Israeli skiers receive warm welcome in valley | VailDaily.com

Israeli skiers receive warm welcome in valley

VAIL — There's nothing like a big community hug to make four kids feel at home when they aren't.

Three Israeli skiers are among the dozens of international racers trying to qualify for today's and Sunday's FIS 2015 Alpine World Ski Championships races.

For the two weeks of the World Championships, members of the B'Nai Vail Congregation have opened homes and hearts to the Israeli athletes — Itamar Biran, 16, Gitit Buchler, 21, and Ronnie Kiek, 22. For good measure, they also took in Yohan Goutt Goncalves, 20, and the only member of the East Timor ski team.

"The people from here are lovely," said Abraham Last, chairman of the Israeli Ski Federation.

Rock stars

When the skiers walked into B'Nai Vail's Sabbath program last Friday, 200 people packed the Vail Interfaith Chapel, said Rabbi Joel Newman with the B'Nai Vail Congregation. The chapel erupted with cowbells and cheers. They were like rock stars, Newman said.

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"They said they didn't need to stand on the podium to win the gold. They've already done that in our hearts," Newman said.

Last Saturday, the Israeli Ski Team members offered to ski with kids from B'Nai Vail congregation. Fifty kids showed up at the top of Lionshead.

"They probably won't remember anything they're supposed to learn from classes, but they'll remember that for the rest of their lives," Newman said.

At the end they sang the Israeli national anthem. If there was a dry eye in the house, then they were lying eyes.

"The impact it had on the B'Nai Vail Congregation is priceless," Newman said. "When we were singing our prayers, the team was in the front row crying. The connection was that close."

The skiers and some others were presented yarmulkes sporting the American and Israeli flags.

They just finished their two years of service in the Israeli army, a duty they would never shirk, Newman said.

"Israelis have a worldwide connection. It's a nation, to be sure, but it's also a nation of faith," Newman said.

From Mount Hermon to the worlds

The Israeli skiers all started in the same place, Mount Hermon, the only ski mountain in Israel.

Stanley Rubenstein is team captain and helped create the Israeli Ski Federation in the early 1970s. He used to ski on Mount Hermon, but in the early 1970s there was only snow for about two months.

Climate change changed things, and soon there were only about two weeks of snow each year. Now, most of the time there isn't any, so they train where they can. This week, the Israeli skiers are training in Vail.

At 16 years old, Biran is the World Championships' youngest competitor.

"My dad learned about it," he said.

He's in school in London and spends most of his time in France, where he skis in the mornings and works in the afternoons — just like the rest of us.

"It's amazing here," Biran said.

It's his first time to compete in a World Championships event, and his first trip to the United States.

"Vail and Beaver Creek are amazing," he said.

Kiek started skiing when she was 6 years old when her dad took her to Mount Hermon, four hours from their home near Tel Aviv. Ski racing followed when she was 11 years old, and she earned her spot on Israel's national team a few years later. She has been skiing full seasons for the last five or six years.

"I thought it sounded like a good idea, and it was," she said.

Ronnie's dad agrees, mostly.

"I took her to the only mountain in Israel, which is four hours away near the Lebanon border, and she fell in love with skiing," he said. "I could have taken her to a local swimming pool, and maybe I still could, but would I buy her for her birthday — a bathing suit? I don't think so," he said smiling at his daughter.

Buchler says she does it because it's fun.

"That's why I'm here. That's why I do it," she said. "It's amazing here. The people are so warm and friendly."

Goncalves is East Timor's one-man World Championships team. He's used to it. He was East Timor's one-man Olympic team in Sochi. It's an isolated island nation north of Australia.

"I was all by myself carrying the flag," he said, smiling at the memory.

He has been palling around with the Israelis during the World Championships.

His dad is from France and started him skiing when he was 2 years old.

This is his first time in the U.S., and he says he has really improved during the past couple days.

There are 50,000 skiers in Israel, a small country with one ski mountain where snow tends to be rare. Worldwide, only about 2 percent of the population claims to be skiers, Last said.

"Israel has a large population of skiers. Most fly to Europe," Last said. "It costs a lot, and the population is small."

The Israeli Ski Federation gets very little money from its government, and parents pick up the tab. No one in the federation gets paid, Last said.

"Most parents are crazy and push their children," he said laughing. "The parents and the athletes are both crazy."

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

Chabad Shabbat dinner

Chabad Jewish Center will host a community Shabbat dinner to honor Israel’s Ski Team, at 6 p.m. Friday. The suggested donation is $36, and sponsorship opportunities are available. For more information and to RSVP visit http://www.JewishVail.com or call 970-476-7887.