As three jet-lagged rowers negotiated Charles River boat traffic Wednesday morning, they marveled at where they were and readied for a history-making day ahead. Roni Vorvoreanu propelled a Resolute sculling shell with American and Israeli flags painted on the side. Strapped into a single equipped for rowers who don’t have the use of their legs, Moran Samuel wore her Israeli national team uniform. Daniel Rutenberg shouted questions in Hebrew about river bends and bridges as the group glided past bursts of colorful fall foliage.
On Sunday, Israel will be represented in the Head of the Charles for the first time. Because of injury and eligibility issues, only Vorvoreanu, a 16-year-old who has rowed for Israel at the junior world championships, will race.
“For me, to see the flag of Israel anywhere is very important,” said Rutenberg, a competitive masters rower and International Rowing Federation masters commission member. “To have Roni rowing in a boat with the Israeli flag is great.”
While Vorvoreanu focused on the competition, the country’s debut at the world’s largest two-day rowing event presented a larger opportunity to the rowers, to trip organizer Avi Nevel and to Resolute Racing Shells and its co-founder Michael Joukowsky, who provided equipment and funding.
They saw Head of the Charles weekend as a chance to raise awareness about para-rowing for athletes like Samuel and to recognize the historic bonds between Israel and New England that include the heroism of Joukowsky’s grandparents during the Holocaust.
The emotion of it all was evident as Nevel watched the Israeli rowers depart the Community Rowing dock and teared up. So it was good that Nevel needed only one word to describe the Israeli team’s journey to the regatta and the special relationship with Joukowsky that helped make it possible.
“It starts with beshert,” said Nevel, using the Yiddish word that means “a perfect match brought about by fate.” “Some people couldn’t see the value of bringing all these people together, but I truly believe in things happening for a reason.”
When Nevel and Joukowsky met in April 2013, the agenda concerned business opportunities. Inspired by his disabled older brother who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, Joukowsky has made it his mission to build better equipment for athletes with physical limitations. Hoping to build better racing shells for para-rowing competitors who have lost limbs or the use of their legs, he wanted to connect with innovative Israeli companies for design and construction input.
After the two men talked business, Joukowsky became curious about Nevel’s personal history. Nevel told him that he grew up in Israel as the son of Holocaust survivors. Then Joukowsky revealed that his grandparents, Martha and Waitstill Sharp of Wellesley, had helped rescue thousands of Jews from Nazi persecution during World War II and had been honored in Israel for their life-risking actions.
At that point, Nevel and Joukowsky believed that their meeting was meant to be. And that they were meant to build more than a business relationship.
“I believe business is a human endeavor and that is why I asked Avi about his life and his family story,” said Joukowsky. “When we learned each other’s family history and what our dreams are, Avi said, ‘Imagine what we could do here.’ ”
From there, the idea of bringing Israeli rowers to the Head of the Charles, spotlighting para-rowing, and celebrating the Sharps emerged.
As Joukowsky grew up in Italy, Lebanon, and Hong Kong, his grandmother would often ask him, “What great thing are you going to do for the world?” He sees his work with the para-rowing community as one answer.
“Keeping up with the Joneses is easy,” said Joukowsky. “Keeping up with this family history is very hard. My grandparents were the inspirers. They taught us by example. They taught us don’t stand and be passive, get in there.”
Joukowsky knows his grandparents’ story well, having helped his grandmother write her memoirs. He typed as his grandmother told him how the couple left Wellesley for Prague in February 1939 to help Jewish and political refugees escape from Nazi-occupied territories.
Waitstill, a Unitarian minister, and Martha, a social worker, set up a network of agencies across Europe to make the rescues possible. Nearly arrested by the Gestapo, the Sharps relocated to Lisbon in June 1940 to continue their rescue work.
Many times while typing the memoir, Joukowsky would stop and say, “You did what? You’re kidding me, right?” He couldn’t believe the extent of their efforts and the number of lives saved.
Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and research center, verified the Sharps’ account and gave them the title “Righteous Among the Nations,” a special distinction for non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.
Only four Americans have received the honor, and they join famous rescuers such as Oskar Schindler. A screening of the film “Two Who Dared: The Sharps’ War” by Joukowsky’s older brother Artemis took place at Brandeis Saturday night and was attended by the Israeli rowers and three people saved by the Sharps.
“To hear about his family heritage and how they contributed to rescues is very inspiring,” said Samuel. “We are here today because of those people.”
Next year, Samuel hopes to row in the Head of the Charles, benefiting from Resolute’s work in para-rowing as Joukowsky carries on his grandparents’ legacy of taking action and changing lives. Samuel, once a member of the able-bodied Israeli national women’s basketball team, suffered a spinal stroke at 24 and lost the use of her legs. Now, at 32, she is a para-rowing champion, though she cannot compete this weekend because the Head of the Charles doesn’t offer her category for rowers who use only arms and shoulders in a single.
Rutenberg was slated to race in a double with para-rower Reuven Magnagey, but Magnagey injured his back. Late last week, Rutenberg thought he could find a new partner, but there was not enough time to make any suitable arrangements before the regatta.
As Samuel moved beside Rutenberg on the Charles River during the Israelis’ light Wednesday workout, she commented on how her para-rowing seat made her less efficient and how it lacked aerodynamics. Because of how poorly the seat held her, Samuel wasted much of her power and energy with side-to-side motion that could not be controlled. These were the same complaints she made to Joukowsky when he visited Israel in July to interview physically-limited athletes in a variety of sports and meet with companies that could help create better adaptive equipment.
“In para-rowing, the athletes have improved, but the equipment has stayed the same,” said Samuel. “Michael told us a lot about what they’re trying to do and their vision for para-rowing. They asked us questions about what we need and what we think could help para-rowing. I talked mostly about the seat and the weight.
“We came here to show the rowing community that it’s important to us to aim as high as we can in everything.”
At the end of November, Resolute plans to release a new para-rowing seat that will be form-fitting, essentially molded to the many different body types of para-rowers. The new design will help the rowers direct more of their power and energy into each stroke.
Made out of carbon fiber, the new seat construction also will lighten the boats, which now weigh more than 50 pounds.
“I’m answering my grandmother’s question with innovation,” said Joukowsky, who also visited Yad Vashem in July, going back there for the first time since his grandparents were honored during a ceremony in 2006. “I want people with disabilities to feel the freedom of being on the water. I want them to have the best technology so that they can experience that kind of freedom.”