Dreaming of Olympics, Young Israeli Figure Skaters Take to the Ice in Growing Numbers

It may sound incongruous in such a hot climate, but the opening of new rinks has brought figure skating and ice hockey into the Israeli sporting mainstream.

HOLON − At the center of the ice rink here, about a dozen pre-adolescents are being tested to see if they qualify for the next level of figure skating. Over in the corner, a few teens are practicing more advanced moves with their private instructors. And just outside the main entrance door, the parking lot is quickly filling up, as hurried-looking moms drop their kids off just in time for their lessons.

This is what a typical late afternoon at the recently opened ice skating rink here in central Israel has come to look like. But it’s not only after school on weekdays that the country’s new figure skating hub is abuzz with activity. On weekends, the place is so packed that the more serious skaters simply keep away.

The opening of the impressive-looking Ice Peaks arena right next door to the Holon Children’s Museum a year ago has definitely helped push figure skating into the Israeli mainstream. And among the 300 or so participants in the new arena’s learn-to-skate and other programs, there are presumably quite a few Olympic hopefuls who will be glued to their television sets this week when the Winter Games open in Sochi, practicing that much harder when they’re back on the ice.

They’re not alone. It would be far-fetched to describe figure skating as a craze in Israel, but in the past several years the sport has attracted a much bigger following, in no small part thanks to the opening of several new rinks around the country.

For years the town of Metulla, up at the northern tip of the country and at least a three-hour drive from Tel Aviv, was the only place in Israel to skate. That meant that only people living in this secluded corner of the country or those serious enough to spend hours commuting there and back engaged in the sport. But then, in the summer of 2012, an Olympic size rink was built − of all places − in the Red Sea resort town of Eilat, right on Israel’s southernmost tip.

A year or so before that, two smaller rinks, one in an Ashdod mall and the other on the premises of Tel Aviv’s amusement part, were opened. And just a few months ago, ground was broken for a new Olympic-size rink in another central location, Netanya, scheduled to be completed in about a year.

“For the first time in Israel we now have here American-style learn-to-skate programs, where kids acquire basic skills and move up level by level,” says Wayne Hanan, a professional figure skating instructor who moved to Israel last year and gives private lessons at the new Holon rink.

After traveling back and forth to Israel ever since 1972, when he made his first trip here, he says he has been looking for an excuse to come back for good. The opening of a proper ice-skating facility in central Israel, he says, provided just that, a few months short of his 60th birthday.

“It used to be that only people really determined to make it to the Olympics would participate in this sport in Israel,” says Hanan, who hails from Long Island. “Now what we’re seeing is lots of people who are doing it just for the fun as well because there are other places to do it now.”

The Israel Ice Skating Federation took advantage of the opening of the new rink to move its headquarters from Metulla to Holon. Having this base smack in the center of the country has been a critical factor in the development of the sport, says Anna Slavin, the organization’s secretary. “Finally, there was a bunch of people who understood that Metulla is too far and doesn’t have enough people around, and if we want to give this sport a push, we need to find a more centralized location.”

With its balmy Mediterranean climate, Israel might not seem like an obvious venue for this cold-weather sport. And indeed, much of its growing popularity is not homegrown but stems from the huge number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have transplanted themselves here ever since the early 1990s, bringing along their passion for skating. “A lot of my students here are children of parents who came from Russia who want their kids to do this because that’s what they did,” says Hanan.

Such, for example, is the case of 12-year-old Adele Schwartzman, who began taking group lessons at the Holon rink soon after it opened and just recently, having reached a more advanced skill level, signed up for private lessons with Hanan. “We’re a family of skaters, and before this place was open, we’d drive up to Metulla about once a month,” says her mother, Marina, who immigrated to Israel in 1990. “Figure skating was my first sport as well, and it’s something like a first love.”

For Adele and her two brothers, who both play ice hockey, having a rink closer to their home in Rishon Lezion has enabled them to spend much more time on the ice. Altogether, her mother says, Adele devotes between three and four hours a week to developing her figure-skating skills.

But a less obvious group of new figure skating devotees in Israel is comprised of immigrants from English-speaking countries and, even more significantly, Israelis who have spent many years abroad, where their children have already been initiated into the sport and want to continue when they come back. That would include children like 11-year-old Shahaf Carmieli, who just move to Israel with her family two months ago after spending the past eight years in Chicago, where she learned both figure skating and synchronized skating. “We were looking for a place where she could continue learning the American way, and we found that the new rink here in Holon could provide that sort of program,” says her mother, Shiri, who drives her daughter to the rink about four times a week from their home in Nes Tziona.

Down in Eilat, says Idan Hershko, who runs the club at the local rink, success has been beyond all expectations, fueled not only by townies but also by tourists from other parts of the country who increasingly take advantage of the opportunity it offers to cool down in these very hot parts.

“We currently have about 160 people registered in our different programs, including 30 who compete on our team,” he notes.

Hershko, whose father is one of the owners of the mall where the rink is located, explains how Eilat, long associated with snorkeling and sunbathing, came to set the new standards for this cold-weather sport in Israel. “We have a partner who loves to dream, and everything he dreams comes true,” he recounts. “He wanted to open something that didn’t exist before in this town and that’s how he came up with the idea of ice skating. At the recent national figure skating championship our team brought home seven medals. Just imagine − a team from Eilat with seven ice skating medals.”

David Bachar