When rhythmic gymnastics became an official Olympic sport in 1984, Alla Svirsky led the American squad. Nearly 30 years later, her daughter is taking on the same role for the United States at the Maccabiah Games in Israel, where the competition is making a comeback.
“It feels like a repeat of history because my mom served as the first [Olympic] rhythmic gymnastics coach in ’84, and now I’m serving as the first rhythmic coach for the Maccabiah Games in [more than a decade],” said Tonya Berenson, 33, a former Junior Olympian.
Berenson is general manager at the Los Angeles School of Gymnastics in Culver City, an institution that her mother — a three-time Olympic coach — founded.
The Maccabiah Games, also known as the “Jewish Olympics,” were first held in 1932 in the British Mandate of Palestine. Like the Olympics, they are held every four years. The games represent the world’s largest Jewish athletic competition and the third-largest international sporting event.
This year, Israel expects to host about 9,000 competitors from more than 70 countries. The opening ceremonies will take place July 18, and the games will end July 30.
Rhythmic gymnastics includes routines that are choreographed to music, combining body elements and dance with the handling of items such as a rope, hoop, ball or ribbon.
Berenson brings quite a legacy to her job as coach of the American team. She’s been a USA Gymnastics judge and USA Olympic Gymnastics coach. As if that weren’t enough, her mother is a seven-time USA Gymnastics coach of the year, USA Olympic judge and inductee to the Gymnastics Hall of Fame. She also is the executive director of the Los Angeles School of Gymnastics.
“I think it’s exciting because I did this in ’84, and now she’s going to be in Israel coaching the rhythmic gymnastics,” Svirsky said.
Leora Feldman, 16, who attends North Hollywood High School, will be competing in the open rhythmic gymnastics competition. She is one of two local, female rhythmic gymnasts headed to Israel.
“I think she’s a good coach, and she’s very good at managing, and I think she can keep us together very well,” Feldman said of Berenson.
Feldman will be joined at the Maccabiah Games by Shanaya Fox from Westlake Village, who is competing on the junior rhythmic gymnastics team.
During the 1984 Olympics, Svirsky coached Olympic competitor and 1985 Maccabiah gold medalist Valerie Zimring, who was inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2007. After the Olympics, Svirsky went to coach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the Four Continents games, but during this time she also coached two athletes over the phone during the 1985 Maccabiah Games. Zimring was one of those athletes coached over the phone, Svirsky said.
Things came full circle last summer when Berenson was tapped by the Maccabiah board of directors to coach the American team.
“They had approached me at a great time in my life when I had just returned from Israel and [was] still very much connected to the Holy Land,” Berenson said. “So when they asked me to participate I just gladly said, ‘Yeah.’ ”
During the first week in Israel, teams will participate in a program to connect with Israel where they will familiarize themselves with the country as well as go sight seeing. The second week they will begin their training, and the third week will be when the actual competition takes place, Berenson said.
“At this game you cannot coach much; you just have to do moral support,” Svirsky said. “I’m sure she [Berenson] can support them, help them, give them right direction. I’m sure she will do a great job.”
The men’s side of the competition will have a local representative as well. Jake Feldmann, of Broadway Gymnastic School in Los Angeles, will be competing in the men’s junior division. He placed among the top six all-around Jewish gymnasts in the country. Feldmann also placed second on the vault, fourth on the rings and fifth in floor exercise.