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A Gold Medal for Integrity

September 5, 2022 | by Paula Levin

Yuval Levi, 17 faced his biggest life decision: represent his country on the world stage in a make or break game, or represent his people’s most dearly held value.

He’s only 17 but Yuval Levi is already one of South Africa’s best ice hockey players. A top goal scorer and his team’s most valuable player, he scored 8 goals and 2 assists in his first international tournament in Bosnia last year, the highest for any South African player ever. The team returned home to a hero's welcome. “We felt like celebrities. It was awesome.”

The tournament in Bosnia was also a watershed moment for Yuval’s Jewish journey.

Yuval and his friend Noam Levin after an inter provincial game

It was the first time since he started playing ice hockey at age seven that games were scheduled on Shabbat. After much introspection and a heart-to-heart with his dad Nissim, who said he would support Yuval no matter what he chose, Yuval took the difficult decision to abstain from his team’s second game against Luxembourg, after winning the first game 7-4.

They were all incredibly understanding and respectful and said that they looked up to me for being true to my religion.

When we found out the game would be on Shabbat,” Yuval said in an exclusive interview, “I didn’t know what to do. It was one of only four key games and my team was counting on me. My sister in Israel asked her rabbi if there was any way I could play and the answer came back that it was not in the spirit of Shabbat. When I made the international team at 14 I knew the issue would eventually come up, but I didn’t know how hard it would be. I’ve been brought up to do the right thing and I knew that playing on Shabbat would be betraying my values. I prepared a whole speech to explain to my coach why I couldn’t play, but when I walked into his hotel room, I was so nervous my mind went blank. He just looked at me and said, ‘I know, it’s okay. I’m proud of you.’ Because I am assistant captain, I then called a team meeting and told the guys I was sorry I wouldn’t be able to play. They were all incredibly understanding and respectful and said that they looked up to me for being true to my religion.”

Without Yuval, who scored a hat-trick in the first game against the same team, South Africa lost its second game to Luxembourg. That cost South Africa the silver medal.

Yuval receives a painting from the South African embassy in Mexico at a tournament in July.

“My father and I had walked to the stadium on Shabbat in our suits and tzitzit to show our support and the coach came up to me straight afterwards and said that I should not feel bad for letting my team down, because a team isn't one person, and that he was really proud of me for standing up for my values.

The other teams thought I had missed the game because I was injured, but when I walked onto the rink to receive my award for Best Player, they realized I wasn’t playing because I am a Jew - and it was the sabbath. Players from every team then came up to me and said the same thing: ‘Respect.’ That was an amazing feeling. The Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers says that if you make God’s will your will, He will make your will His will. That’s how I plan to live my life, and I know I can’t lose when I put God first.”

Yuval with the chairman of the International Ice Hockey Federation, receiving a Tissot watch engraved with the tournament’s details at the back, for Best Player.

Despite the pressures of grade 11 school work, Yuval spends over an hour at the gym every day (except shabbat), trains twice a week and plays games every Sunday at 5:30 AM. “The rink is quite far from my home, so we have to be up at four. On weeknights, I only get home from training at ten and still have to do my homework and be up early every morning. But I’m a very driven person, and I don’t settle for being mediocre. I give everything my all,” he says.

Yuval is looking forward to trying out for the Men's Open team in December and to South Africa hosting the Under 18 Tournament in Cape Town next March. “As the host country, we get to create the schedule and my coach says games will only be on Sundays so that I can definitely play.”

As they say, don’t change for the world, let the world change for you.

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