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   1997-04-04: Ice-skater 

San Diego
San Diego

     Beth El

Shm'a on ice

Jewish faith provides the winning edge for young 
skating champion

San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage, April 4, 1997

By Donald H. Harrison

San Diego (special) -- As Kharen Kloeffler began her successful Figure-8 skating for the gold medal in the novice division at last month's U.S. Figure Skating Championship in Nashville, some spectators may have seen her quietly moving her lips in prayer.

Perhaps only the most accomplished bilingual lip-readers would have been able to identify the phrase she whispered to herself then and at every skating competition she has entered for the previous two years: Shm'a Yisroel Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad. 

As the Shm'a prayer declares the Oneness of God, it cannot be said that she was praying directly for herself or for the gold medal which she ultimately won. Rather, she says, she repeats the declaration of Jewish faith as a sort of mantra. "The prayer gives me the energy to be able to do what I need to do," she says.
 Even before going onto the ice -- back in the locker room before putting on her skates -- Kloeffler, 16, likes to get herself focused by repeating less well known prayers from the Kabbalah. She keeps them on a laminated card which she carries with her everywhere.

The prayers in Hebrew script surround the four-letter Hebrew name of God which is printed in large block letters. In one competition, Kloeffler said, "I was getting ready to get on the ice and I didn't want to just leave it lying around. So I asked the lady who puts all the people on the ice to hold it, and she is walking around, looking at it, wondering what it is, and holds it up to me--upside down."

Kloeffler is a member of Congregation Beth El, and attends Shabbat services almost every Friday night and Saturday morning with her parents and older sister, Michal, who sometimes serves as chazzan for the singles services.

Kloeffler's mother, Yasmin, a native of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, tends to be somewhat more religiously observant than the rest of the household. Although she is not shomer Shabbos

Above: Kharen Koeffler mother
Yasmin is a spiritual advisor for
the young skating star.  
-- and will drive to synagogue on Shabbat-- she favors the modest clothes of Orthodox women, including a head covering. The family keeps kosher.

Kloeffler said her mother first suggested the Hebrew prayers to her as a way to ready herself for competition. "I remember the first time I did the prayers and I didn't do very good, so I got mad at it and I didn't want to do it anymore," she said. 

"And my mom kept telling me 'nothing comes the first time. You can't just go out there the first time and skate and expect to do triple jumps; you have to work at it. ' And so I did; I kept doing the prayers and after a while it started working. And I don't think I could have done what I did at the nationals if it wasn't for my prayers." 

The prayers have become such an important part of her training that "it is really funny, I will start a figure, and I will think 'Oh no, I didn't say the shm'a, so I will say it really fast and I won't be thinking about the figure, I will be thinking about saying the shm'a and interestingly enough the first part of the figure, when I am saying the shm'a , is always the best part." 

When Congregation Beth El recites the shm'a during the service, "sometimes I feel my foot moving and I have to think, 'No, we're not skating right now!'" Kloeffler laughs.

The teenager had her bat mitzvah at Beth El, and now is a teacher's aide at that congregation's Viterbi Torah School. She took a high school equivalency test to enable early graduation from secular high school, and although only 16, she already is in her second year at Palomar Junior College. 

She also is active in United Synagogue Youth (USY), and plans to apply to be a participant in next year's March of the Living -- an Agency for Jewish Education trip that combines a visit to the nazi death camps of Eastern Europe with a trip to Israel.

Kloeffler is not certain what four-year university she will transfer to, nor what major she will take, but is considering a possible career in the rabbinate.

For the meantime, however, she has other things to worry about: like will she ever be able to do a triple axle, and will she be able to afford to pay for the coaching and incidental expenses which become a major financial commitment at her level of skating?

Kloeffler saved all the money she earned from part-time positions as a teacher's aide at Torah School, as a beginner's skating instructor at the ice rink, and as a waitress for the Souplantation chain. With her savings, she purchased the pair of skates she wore in the national competition. No small feat: the boots cost $600 and the blades cost $300.

After suffering two heart attacks, her father Dr. Gale Kloeffler, gave up his dental practice on the advice of his physician and now earns what he can by conducting evaluations for law firms of patients whose mouths were injured in accidents.

It is embarrassing, of course, for the Kloefflers to so openly discuss their deteriorated financial situation. But their daughter has proven herself to be an ice skater of championship caliber, and they didn't want her to be denied a chance to go as far as she could -- maybe even to the 1998 Olympics -- because they were too squeamish to let it be known that Kharen needs financial help.

Her mother says that coaches charge $70 an hour for one-to-one sessions. Most nationally competitive skaters get anywhere from two to five hours coaching per day. Kharen would be happy if she could get only two to three hours a week And costumes? Kharen has worn the same outfit for the last three years--one knitted by her grandmother, Dora Mandell, who lives in Rio de Janeiro. Recording music for a choreographed routine also costs money...even the time on the ice at a rink costs money, Yasmin Kloeffler said. 

Because Kloeffler can practice her "figures" without a coach--and does, beginning nearly every morning at 4 a.m.--she has been able to develop to championship level. But she is not nearly so proficient in the more glamorous and telegenic free-style skating. "How can she be?" frets her mother. "How can she know what she is doing wrong with a jump if there is no one to tell her? It is so frustrating."

