Jewish Roller Derby (JRD) is a nascent international movement of Jewish women who are serious about competitive flat track roller derby and expressing pride in their identity through the sport – and they’re coming to Montreal.
The JRD will be in town to play an exhibition game on Nov. 16 against Team Indigenous Rising at the Claude Robillard Sports Complex, during the annual international championships of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA).
Now in its 15th year, the WFTDA is made up of more than 460 leagues on six continents. While most teams are formed on a geographical basis, Team Indigenous Rising, which was started in 2018, was the first exception, as it’s made up of players who share a common heritage as indigenous peoples, regardless of their country of origin.
This was used as the model for JRD, which was founded soon after and is co-captained by Jodi Kansagor and Martine Dudinsky of Portland, Ore., two serious roller derby athletes.
Flat track roller derby, which emerged about 20 years ago, is not the same rock’em, sock’em spectacle many watched on television as kids. But it is physical, demanding strength, speed and skill.
JRD aims to dispel stereotypes about Jewish women and Jews in contact sports generally, as well as provide a community through a sport that can be played almost anywhere.
Teams of five wearing four-wheeled roller skates play on a flat (not banked, as in the old days) oval track. One member, known as the jammer, is the point scorer and the role of the others is to push (not punch) opponents out of the way, so the jammer can get through.
Kansagor’s origins are Sephardic and Ashkenazic and her ancestors lived in several countries. The commonality is their Judaism, so why play with a team with which she feels no affiliation, she asked herself.
There is a Team Israel, but the co-founders believe Diaspora Jews have a distinct identity.
Team Indigenous Rising was the first supranational team to compete in a WFTDA World Cup, in February 2018. The WFTDA initially was resistant to building on that precedent to include a Jewish team, but Kansagor persisted.
The massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018 made her all the more determined.
This past July, JRD made its debut at RollerCon, an annual roller derby convention and mini-tournament in Las Vegas.
The Montreal exhibition game is their next big outing. This is the first time that the championships, which run from Nov. 15-17, will be held in Canada, and it will include the Top 10 teams in the world.
JRD is sending a symbolic 18 members, including three Canadians, one of whom is Allison Vanek of Toronto, who answered the JRD’s call in August for players to try out.
The 30 year old, who has been playing roller derby in a city league for six years, was thrilled to find a Jewish team.
She’s been playing sports competitively all her life, including hockey and figure skating, and rarely has had Jewish teammates.
Vanek said the fatal shooting at a synagogue in Poway, Calif., last April made her feel that absence keenly for the first time. She was playing in a tournament in Columbia, S.C., at the time.
“None of my 20 teammates were Jewish and they did not understood how I felt (about the shooting). I had two games to play that day and I did not have time to process what had happened. This is a team sport and I had to focus on the game, a big part of which is mental,” she said. “Afterward, I sat alone in my car and cried.”
That was when she realized just how much she longed to have another Jewish person to play with.
“I jumped at the chance when JRD invited people to try out. I knew I absolutely needed to be part of it.… Judaism had always been separate from my athletic endeavours. Now I can combine the two,” said Vanek, who usually plays jammer. Nicknames are customary in roller derby and hers is Trial by Fury, or just Fury.
The team colours are blue and gold, and the logo is a lioness within a star-like circle. The name is in English and Hebrew.
Erica Vanstone, executive director the Philadelphia-based WFTDA, said the organization sees itself as a social movement, as much as a governing body. Today, it embraces the concept of teams representing “nations without borders.”
“As this is a women’s sport, we are concerned with issues like gender and inclusion, and we run the organization differently than most (read: male) sports organizations,” she said. “For example, members vote on our rules and take part in policy discussions. We find our own competitive pathways.”
JRD is conducting an online GoFundMe campaign to help cover the players’ travel costs to Montreal.
Tickets for We are a Nation: A Game Without Borders are available at WFTDA.com/tickets. The game will also be broadcast live, free of charge, on Nov. 16 at 11:30 a.m. at WFTDA.tv.