Imagine this: placing in two more races means you have a chance of competing at the Olympics. But while registering for the races you realize you do not have the means to pay for the entry fee, transportation and boarding, halting your Olympic dreams. What would you do?
Sports require a professional athlete size paycheck to cover the costs of coaches, equipment and field time. Sponsorships, support from sport associations, government funding, plus your pocket change might not be sufficient.
AJ Edelman and Jared Firestone have had the experience of being so close but not close enough, Edelman an Olympian and captain of Israel’s bobsled team, and Firestone is Israel's seven-time medalist in Skeleton sliding. Both took odd jobs and maxed out their credit cards while scraping together funds to register for races or upgraded equipment while hoping to cross the finish line.
Not wanting any other Jewish athlete to have to duct tape together funds to achieve their athletic goals, Edelman and Firestone founded Advancing Jewish Athletics, AJA, which offers grants to Jewish athletes who can elevate their game with additional financial assistance.
“We’re looking for established athletes who have proven their athletic ability and agree with our mission statement of being proud Jewish and pro-Israel athletes and living Jewish values while pursuing their athletic goals,” Firestone said.
Since AJA was founded in December 2021, Edelman and Firestone have been fundraising and assembling their team.
In addition to Edelman and Firestone, Jordana Balsam and Garrett Myer are on AJA’s board. “Jordana is perhaps as Zionistic, if not more Zionistic, than me and during the lockdown, she was the push I needed to get the Israel bobsled team off the ground,” Edelman said.
Firestone and Myer ran track together at Tulane University. When Myer heard about AJA, he jumped on board. “Being able to give a group of athletes who aren’t well represented a path to pursue their dreams, and use their platform to be better citizens, people and help promote a positive message for Israel and Jews, I couldn’t pass that up,” Myer said.
Proud Jews, and supporters of the Jewish community who are deeply rooted in sports, form the hall-of-fame worthy committee tasked with determining who receives AJA’s grants: Mark Wilf, president of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings; Donna Orender, former commissioner of the WNBA; and Joel Male, former Miami Marlins executive.
In 2023, one male and one female athlete will be the first selected to receive AJA’s grant. Applicants can play any sport and represent any country. In addition to submitting an athletic resume, applicants answer questions about the ways in which Israel and their Jewish identity affect their athlete identity and how they can use their sport to strengthen the Jewish community and Israel.
Edelman began his sports journey with one goal, to use it as a platform to educate about the Jewish community and Israel. “Jews in sports are ambassadors of themselves, their people and their country,” Edelman said. He feels that despite the positive impact Jewish athletes can have there is a vacuum of Jewish athletes. “There is an inherent human struggle in sports that crosses a divide rarely crossed in any other industry... Sports create empathy making athletes relatable... Sports can create positive social change. And yet, in this area, where Jews can have extraordinary impact, Jews are seriously underrepresented,” Edelman said.
It is imperative that the Jewish community empower and advocate for itself. As a community, we have done so in politics, medicine, accounting and even Hollywood—but not in sports. Why not in sports? It is a wide-reaching, familiar and non-intimidating domain where Jewish athletes can make a real impact.
With professional athletes increasingly sharing anti-Israel and antisemitic comments, having proud Jewish athlete advocates, seems like a no-brainer. Yet fundraising has been a challenge. Although donations enabling additional training or new equipment are reflected in statistics and victories, their impact on the athlete’s ability to represent the Jewish community and support Israel is almost impossible to quantify. It is however undoubtedly there. It is a proactive and action-oriented approach to fighting the antisemitism facing the Jewish community and is exponentially more productive than the typical response of sharing a social media post or creating a hashtag.
“I have non-Jewish friends in my sport who, because they know me, wouldn’t stand for someone in our sport making antisemitic comments. Before they knew me, they wouldn’t respond because they didn’t know any Jews personally,” Firestone said.
On December 3, Firestone won the gold medal at the North America Skeleton Cup. Despite his tremendous athletic ability, Firestone missed out on participating in the 2022 Winter Olympics because he did not have enough funding to participate in all of the qualifying races.
“This is why we started this,” Myer said, “because even after he [Firestone] tapped into all his resources, he still couldn’t cover all expenses. This organization helps close the gap for talented Jewish athletes and allows them to chase medals, not dollars.”
Edelman hopes that in 20-30 years AJA will have created an “ecosystem of Jewish athletes and be the dominant organization helping Jewish athletes reach levels in international competitions we have yet to see Jews compete in.”
You can learn more and donate to AJA online at https://www.advancingjewishathletics.org/
Danielle grew up in Teaneck, and made aliyah to Jerusalem following her graduation from Rutgers University. Danielle teaches English at colleges in Jerusalem and has been involved in both formal and informal education for a variety of organizations. Danielle believes that important life skills and lessons are often not ones learned in the classroom, but can be learned from team sports.