The young skater's mood, in contrast to her mother's, seems boundlessly enthusiastic during a break in her practice as she describes some of the high points of her career.

In figure skating, young Kloeffler says, precision is the difference between turning in a winning performance and a losing one. The two circles of the Figure-8 which the skaters describe "have to be exactly three times your size," she explains. "It is really hard to get the perfect circle that size and I think that is the problem that people have which fortunately I don't have. I can make a circle the right size and a lot of people make them small."

Also, she said, "there are so many things you need to look at in figures: the tracing, the three turns, the line-up of the circles." In her competitions, she said, "you push off backwards, and then you do a turn at the quarter and come to the top of the circle and then a turn at the quarter again, and then you come back to the front, and the next circle is the same. ...The thing about the figure is that the turns have to be lined up across; the circles have to be lined up on the sides; the circles have to be the same shape; the tracing has to be exact. It takes a lot of time to be exact."
Free-style skaters learn their jumps in a progression, with the easiest jump being the "waltz jump," a half rotation. "Then you progress and do all the single jumps which are a half rotation, and then you get to the axle-- the jump where you do one and a half rotations before you land," Kloeffler relates.

"To go from the single jumps to the axle is one of the biggest steps," Kloeffler says. "There are a lot of people who never get that axle and that is where they quit. It took me a long time to get that axle. I remember when I first landed it"--she giggled at the memory--"my coach (Alicia Risberg) was on the side and she is not a very enthusiastic person- nothing is ever good enough--and I had been practicing it for a long time, kept falling, and finally one day landed it. And she started screaming and jumping up and down and everyone was looking and trying to figure out what she was making all this commotion about."

"It was really neat, and it made me want to do it again--so I did and that was when I was 11, about five years ago," Kloeffler recalled.
Another big moment the same year was "the first time I did a double sowcow: I did that for the first competition. I was in Arrowhead and I had never done it before and I said in competition, "I am going to make my coach proud. I am going to do it,' and I did it! I landed it! I almost forgot to do the rest of my program, I was so happy. I looked over at her and she was (gesturing as if to say) 'and? next?' and I was like, 'Yes! I did it! I really did it!'"

A sowcow -- or "sow" as the announcers call it -- starts with the skater on the outside edge of the left foot going forward, then turning around to the inside edge of the left foot, then jumping and doing two rotations in the air, and landing on the right foot. 

After mastering the sow, Kloeffler went on to the double toe loop, double loop, double flip, double lutz and then on to the double axle "which is the same thing as the axle except that you do 2 1/2 rotations," Kloeffler said. 
"That is the next stumbling block for everybody--it takes a lot of persistence, a lot of years," she said. "I've gotten it, and it's gone away, and it comes back, and then it goes on vacation, and it comes back. "

"I remember the first time I landed it, this was in practice, and once again my coach made that commotion...she started screaming and jumping up and down and had the hugest smile on her face-- you'd think her face was going to crack -- and she shakes you and goes 'oh wow!' " Kloeffler related, again with that infectious giggle. 

"Then came the triple sowcow," she added. "I am currently doing it; it is one of my best jumps now. My coach still makes a commotion every time I land it. I've been doing it a while but it is her favorite jump. That is basically where I am now."

Next she will try to master all the other triple jumps, with the triple toe loop in her immediate future. A triple axle is considered just about the ultimate jump one can do in competition: "I think, maybe only two women did it in competition," Kloeffler said.

The jumps are the building blocks of free-style competition, for which Kloeffler is not yet ready at this stage of her career, and may not ever be without ongoing work with a personal coach. 

But there was excitement aplenty in Nashville when she competed in the nationals. She had placed second in two stepping stone competitions-- for the Southwest Region and for the Pacific Coast -- and both young ladies who defeated her were also in the nationals in Nashville.

"It's a lot of pressure," Kloeffler said. "A lot of people can't handle the pressure but you have to learn to, and when you do, when you are up there on the podium, it's the most amazing feeling. It is really neat to know that you were able to do something like that and you were able to succeed."

Rabbi Moshe Levin, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El, knows the
Kloeffler family well and describes himself as "very supportive" of a scholarship fund to help Kharen continue to skate competitively.
Persons desiring to make a gift (non-tax deductible) to help Kharen may write a check to the San Diego Figure Skating Club (SDFSC) and indicate on the memo line that it is intended for the "Kharen Kloeffler Fund." The address is: PO Box 500774, San Diego 92150-0774.

"Kharen lives very comfortably in two worlds--the world of athletics which presently has very few Jews, and the world of serious, active Judaism, in which presently there are not many athletes," Rabbi Levin said.

"She is a young woman who is in shul almost every Friday evening and Shabbat. She is a teenager who is active in USY, works with adults as a volunteer on projects, assists young parents with their small children when they attend services or programs, and lives out the mitzvot--both the ritual and ethical -- by observing kashrut, Shabbat, all festivals and more."

He said the young skater "proves what we have had to learn over and over again -- one does not need to choose between being a committed Jew and being part of the modern world."

"Kharen Kloeffler shows us that one can be both and that to be a well integrated human being, one should be both!"