In 1920 in Antwerp, at the first Olympic Games held after World War I, Moe “Montgomery” Herscovitch became the first Canadian Jew to win a medal. Born in Romania, he had immigrated to Montreal, where he became a football and rugby star. (Long before Sandy Koufax, Herscovitch famously refused to play in an important game because it fell on Yom Kippur.)
He had fought in the Great War as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, and when he returned to Canada, he was selected as a middleweight for Canada’s boxing contingent in Antwerp. He would bring home a bronze, losing in the semifinals to another Canadian, Georges Prud’homme.
Eight years later in Amsterdam, at the first Games to feature the now iconic Olympic flame, Fanny “Bobbie” Rosenfeld (she earned the nickname for her bob haircut) took home two medals – a gold in the 4×100 relay and silver in the 100-metre dash. As a young child, Rosenfeld and her family had left what is now Ukraine to come to Barrie, Ont. (The family later moved to Toronto.)
Rosenfeld would go on to become one of the “Matchless Six,” the first Canadian women to compete in track and field at the Olympics. As historian Allan Levine noted in the May 19, 2016, CJN Backstory feature, in 1950 she “was named Canada’s outstanding female athlete of the first-half of the 20th century.”
Irving “Toots” Meretsky must have felt more than a little uncomfortable at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. But competing in the shadow of Hitler and the Nazis didn’t stop him from winning a medal, a silver in basketball.
Born in Windsor, Ont., Meretsky starred on the local “Ford V-8s” squad, and was the only Jewish member of Canada’s basketball lineup at the ’36 Games (where basketball was a medal competition for the first time). He would join the brave group of 12 Jews who medalled in Berlin. Meretsky continued to play basketball professionally through 1941, after which he returned to Windsor and opened a furniture store. But he stayed close to basketball, and even coached Windsor’s Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue team to an Ontario title in 1952-53.
At the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, Winnipeg’s Mark Berger won bronze in judo. He had come to Canada just seven years earlier from Ukraine. After his L.A. triumph, he went on to win gold at the 1985 Maccabiah Games (he also won gold at the ’81 Maccabiah Games) and silver at the Commonwealth Games the same year. He continues to coach judo to this day, operating the West Kildonan and Ralph Brown Judo Clubs in Winnipeg, and is a member of the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame, joining the likes of Bobby Hull.
Now, the beach volleyball team of Josh Binstock and Sam Schachter are hoping to become the latest Canadian Jews to medal at the Summer Olympics. As reporter Paul Lungen explains in this week’s cover story, the duo is “heading to Rio with the expectation that the podium is well within reach.” If successful, they will join an exclusive group of Canadian Jews who have triumphed on the grandest of sporting stages. Good luck, guys.