For one Jewish family in New Zealand, August began with one daughter competing in the summer Olympic Games and winning a gold medal. It draws to a close with a second daughter celebrating the bat mitzvah many feared she would not live to attend.
To say the least, it has been an emotional time for the Shukruns as they prepare to celebrate these two hard-won victories together as a family.
“You can say that we’ve been through the entire spectrum this month – the victory of basic survival and the victory of reaching the skies,” says 50-year-old Shuki Shukrun, whose daughter Jo Aleh (known as “Qesem” to her family) clinched the gold medal for New Zealand sailing in the women’s 470 regatta at Weymouth Bay with her racing partner Olivia Powrie.
Aleh is the first Jewish Kiwi ever to become an Olympic gold winner and she joined Aly Raisman to become the second Jewish gold medalist at the 2012 London Olympics.
The family will reunite in Israel on Sunday, when 26-year-old Qesem arrives to attend the bat mitzvah of her half-sister, Shefa, who has spent most of her life in a very different type of uphill battle: As a baby, she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a chronic disease of the lungs. She and her 10-year-old brother, Yam, both suffer from this life-threatening genetic disorder and have spent most of their young lives in and out of hospitals.
It was at her own bat mitzvah, 14 years ago, that Qesem informed her family of her Olympic dream – and to prove she was serious, she cashed in all her bat mitzvah checks to buy her first racing boat. “The fact that she will be here at Shefa’s bat mitzvah, after having won an Olympic gold medal, is very symbolic for us,” says 53-year-old Tali Shukrun, Shuki’s second wife and the mother of Shefa and Yam. “Qesem has been a role model and inspiration for Shefa, and I believe this will broaden Shefa’s horizons as well. It also strengthens us as a family.”
After David Blatt, the Israeli coach whose Russian basketball team won the bronze, Qesem was the closest Israel came to winning a medal in the 2012 Olympics and certainly the closest it came to gold. Following her win, her declaration that the gold medal “belongs to Israel” in part was perhaps one of the few bright spots in what were rather disappointing games for Israel.
Even for a Jewish family, the Shukruns have a rather complicated story. Qesem’s mother, Daniella, was born in England to an Israeli father and non-Jewish mother, and she was raised in New Zealand. When she was 18, Daniella came to Israel to visit her grandmother and ended up converting and enlisting in the Israeli army. After she completed her military service, she enrolled in the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, and it was then that she met Shuki, who had been born and raised in the southern development town of Dimona.