I'm sitting in my window seat, getting comfy for the second leg of my flight from the U.S. back home to Israel, when the Israeli Olympic Judo winner – the one whose hand his defeated Egyptian opponent would not shake – sits in the aisle seat. His coach sits down between us.
Now, I grew up in L.A. and really don't get all caught up in the hoopla of Hollywood. But I find myself honored and humbled to be seated with Ori Sasson and his coach, Oren Smadga. It's eye-opening and fascinating to have these modern-day heroes of Israel sitting in economy, folding their massive legs into these tiny spaces.
I hate to be a star-gazer so I introduce myself, congratulate them, and say I will not bother them — but only after one request. I ask Ori Sasson to record a video for my dad, who is ill, and tell him to be a fighter and get better faster.
Ori does it beautifully and with sensitivity.
But every Israeli is family and so, of course, we get to talking and laughing and sharing family secrets within five minutes.
Coach Smadga tells me that when Ori's handshake was refused, he knew it would be awesome for the world to see that. He wanted the world to see with their own eyes that even in an Olympic sport where politics should be excluded, the hate is overwhelming toward the Jews even though as usual, the Jew comes to the Muslim with outstretched arms of peace.
He then proudly goes through his iPhone pictures showing me the sequence of events how this went down. They got hundreds of Facebook messages that Arabs will kill Ori if he touches the Egyptian. And as Ori was approaching the ring, all the Egyptian’s mates and coaches were pounding their chests and saying, “Allahu Akbar!”
I ask Ori about his involvement in Judaism, and he is proud to say he put tefillin (a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah worn by male observant Jews during weekday morning prayers) on the day of the winning match. He consents when I told him he also must put tefillin on tomorrow in showing thanks to the same God. I mention what the Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson] said, that tefillin protects the land and people of Israel. Ori says his favorite line from the Rebbe, "The will of a person shows his personality." Who knew?
I'm working on a project to support Israeli victims of terror and ask them to get involved. Both Coach and Ori say they would be "honored and it would be a pleasure" to visit hospitals and wounded soldiers or other victims of the senseless terrorism that's been rampant in our land. They are excited to do it.
The flight is almost done, and they're all getting into the team spirit. There will be a big welcome at Ben Gurion Airport. The happiness and pride is tangible. Everyone is abuzz and feeling like we all just won the medal. Ori's joy is our joy. Jews are one big family. No doubt he fought hard to win the medal for himself, but I believe he worked equally hard to be a champion for his country and his people!
These are representatives of the land of Israel and everything we stand for as a nation of Jews. May Hashem watch over them and protect them. Am Yisrael chai!
—Hindel Schwartz Swerdlov, special report for The Fellowship