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Olympian Aly Raisman's rabbi says her gold medals inspire Jewish community

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  August 8, 2012 02:46 PM

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The rabbi of the Newton synagogue where Aly Raisman attends said he and the Jewish community have been proudly looking on over the last few weeks as she has made her way to Olympic glory.

The Raismans joined Temple Beth Avodah, a reform synagogue, in Newton about 15 years ago, and put Aly through Hebrew school starting when she was in pre-school all the way up until her Bat Mitzvah at age 13, said Rabbi Keith Stern, who has been at the temple for 16 years.

"I would say her family is a very proud Jewishly-connected family, in terms of their sense of who and what they are," Stern said in an interview Wednesday. "It reflects on what they do in the world and on their basic values."

Stern said that he has known Raisman since she was a little girl, and praised her caring personality.

"Truly, from pre-school on, she has always been a sweet, confident, very focused person, who always comes through and who cared about other people," Stern said. "She has a natural inclination to make sure people are okay and to make sure they're happy."

He also said that Raisman's personality traits shone as she served as captain and led the American gymnastics team to gold.

"Watching her during Olympics, she is the perfect captain because she has this ability to look at the group and make sure everybody is okay, and does it in a way that’s so natural for her," Stern said. "I think it significantly reflects the idea that being a Jew is worrying not just about your own immediate family, but also the people you’re with - their welfare, their needs. That’s a significant reflection of a Jewish upbringing."

Stern said he liked Raisman's choice of "Hava Nagila," a popular Hebrew folk song associated with celebrations, as the background music of her floor routine.

He said the version Raisman used "rocked the way she needed it to rock," and speculated that Raisman might have used it to pay tribute to the 40th anniversary of the 1972 terrorist attack on 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.

"In a way, it indicates Aly’s Jewish life is so integrated into her entire soul, that I don’t think she was looking to make a statement as a Jew," he said. "I think it was so natural to her that it's more like, why wouldn’t she use the Hora? It shows again her confidence and tradition in a really fundamental way."

Stern said he thinks Jewish Americans feel connected to Raisman, and have been cheering her on at the Olympics. Rabbi Jay Perlman of the Temple Beth Shalom in Needham hit a similar theme in a recent blog post, mentioning the song she chose and her connection to the community.

"Aly, not surprisingly, was exceptionally gracious following (as she was graceful during) yesterday’s individuals competition. She celebrated her teammates. And she expressed appreciation for all that she had accomplished and for those who have supported her,'' Perlman wrote. "We are so happy to see Aly shine as a role model of dedication, hard work, and team work. And I know that we all look forward to – soon – welcoming her and her family home to Needham.''

Stern, in an interview Wednesday, added: "I think we’re all puffing out our chests as far as we can go - we’re all so proud of her," he said. "Jewish people often do this - if something happens to another Jewish person, it becomes personal, and now every Jewish family feels related to Aly in some sort of unique way, and feels pride in her success."

"The idea of a highly-trained, highly-successful athlete really reflects a kind of pride of who and what we are as Jews living in the world today, particularly as American citizens," Stern said.

And when Raisman finally steps off the plane from London next week?

"I’ll be in line to greet her with Wheaties and Sports Illustrated," Stern laughed. "We’ll be waiting at the temple whenever the Raismans are ready to join us."

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Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com

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