucial. The truth is that you always have to win.
Do you have a favorite player?
I am attached to all of them, but especially to Liron Cohen, the captain, who has been doing it for many years, always from the heart. She comes back from the European league every year to play. And also to Shay Doron, who is considered the best player this year, and to Shiran Zairy, who made a quantum leap this year and played superb games. Watch the game and you will understand.
Excuse me, can I ask you who you and the teddy bear are waiting for?
The truth is, I don’t know.
What do you mean?
I never know the arrivals. The teddy on the stick is our agreed-upon sign. That way, whoever is arriving can identify me. This time I think it’s a woman from the United States. A rabbi.
And is she bringing you a teddy?
Not just one teddy is coming. Teddies are coming, lots of teddies.
What do you do with them?
When they arrive in Israel I give them to the children’s ward in Meir Hospital, in Ra’anana, and they give them to the children hospitalized there. I’ve been doing this for the past 11 years. At first I came to the airport with a sign that said “teddy bear,” but one time someone with a similar name came over to me, so I started with the stick thing.
How did you get the idea?
The person who organizes the arrival of the teddies from there to here is Claire Goldstein, a friend of mine from New Jersey. We call it “Bears from Bergenfield,” because that’s where she lives. It all started when she threw a bar-mitzvah party for her son during the intifada. She was very moved and wanted to do something for Israel, so she asked everyone who came to the party to bring a teddy bear to donate. She thought there would be maybe 50 bears, but there were thousands. Her conclusion was that people want to be part of something bigger. She is now in touch with private individuals, Orthodox and Reform synagogues and Chabad. There is no room for a car in her garage, because it’s filled with teddy bears.
How many bears have immigrated to Israel in this way?
There have been about 150,000. When they arrive I check them. Sometimes there is a hole, so I sew it up, and then I clean them; it’s not nice to bring a child a dirty bear. Afterward, I take them to my daughter, Debbie Shkedy, who is one of three nurses involved the management of the hospital. She is known as “the bag lady,” because everyone is used to seeing her arrive carrying bags.
Where do you get the energy for this?
It’s a project from the heart, and the doctors and nurses tell us that it helps a great deal. The ER there alone treats 25,000 children a year. If you give a teddy bear to a child who is in trauma or needs tests done he immediately becomes calmer. Some of the bears are sent to the geriatric ward; everyone needs something to hug.
All you need is a teddy.
I think I understood that when the Ethiopians arrived in Israel. There was a message that the children had no toys, and people were asked to donate. I had a lot of fabric at home, because I had an uncle who was in the schmatte business, so I made stuffed frogs and elephants out of it. At the time, my daughter was a nurse on Kibbutz Yavneh. One day she treated a girl who had been scalded by boiling water. I told her, ‘Give the child an elephant’ − and it really helped her. She took it with her to the tests and wasn’t so afraid ... Ah, they’re here!
Do you need help with the bags?
No, I have a system. We are used to it. My husband waits with the car in the arrivals parking lot. He is 87; 80 is the new 60. If there are too many bags and it’s heavy, he comes to help me. We are here at least once a week, sometimes three times. We have come at 3 A.M., too. I always say that we are the couple who go to the airport most, but never leave the country.
When did you and your husband immigrate to Israel?
I grew up in a religiously observant home in the Bronx and we made aliyah 40 years ago. We came here because of Zionism, and none of our children has left the country. We have four children, 15 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, and just this week another granddaughter became engaged. I tell all my grandchildren to get married already, but it doesn’t help for me to say it.