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PAGE 16A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, MARCH 13, 2009 I r Beijing to Birthright: S.F. gold medalist 'fired up' about Israel By Amanda Pazornik j. the Jewish weekly of northern california SAN FRANCISCOmOver the past six months, Ben Wildman-Tobriner has been immersed in two very signifi- cant bodies of water. The first was the Olympic swimming pool in Beijing, a place that drew the focus of the world during Michael Phelps' record-breaking gold medal run in AugusL There, Wildman-Tobriner helped the U. S. freestyle relay team set a world record, and earned a gold iedal in the process. Four months later, Wild- man-Tobriner was languidly floating in Israel's Dead Sea. Though he wasn't chasing any records in thatsalty swim- ming hole, he definitely was part of a milestone: Wildman- Tobriner was there after hav- ing been selected as Birthright Israel's symbolic 200,000th participant. The San Francisco native, who never took advantage of a free Birthright trip to Israel when he was an undergradu- ate at Stanford University, was selected for the honor by Birthright CEO Gidi Mark. On Dec. 29, Wildman=Tobriner joined a cohort of fellow 20-somethings for a 10-day adventure in the Holy Lnd. His itinerary mimicked that of a traditional Birthright ex- cursion-exploring Tel Aviv, peering up at the Western Wall, hanging out with Israeli soldiers--but with a few extra responsibilities thrown in. For example, at the "Mega Event'--a massive party in Je- rusalem that brings together all the Birthright participants visiting Israel at one particu- lar time for a night of music and mingling--Wildman- Tobriner was directly in the spotlight. The graduate of San Fran- cisco's Lick-Wilmerding High School introduced Israeli President Shimon Peres to the throng of nearly 4,000 visit- By Tamar Snyder New York Jewish Week NEW YORK In Susie Fishbein's latest cookbook. "Kosher by Design Lightens Up," she advocates that hosts forgo serving soda in favor of setting up a "spritzer bar" featuring cranberries, limes and even pureed watermelon along with fruit juice and assorted pitchers of seltzer and water. "Slide berries onto skewers and use them as swizzle sticks in the drinks for flavor and whimsy," she suggests. To get in the spirit, she says, she puts out her Pen- guinman in-home seltzerand soda maker manufactured by SodaStream that turns water that is bottled or straight from the tap into fizzy, bub- bly seltzer. "It's quite the conversation piece," she told The Jewish Week. "My kids love it. They don't ask for soda anymore." Fishbein is not the only one bragging about SodaStream's in-home seltzer and soda makers. "I have a romantic attachment to the product itself." says Sandra Gold- man, an avid seltzer drinker and an active member of the ing students, and presented philanthropists Miriam and SheldonAdelsonwith a special gift in recognition of their support for the Birthright program. "It was an honor," said the 24-year-old Wildman- Tobriner. "I'm the name and the face of the thousands of participants. It was a thrill." And the highlights kept coming. On the last full day of his trip, Wildman-Tobriner visited Bet Halochem, a reha- bilitation center in Tel Aviv for injured Israel Defense Forces soldiers. He assumed he'd be giving lessons to novice swim- mers, but that wasn't exactly the case. "They were high-level swimmers who I could com- municate with on a sophis- ticated level," he said. "We had a great time and Shared secrets." The best-kept one? "They all wanted to hear my thoughts on how to swim fast." As part of the-Birthright experience, Wildman-Tobri- ner also spent a significant amount of time with active IDF soldiers, who openly shared their opinions with his group as the air strikes in Gaza escalated. The air raids began just three days before his Birthright group arrived" at Ben Gurion Airport. "Without a doubt, it was the hot topic that dominated most of the country, this constant overhang of war," Wildman-Tobriner recalled. "It was difficult because here we were, tourists on the 'trip of a lifetime,' and yet so close to us. there was unbelievable violence. "We weren't close enough to be in danger, but I'm sure my morn was happy when I came back, being the Jewish mother that she is." His mother. Stephanie Wildman, is a law professor at Santa Clara University; his father, Michael Tobriner, is an attorney in San Francisco. Backwhen Ben was young, the Wiidman-Tobriner family often opted for swim meets rather than attending Sat- urday morning services at their synagogue, Congrega- tion Sherith Israel in San Francisco. As the symbolic 200,000th Birthright participant, Wild- man-Tobriner views his task as "firing up" young adults' connection to Judaism. And whenever possible, he will be a spokesman for Birthright, such as when he was inter- viewed on the Fox Business Channel (a link to the clip, with a spotlight on Witdman- Tobriner, cat, be foundatwww. birthrightisrael.com). Wildman-Tobriner is not the first Jewish celebrity to tour Israel with Birthright. NASCAR driver Ion Denning and actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who played Tony Soprano's daughter, Meadow, on "The Sopranos," each went on a trip. Roughly 20,000 Jewish young adults take their first organized, educational visit to Israel every year thanks to the Birthright program--and Wildman-Tobriner is hoping to inspire more to do the same. "I saw 40 kids who did not know each other be put on a bus and come