In the 1960s, New York-born secular Jew Sam Zeitlin loved cycling and wanted to follow his passion all the way to the Olympics. He trained incredibly hard and even earned himself the nickname, “Brooklyn Lightning.” He made it all the way to the U.S. Pan American Cycling Team and attended the 1967 U.S. Olympic Pre-Trials, where a premature move of raising his arms in victory disqualified him from winning. In the book Living Shabbos by Rabbi David Sutton, it is reported that “One day, [Zeitlin] was nearly knocked off his bicycle as he was training, and someone approached him shouting, “We’ll get you next time, Jew.” Sam realized that as a Jew, he had no chance of making the U.S. Olympic team, and so he decided he would try to get to the Olympics with the Israeli team.” While he attempted to fulfill his lifelong dream in Israel, he would soon be presented with one of the greatest challenges of his life.
Zeitlin was scheduled to teach physical education at a secular school, but when the job fell through, he took one at a more religious school instead. There, he fell in love with Yiddishkeit and started observing Shabbos. His fighting streak never left him and he took up competitive cycling in Israel. “Eventually, he became fully observant, hoping that his religious observance would not hinder his dream of competing in the Olympics.” He went so far that he qualified to be a member of the 1972 Olympic Team. But the anti-religious Israeli Olympic Committee told Zeitlin that his competition would be held on Shabbos. On the one hand, the fulfillment of his Olympic dream was at hand. But on the other, he did not want to break his newfound commitment to Shabbos observance.
Sutton says, “[Zeitlin] had already bought an airline ticket for the trip to Germany for the Olympics, but he decided to forget his dream. He was not willing to violate Shabbos for the sake of competing in the Olympics, despite the fact that this was his life’s dream. Once he decided to withdraw, all the members of the cyclist team dropped out, as well. Israel sent athletes to compete in other sports, but not cycling.” With a heavy heart, Zeitlin turned down the offer to join the team and stayed in Israel as his fellow athletes flew to Munich to represent Israel. There, a Palestinian terror cell known as Black September took eleven members from the Israeli Team hostage in the Olympic Village. In the two-day ordeal that followed, all eleven athletes were killed, along with a German policeman and five of the terrorists. Zeitlin was horrified and simultaneously relieved. Had he chosen to compete, he would have been housed with the Wrestling Team, all of whom were killed.
Shocked, Zeitlin mourned alongside the rest of Israel, as he privately thanked G-d for saving his life*. Zeitlin married and moved back to New York, raising a family in Brooklyn. He continued to coach cyclists until he passed away thirteen years ago. While the Olympics may now be more friendly towards Shabbos-observance, the trail that Zeitlin blazed will never be forgotten. As we cheer on Orthodox Jewish athlete AJ Edelman in the 2018 Winter Olympics, we remember Zeitlin’s commitment to Shabbos and our brothers and sisters whose lives were tragically cut short in Munich.
*While we can and should thank God when we are saved from tragedy, we do not have prophecy in our day and age and cannot say why some are spared and others are killed.