Israeli national youth rythmic gymnastics team flying to Moscow
From left: Yelena Kopilenko, 52, Zlata Gorlovsky, 13, Karina Lichaver, 14, Linoy Ashram, 13, Alina Betker, 14, Yuval Pilo, 15, Martina Poplinsky, 14, and Natali Malka-Bidaik, 41 Photo by Tomer appelbaum
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Tomer appelbaum
Mendi Goldshmid, 31, left, from Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, and Boris Hendelman, 47, from Ra’anana Photo by Tomer appelbaum

Israeli national youth rythmic gymnastics team flying to Moscow

Is this the first time you are flying to a competition together?

Everyone: No, it’s the second.

Poplinsky: We were in Estonia for a competition.

What are your trips like?

Everyone: We train and compete. We are going for five days for the Grand Prix competition. There is a day of training before it starts so we can get to know the site, and three straight days of the competition itself.

What happens in the nights?

Everyone: We sleep.

No pajama parties?

Ashram: No, we don’t have time.

Lichaver: We need to avoid nonsense.

Betker: We talk a little, but just a little.

Kopilenko: The captain makes sure they are focused.

Who is the captain?

Pilo: I am.

What does the captain do?

Pilo: I am responsible for getting everyone to be focused, and when we train I count the rhythm.

Are you nervous?

Pilo: Sort of.

Betker: Zlata is very nervous.

What do the kids in school say to you?

Popolinsky: They say, ‘Bring me perfume from the duty-free shop,’ and things like that. But they don’t really mean it.

What do you do in your exercise?

Pilo: We compete together in a group exercise with a hoop.

To what music?

Pilo: “Rio,” from the animated movie. It’s a medley of a few songs.

Kopilenko: Their choreographer is Ayelet Zussman, an Israeli who is very successful internationally in this field. She also did the choreography for the Israeli team at the Olympics.

How many years have you been coaching?

Kapilenko: More than 30.

How did you start?

I was a coach on the Uzbekistan team before the [Communist] Bloc fell apart, when it was still the Soviet Union. I immigrated to Israel in 1990.

Malka-Bidaik: I immigrated in 1991, at the height of the revolution. Actually, I immigrated because of the revolution. It was impossible to leave for many years, and as soon as things opened up, my mother said, ‘Yallah, we’re immigrating.’ I was 18 when I came here.

Did you start as a regular gymnast?

Yes, I started when I was four, in Ukraine. When I was in kindergarten, my father decided that rhythmic gymnastics suited me. From the age of seven I practiced for hours, twice a day.

Kopilenko: I started when I was eight. People said I was already an old grandma, that it was too late.

Do the girls today train less than you did?

Malka-Bidaik: Not really. They practice in the morning, and another five-six hours after school every day. Before the trip they also had a full training camp. It’s actually harder for them than it was for us.

Why?

Because in the Soviet Union everything was oriented toward sports and achievements. Athletes attended a special school. In Israel, the girls go to regular schools and sometimes have to skip classes for training. We try to reach an agreement with the school, but they still miss many classes, and they need help and support and special permission. The system is not structured for gymnastics, and only a few girls want to make the investment and are able to.

Kopilenko: It’s hard work and you have to sacrifice a lot: family, studies, friends, food, sleep. Three years ago, a special program for athletes with boarding facilities was opened in Rishon Letzion, and we have two girls who go there. It’s a little easier with them, but there are girls from four different places on the team. They are not concentrated in one school. We travel between the different places, and they practice every day and also have to travel. It’s hard.

How many girls tried out for the team?

About 30.

That doesn’t sound like a lot.

It’s actually quite a lot. It’s an age at which many girls quit − only the most talented stay on. At younger ages, seven-eight, there are about 550 girls training in gymnastics around the country, because at that age it’s still fun. In adolescence, the hours and the demands increase, and not everyone is willing and able.

Malka-Bidaik: About 90 percent are children of parents who came from the Former Soviet Union. That might also have something to do with the fact that Israeli parents usually want their children to go to all kinds of extra-curricular groups and not just do one thing.

Kopilenko: The leading teams in the world in this field are from Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Bulgaria.

What do you look for in the tests?

Girls who fit into a group. There might be someone very talented whom we don’t take. It’s a character thing. You can’t take a prima donna. It has to be a collective effort.

Malka-Bidaik: When they are accepted to the team, we talk to them about the need for coping day in and day out, for discipline.

They really did answer the questions as one person.

Kopilenko: They are disciplined and they are in a good mood.

And what about you two?

Malka-Baidik: We are very pleased.

Kopilenko: I am always thrilled when I see them competing. I almost cry with excitement in every competition. No one at home knows what these girls are going through.

Goldshmid is arriving from Ukraine

Hello, can I ask why you have so many suitcases?

Goldshmid: So I could put even more suitcases inside them.

Really? Is that what’s inside the suitcases?

Yes, and on the way back we will pack them with items for the seder for the Jewish community in Dnipropetrovsk. Every so often, before Pesach, we do this kind of organizing.

Matzot!

No. We have a matza bakery there. We even have shmura matza [a specially made type of matza]. We need certain things that you can’t get there. Bowls for the seder, for example.

What do you do there?

I am a Chabad shaliach [emissary], responsible for the kosher food in the community. Boris is also a Chabad shaliach. He came to pick me up.

How many people do you expect for the seder?

There will be many seders in the city. We will probably have something like 1,000 people at the central one.

That’s a big community.

Yes. There is a flourishing Jewish community in the city. We have a big school, a fine synagogue, a college for girls. There is a shaliach of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the city. I am assisting him.

How long have you been there?

I am originally an Israeli − I grew up in Kfar Chabad. I was 17 when I went. When I first got there I didn’t know a word of Russian. Maybe a few curses.

Is it usual to send people at that age?

There are no clear rules. People are usually sent for short periods. But I fell in love with the place and with the people, and I stayed.

What do you like best about it?

It’s a place with history. Dnipropetrovsk is a big city and has always been very Jewish, relative to Ukraine. Many Jewish refugees arrived there during World War I. About 100,000 Jews lived there before World War II, and there were 12 synagogues. Then the city was bombed and captured by the Germans; many Jews were murdered and others fled. The Jewish community is now successful and prosperous. The locals want to be in touch with us. In my 13 years there I have never encountered even a hint of anti-Semitism. Our center is the biggest in the world: 60,000 square meters. Go to our website − www.djc.com.ua − and you will see.

Do you have children?

I am married and have three children. I met my wife through matchmaking in Israel, and she joined me in 2004.

How long will you stay there?

Until the messiah comes.

Doesn’t it bother you that your children are growing up in Ukraine?

I would like them to grow up in Israel. We believe that by the time they will grow up we will all be here, in Israel.

Because the messiah will arrive?

Of course.

Don’t be angry if I am skeptical.

Look, I want to live in Israel, but I have a job to do. There is a mission: to draw Jews closer to and to explain to them about Judaism and about the Land of Israel, so they will know they have a place in the world. People from our city are immigrating to Israel all the time. About 100,000 have already immigrated.

Can anyone be a shaliach?

There are no entrance exams. Everyone can try, but it’s not easy. It’s not suitable for everyone.

What was hard about it?

The family is supportive, but being far away is hard. Besides, when I first got there, the city itself was not very developed. Originally it was a military and industrial city. There are large factories. But the roads were problematic. There was little infrastructure. It was hard to find kosher food.

What did you eat?

What do you think? A lot of potatoes.