outa closely knit group," he said. "If I can do anything to help get more kids on the trip, itwill be invaluable. The impact is undeniable." Wildman-Tobriner plans to go JCC-hopping in the Bay Area to talk about his experi- ence, though no specific dates have been set. "The trip changed my life," he said. "It is a very powerful experience regardless of how religious you are. If you're spiri- tual. you can find emotion and power at some point along the trip--atthe top of Masadaorat the Western Wall or anywhere in between." In August, Wildman-Tobri- her made his Olympic debut at the National Aquatics Center, a 17,000-seat venue sitting oil nearly eight acres of land in Beijing. Because he was expected at the facility, dubbed the "Water Cube," a mere 48 hours after the opening ceremony, Wildman-Tobriner heeded U. S. Olympic swimming Coach Eddie Reese's advice and skipped the Aug. 8 opening ceremony. "Hesaid 'Ifyouwant towalk [withtheU.S. Olympic teamin the Parade of Nations], I'll let you. But I'm goingto ask you one question--what did you come here to do?' It wasn't a hard choice." Many athletes, after years of training and anticipation, wouldn't miss the entry march for anything. But Wildman- Tobriner decided to watch the entire opening ceremony on a television screen in the Olympic village, alongside some other members of the U. " S. team. "I could still feel the fireworksvibrate,"he recalled. Turns out it was a smart decision. Swimming the third leg in the heats of the 4X!00 feestyle relay preliminaries on Aug. 10, Wildman-Tobriner contrib- uted to a world-record time of 3 minutes, 12.23 seconds with teammates Matt Grevers, Cullen Jones and Cars Nathan Adrian. The previous record was 3 minutes, 12.46 seconds by a U. S. team in 2006. "I was on autopiloU' he said. "I wasn't thinking a whole lot and just let my instincts take over. I was just trying to embrace the moment." The next day was the 4X100 freestyle final, and Wildman- Tobriner--though he helped the United States qualify for the final--was not part of the U.S. squad that would be swimming for the gold. Jones, Phelps, Garrett We- ber-Gale and Jason Lezak teamed up to shatter their teammates' world record with a time of 3 minutes, 8.24 seconds. They beat France and Australia to earn the gold and under Olympic rules, the swimmers who competed in  the preliminaries receive the same prize. That meant a gold medal for Wildman-Tobriner. "Knowing I could race among the best and hold my own is a nice feeling," he said. "Every big meet you go to and get through is another notch on the belt." Wildman-Tobriner, the Pac- 10 conference's 2007 Swim- mer of the Year, skyrocketed into the upper echelon of the swimmingworldwhen hewon the 50-meter freestyle at the 2007 World Championships in Australia, then followed that up last yearwith a U. S. title in the same event. After that, he qualified for one of 22 spots on the U. S. men's Olympic team. Wiktman-Tobriner keeps his gold medal in a special box on his bookshelf in his Cole Valley apartment. The more he stares at the coveted container, the more his Olympic experience continues to "sink in." "When you're there, you're so focused and it's hard to ap- preciate what you're involved in," he said-. "The Olympics are the pinnacle of the sport-- that's the real deal." Andwhenhe's stopped in the halls ofUCSF, where he's a first- year medical student contem- platingacareer in orthopedics, curious students mostly want to know one thing--no, not what it feels like to be on the medal stand with gold draped around your neck. They want to know: How did Michael Phelps do it? "It's amazing," said Wild- man-Tobriner, referring to Phelps' rocket-like swims and eight gold medals in Beijing. "My only hope is that the momentum continues. "The hardest part about Olympic sports is they're locked into a four-year popu- larity cycle. Then they drop off the map quickly.Anythingthat Michael's situation can do to put swimming on the radar is valuable to the sport." Phelps' "situation" became a bit more precarious after a Homemade egg cream, anyone? Pelham Jewish Center in Pel- ham Manor, N.Y. At a recent goods and services auction that raised $18,000 for the synagogue--which is trying to go "green" Goldman arranged for 14 SodaStream machines to be auctioned off. The synagogue will continue to Sell the seltzer makers on its Web site, www.thepjc.org, with a portion of each sale going to the synagogue. "You won't pay a cent more than on the SodaStream Web site," Goldman says. Through word of mouth. SodaStream's drink makers are increasing in popularity in the United States in recent years, adding up to some $160 million in sales. This is true especially among Jewish consumers. In fact. close to 25 percent of Americans who purchased more than 35.000 SodaStream machines in 2008 are Jewish. estimates Daniel Birnbaum. CEO at the Soda-Club Group, makers of SodaStream. The products (including the carbon dioxide refill cans) are sold online at www.sodastreamusa.comand at Williams-Sonoma stores. and will soon be stocked at Kohl's. Seltzer "represents some- thing iconic, a sense of nos- talgia for a certain period in Jewish American immigrant life, when we were still liv- ing in the tenements." says Barry Joseph, who refers to himself as "the effervescent Jew" and blogs about seltzer at GiveMeSeltzer.com. (Selt- zer, Joseph says, is so named for the popular, effervescent spring of water in the Ger- man town Nieder Seltzer, just north of Frankfurt.) Different theories abound regarding