Meet the Orthodox Jewish figure skater at the Beijing Olympics

Less than a year ago, Hailey Kops was studying at a seminary in Jerusalem.
Hailey Kops and Evgeni Krasnopolski skating at Olympic qualifiers in Oberstdorf, Germany in September 2021. (Photo: Steven Kops/Facebook)

At 19 years-old, Hailey Kops will be the first Orthodox woman to compete for Israel at the Winter Olympics. The New York native will be making her Olympic debut in Beijing as a pair skater with her partner, veteran skater Evgeni Krasnopolski. 

Less than a year ago, Kops was in a completely different place. A Modern Orthodox Jew from West Orange, New Jersey, Kops spent a gap year studying at a women’s seminary in Jerusalem. At that point, she had put competitive skating behind her, she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Her plans were to attend Touro College’s nursing school in Manhattan. 

On the day she got home from Israel, in June 2021, Kops’ plans took a turn when she got a call from Boris Chait, the president of Israel’s Ice Skating Federation, who offered her a chance to vie for a spot on the country’s Olympics team.

Hailey Kops and Evgeni Krasnopolski at Olympic qualifiers in Oberstdorf, Germany in September 2021. (Photo: Absolute Skating)

“I did not necessarily see myself coming back to skating. But the opportunity [Chait] offered was something it would be crazy to refuse,” she said.

Despite having been off the ice for two years prior to then, Kops and Krasnopolski finished in the top three at the Olympics qualifier event in Germany last September, meaning they’d secured a spot at the Beijing Olympics.

“[Kops and Krasnopolski] made history by qualifying for the Olympics after only training together for three months,” Chait told the Jewish News Syndicate. “Usually, pairs have to be together for years and years. They made it by beating out very capable teams.”

Here are some things to know about Kops Jewish identity:

The basics

Kops was born in New York City to Lisa and Steven Kops. She grew up Modern Orthodox in West Orange, New Jersey.

Kops started skating at three years old, coached by her mother, Lisa, who is a United States Figure Skating Association gold medalist.

“Every morning except for Shabbat, Lisa had the task of waking up Hailey at 5:15 in order to get skating in before school,” her dad, Steven Kops, said in a Facebook post. “Skating in the Kops household is mandatory. I played hockey growing up and Lisa was an accomplished figure skater and coach.”

It was always a dream of hers to skate for Israel

“It had always been a dream of mine to skate for Israel,” Kops said in an interview. “As a Jewish religious girl raised Modern Orthodox, I know that Israel is our home. It was always part of my plan to try to skate for Israel.”

Kops and her mother became Israeli citizens in 2013 when Hailey joined Israel’s National Juniors Figure Skating team. 

“I didn’t think twice about becoming a citizen of Israel,” she said. Just being Jewish and growing up Modern Orthodox, I always had a connection to Israel even if I do live in the U.S., so to become a citizen was really cool to me.”

Aside from the gap year, Kops spent a summer in Israel and has visited multiple times, including for three national skating championships, she said.

Hailey Kops and Evgeni Krasnopolski in practice. (Photo: Steven Kops/Facebook)

Does Kops skate on Shabbat?

Modern Orthodox athletes who observe Shabbat are an extremely rare sight in the Olympics, even on Israel’s teams, Chait told JTA. 

In Beijing, Kops and Krasnopolsky will be skating on Shabbat, but Kops is comfortable balancing her commitments to skating and religious observance.

“From a young age, I integrated the two. It is definitely normal for me,” she said. “When there’s a will, there’s a way.” 

She grew up attending Jewish summer camp

Kops attended Camp Lavi, a Modern Orthodox camp located in Lakewood, Pennsylvania.

“Hailey would attend camp for one month but she could not be away from the ice for the entire summer,” Steven explained. “Lisa arranged for Hailey to skate with Galit during the month of August.”

During the second half of the summer, Kops would train with Galit Chait, the head coach of the Israeli Skating Federation, who herself is a two-time Olympian.

Being Orthodox and a competitive skater wasn’t always easy

Hailey Kops and Evgeni Krasnopolski skating at Olympic qualifiers in Oberstdorf, Germany in September 2021. (Photo: Steven Kops/Facebook)

Kops has never enjoyed skating as much as she does now, she told the Jewish Link. Her team is respectful of her being shomer Shabbat and knowing she won’t have her phone with her or take pictures on Saturday. But in the past, it wasn’t always that way.

“I would say I am vegetarian because it was too uncomfortable to go into the whole kosher thing,” she said.

AJ (Adam) Edelman was Israel’s first Orthodox Winter Olympian. A skeleton athlete, he took part in the 2018 Pyeongchang games and was supported by the Israeli delegation, providing him with kosher food and accommodations needed to maintain his Orthodox lifestyle, according to the ‘Sports Rabbi,’ Joshua Halickman.

She spent last Sukkot at Olympic qualifiers

Olympic qualifiers in Oberstdorf, Germany, were held last September overlapping with the holiday of Sukkot. 

Kops traveled with Krasnopolski and their coaches to Germany. Her parents joined them, and they came prepared with a lulav, etrog and their pop-up sukkah!

“Lisa prepared everything for us to have a Sukkot in Germany,” Kops dad, Steven, wrote in the Facebook post recounting the experience. “She bought a portable pop-up Sukkah, prepared all of our meals, and I put a lulav and esrog in my bag.” 

At the hotel, Steven wrote, they found a perfect place to prop up their Sukkah.

“I am not sure how many Sukkot have ever been built in Oberstdorf, but Lisa’s grandfather, Max, who was born in Germany prior to the war would have been extremely proud that 75 plus years later we were celebrating Sukkot in Germany, cheering on his great granddaughter who represents Israel in her bid to try and qualify for the Olympics.”

That wasn’t the only Jewish moment at qualifiers

On the day of the event, Steven and Lisa Kops were sitting front row.

“As Hailey stepped on the ice Lisa told me to say the blessing that you give your children Friday night at the Shabbat table,” Steven recalled in the Facebook post. “I raised my hands and said in Hebrew:

”יְשִׂימֵךְ אֱלֹהיִם כְּשָׂרָה רִבְקָה רָחֵל וְלֵאָה”

(May you be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.)

The music they skated to was Josh Groban’s cover of the 1965 “Impossible Dream” and that’s exactly how the outcome of their performance felt, he said.

“Lisa was saying Tehilim. It was all in G-ds hands, as it always is… it was as if an angel was guiding their feet and placing them down exactly where they needed to be,” he continued. “Even for the dreaded triple toe which she had not landed all day. Miraculously, at the right time and where it mattered most she landed it beautifully.”

Representing Israel has been ‘the greatest honor’ for her family

“I think that every parent wants their children to chase their passion and dreams—no matter how big, challenging and potentially unattainable those dreams can actually be,” Steven said, noting that Hailey representing Israel “has been the greatest honor for us as a family.”

Hailey Kops and Evgeni Krasnopolski skating at Olympic Qualifiers in Oberstdorf, Germany in September 2021. (Photo: Steven Kops/Facebook)

Two of his three siblings live in Israel, in addition to a host of extended family, he said.

“I don’t think there will be a dry eye in the room when Hailey and her fellow Israeli athletes walk during the opening ceremony carrying the Israeli flag and wearing the Israeli flag on their jackets.”

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