Sunday, December 16, 2018

Sometimes truth is actually stranger than fiction. The following story is one such instance. During the summer of 2010, Camp Kanfei Nesharim (an orthodox teen ski and travel South Pacific adventure camp) passed through the small Australian ski town of Cooma, located in the snowy mountains section of New South Wales about six hours outside of Sydney, on our way to the ski slopes of Thredbo, Australia. To the astonishment of the campers and staff, as Camp Kanfei’s bus drove through the town they noticed hanging from the lights and traffic poles throughout the town were the words “Torah is the Best!”

This was a small town with no Jewish community and no Chabad house and we were all astonished why this town would have signs promoting the greatness of Torah. We stopped in the small Chamber of Commerce to inquire and were told that Torah was the first name of the 2010 Olympic halfpipe gold medalist. Her full name was Torah Bright. As it turns out, Torah grew up in this small town of Cooma and had taken the women’s snowboarding world by storm and raised the level of women’s snowboarding to new heights. Her special skills had earned her the gold medal of the 2010 Olympic games and the signs around the town were celebrating her achievements.

As the leader of an orthodox ski and snowboard camp, I wanted to satisfy my curiosity and ascertain if in fact her name’s etymology had anything to do with Judaism. We tracked down Torah’s mother at her local store and learned that Torah was currently training in Utah, but we were invited to come in and hear Torah’s story. The Brights are devout Mormons who grew up skiing and boarding in Cooma. When she was pregnant with Torah, she uncharacteristically did not feel any inspiration and could not settle on a name. As it happens, Torah’s older sister was taking piano lessons from a local teacher who happened to be Jewish (something extremely rare in Cooma) and was close to the Brights. One day, Bright mentioned her lack of inspiration about a name and asked the piano teacher for suggestions. The teacher mentioned that in Judaism the word Torah means spiritual message and that perhaps that would be a fitting name. Bright immediately felt a connection to the name and ultimately used it for her daughter. She explained to us that from birth, Torah was special both in temperament and ability. She further related that Torah grew up not only to be a world class snowboarder, but in contrast to the “free-living lifestyle” of the snowboarding culture, she was very disciplined and modest. She even started her own clothing line to promote a more modest way of dressing. After speaking with Torah on the phone, we left with a Mormon Bible inscribed with a message dictated by Torah.

Each Olympics since then, I check to follow Torah Bright’s career. In Sochi in 2014, she won the silver medal and in 2018, for the current Pyeongchang games, she injured her wrist prior to the Olympics and was not able to be included on the Australia team. Each Olympics, as I watch the snowboarding events, I recall the unlikely intersection of a Jewish piano teacher, a Mormon snowboarder, a Rabbinic ski instructor, a Jewish ski camp and the spiritual message that Torah is meant to bring to the world. I count myself lucky to have had a chance to encounter an Olympic athlete who serves an unlikely reminder that “Torah is the best!”

By Rabbi Benzion Scheinfeld

Rabbi Scheinfeld is a Judaic studies teacher at SAR High School and is founder of Camp Kanfei and Camp Bnos Kanfei, a ski and travel adventure camp founded in 1994.