why Jews favor seltzer. "The foods Jews eat. they need something to process the food because it's so heavy," Joseph says. "Seltzer plays that role." Seltzer's also not inherently unkosher. A century ago, it may have been the beverage of choice. "People say that other families had alcohol, but Jewish families had seltzer." Then there's the view that since Jews played a prominent role in the seltzer-bottling industry around the turn of the century, they drank what they produced. Birnbaum attributes So- daStream's success to the more practical benefits, chief among them the "shlepping benefit," as he calls it. SodaS- tream's starter packages come with two or four bottles that are especially manufactured to retain the fizz. Since you keep refilling the bottles, you never have to shlep a box of seltzer again. All of the company's syrups and SodaMix flavors bear an OU heksher (and are actually approved by the Jerusalem Badatz, too). The company estimates that 10 percent of the SodaStream U. S. consumer base observe Jewish dietary laws. In addition, the seltzer maker can be used on Shabbat. In addition to saving you money, there's also the Israel factor. "Every time you buy a Soda-Club appliance, you're employing people in Israel," says Birnbaum. The original SodaStream company pro- vided carbonatedwater to royal families in the United King- dom beginning in 1903. The companywas acquired in 1985 by Cadbury Schweppes. which owned Coca-Cola at the time. A Zionist British distributor by the name of Peter Wiseburgh made aliyah in the early '70s. When he boughtthe company, he moved the manufacturing to two factories in Israel. "He was very proud of the fact that he turned a military facil- ity into a food factory," says Birnbaum."They used to make shells and ammunition for ar- tillery there; nowwe're making soda-making machines." Currently, in addition to its U. S. headquarters in Cherry Hill, N.J., Soda-Club employs 450 people in its factory in Maale Adumim, including Is- raelis, recent immigrants from the Soviet Union, Ethiopians, Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, 18 Bedouins, and even 40 Darfur refugees. "We are do- ing the best we can to.create - coexistence among different types of people who work in the factory," Birnbaum says. Then there's the environ- mental benefit. "We're the anti-bottle company; we save the world from bottles," says Birnbaum. "Bottles are one of the worst ecological hazards of this decade." Since 2007. the Jewish National Fund has partnered with SodaStream for cross- marketing purposes. Since August 2008. SodaStream has helped sponsor the JNF's GoNeutral environmental program, in which people calculate the carbon they are emitting in the air by driving their cars or turning on the air conditioner, and offset the impact on the environment by photo of him smoking mari- juana from a bong appeared in a British tabloid last month, and USASwimming (the gov- erning body for competitive swimming) suspended him for three months. Wildman- Tobriner declined to comment on that. He still keeps in touch with a few of the other members of the U. S. Olympic swim team, including fellow Jews Weber- Gale of Milwaukee and Lezak of Irvine. At the 2008 Golden Goggle Awards in New YorkUSA Swimming's black-tie event celebrating the accomplish- ments of top American swim- mers-the "Jew Crew" was reunited, dressed in suits of a more formal kind. At the request of Weber- Gale, photos wre snapped of the three Jewish athletes in their tuxedos. "It was pretty funny," said Wildman-Tobriner. "Out of seven members total [on the freestyle relay team], three of us were Jewish. It was fun racing together and gave us something to jokeabout." As for any regrets, Wildman- Tobriner noted one: ".We should have made T-shirts." These days, his focus is on medical school, though he's staying in shape with occasional swims at the San Francisco Boys and Girls Club. where his sister, Becky, is the aquatics director. He's also in the midst of a four-year contract with Speedo, which he signed after graduating from college. As part of the agreement, Speedo makes contributions to the Boys and Girls Club of San Francisco. As for the 2012 Snmmer Games in London, Wildman- Tobriner isn't sure if he'll be back in the pool representing the United States. But, "it's going to be hard not to try." Reprinted with pernission from j. the Jewish weekly of northern california, www. jewishsf.com. planting trees or contribut- ing to other environmental programs. And this year, the participants who raised the highest tier of money selling trees as part ofJNF's Tu b'Shvat In The Schools Program will receive a free SodaStream machine. "It's an environ- mentally friendly product, so it's a perfect marriage," says Amanda Levine, product manager at INF. Best of all, many find the SodaStream makers fun to use. Fill the bottle with chilled water. Twist the bottle into the soda maker. Then press the carbonating button until you hear a hissing sound. Repeat several times until you hear a loud buzz. An additional three presses will provide average carbonation. (Women typi- cally enjoy lower carbonation levels, while men like the bubbles to pop in their faces." Birnbaum says). Then, to add a soda flavor, fill up a capful of the SodaMix and pour it into the bottle'It's a piece of magic," Birnbaim says. "You can turn tap water into seltzer or soda in seconds. People fall in love with itwhen they use it." Reprinted with permission from the New York Jewish Week, www.jewishweek.com.