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March 21, 2013 1:43 am

‘Identity Through Athletics’: The Jewish Sports Hall of Fame’s 2013 Class

avatar by Robert Gluck / JNS.org

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Boxer Boyd Melson, a 2013 inductee into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Photo: U.S. Army.

A weightlifter who was one of the 11 Israeli Olympians killed at the 1972 Munich Olympics by Palestinian “Black September” terrorists, David Berger was not acknowledged at last summer’s London Olympics, but he will get his due on American soil this spring.

Despite online petitioning and other efforts by the global Jewish community, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) did not honor Berger and the other Israelis with an official moment of silence at 2012 Olympics, which marked the 40th anniversary of their deaths. Berger, however, will be posthumously inducted this spring into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Commack, NY.

“This was the right time for this to happen,” Alan Freedman, associate executive director of the Suffolk Y Jewish Community Center and director of the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum (whose home is the Suffolk Y), said of Berger’s induction. “From the first year we dedicated the Hall to the memory of the Munich Eleven.”

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According  to Freedman, the objective of the hall of fame “is to foster Jewish identity through athletics.”

“In a world where stereotype and prejudice have not yet been eradicated, the Hall of Fame reminds us of heroes of the courts and playing fields who have emerged from a people not commonly associated with sports,” Freedman told JNS.org.

This year’s inductees include Berger, Richard Bernstein (marathon runner), Bruce Cohen (lacrosse), Steve Bilsky (basketball), Aly Raisman (gymnast) and Boyd Melson (boxer). The induction ceremonies are set for Sunday, April 21. Captain of the gold-medal winning U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team at the London Olympics, Raisman won an individual gold medal in the floor exercise and a bronze medal on the balance beam.

Melson, born in White Plains, NY, is the grandson of Holocaust survivors. A light middleweight nicknamed “rainmaker,” he wears a Star of David on his trunks. As an amateur, Melson won the 48th World Military Boxing Championship gold medal and was a four-time U.S. Army champion, three-time NCBA All-American boxer, and four-time West Point Brigade Open Boxing Champion. As a professional, Melson has a record of 10-1, with four of his wins coming by knockout. He donates all of the money he earns in his boxing matches to stem cell research.

“Receiving an honor from [the Jewish sports hall of fame] is mind-blowing in that it continues to put my life into perspective,” Melson told JNS.org. “My grandparents both survived the Holocaust. My grandfather, while being put onto a train en route to a death camp, escaped by sliding down the receptor tank full of defecation. It deposited him down the track allowing the train to pass over him until he could run off escaping. That is what he did to fight for his life and allow his bloodline of Judaism to pass down to his children and now his grandchildren in me. I am extraordinarily proud to be his grandson, the grandson of an actual hero. Receiving this award is my direct honor to him for his courage and how he lived his life.”

Melson said the hall of fame “helps break that mold inflicted upon” Jews.

“I am pleased to show that we can excel in all areas of human endeavor, and that is what is of great importance to me in being honored,” he said. “I was raised with a simple credo—if you see people that need help, and you can help, then you help. It is that simple. I am on a mission to help cure spinal cord injuries starting in our home of the United States. I am a soldier in the U.S. Army as an officer in the rank of captain, so the idea of selfless service has indoctrinated itself into me for a long period. I believe what I am doing now and being honored for is just another way for me to follow that ethos of selfless service.”

When Melson entered the ring at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn on Feb. 9, former Rutgers University football player Eric LeGrand, a quadriplegic who broke his neck in a game a few years ago, escorted him to the ring.

Melson said he has helped raise more than $100,000 in two years through his “Team Fight To Walk” campaign in order to help the non-profit JustADollarPlease fund a clinical trial for using umbilical cord cells after the baby is born to cure spinal cord injuries. Late quadriplegic and Superman actor Christopher Reeve’s father-in-law and sister-in-law will attend Melson’s May 16 fundraiser for that cause in Manhattan.

Boyd Melson. Photo: Courtesy Boyd Melson.

Legally blind from birth, Bernstein became an attorney who represents people with special needs.

“My Judaism impacted me in a big way,” Bernstein told JNS.org. “I prayed every day that if I could make it through law school, I would dedicate my life to representing people with disabilities who otherwise don’t have access to representation.”

Bernstein has participated in the full IronMan competition in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where he completed a series of long-distance triathlon races consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride, and a 26.2-mile marathon run. He raced in that order without a break, and was the only blind competitor.

“As a blind runner you take directional cues from your guide,” said Bernstein, who has completed 17 marathons. “The IronMan is much more difficult than a marathon. It is incredibly challenging. It took me 14 hours and 36 minutes. When I dove into the lake, it was very cold. You cannot communicate with your guide while you are underwater and all you have is a rope connecting you to your guide. It is also hard because 2,000 other swimmers who do not realize you are blind keep kicking you in the face. They call this the washing machine.”

When Bernstein was walking in Manhattan’s Central Park in August 2012, a cyclist inadvertently crashed into him, landing him in Mt. Sinai Medical Center for 10 weeks. Bernstein, however, plans to make a complete comeback and compete in his 18th marathon.

“I recognize why God created me and what my mission in life is,” he said.

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