'For me everything's connected to what’s going on in Israel'

These Israeli track runners at Oklahoma State are quick to defend their homeland

Representing the Jewish state from afar as fallout from Oct. 7 continues at home and abroad, Adisu Guadie and Sivan Auerbach report a warm welcome in their new surroundings

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Israeli runners Adisu Guadie, left, and Sivan Auerbach, right, run for Oklahoma State. (Mason Harbour/Run4okstate)
Israeli runners Adisu Guadie, left, and Sivan Auerbach, right, run for Oklahoma State. (Mason Harbour/Run4okstate)

Stillwater, Oklahoma, a college town in the American Southwest, is a far cry from the central Israeli metropolis of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, says Adisu Guadie, an Israeli national running champion and holder of the under-20 and under-23 record in the 10,000-meter track runs.

Nevertheless, Guadie, 21, from Tel Aviv-Jaffa, has settled in at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, where he’s getting a full ride as a member of the track team, ranked one of the top long-distance programs in the United States.

And while other American universities are roiled in anti-Israel protests, Guadie and one other Israeli runner at OSU, Sivan Auerbach, don’t have to hide their Israeli and Jewish identity. Guadie runs each race with the Star of David shaved into his hair, and Auerbach, who holds Israel’s record in the 1,000- and 1,500 meter runs, wraps herself in the Israeli flag.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, whose alma mater is also Oklahoma State University, said he’s proud that the two Israeli students feel “the same sense of community that I did during my time there.” He added that “it’s crazy to think that all Jewish-Americans don’t enjoy the same sense of belonging and security that our Jewish communities do in Oklahoma.”

Stitt has even invited Jews who are “being persecuted” in New York to move to the Southwest state.

“You’ve got the pro-Hamas and Palestinian protesters all over,” Stitt said in a recent interview with The New York Post. “And we’re like, ‘Man, that doesn’t happen in Oklahoma.’”

Growing up in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Guadie started running as an 11-year-old boy through the Alley Runners, a social project to empower at-risk children that began in 2012 and has since evolved into Hapoel Tel Aviv, a professional athletic team. Yuval Carmi, one of the organization’s founders, said that Ethiopian Jews have had difficulty integrating into Israeli society, and Guadie’s achievements are “exceptional.”

Israeli runner Adisu Guadie as a child, aged 11. (Mason Harbour/Run4okstate)

“There were other kids who were more talented, but Guadie was stubborn,” Carmi said. “In 10 years, he didn’t miss one workout. I use him as an example for the kids in the program today.”

Guadie said that his mother heard about the Alley Runners and signed him up as an after-school activity. For the first two years, Carmi said, “Guadie didn’t talk.” But slowly, Guadie said, the Alley Runners “became like family.”

Guadie is slender and sinewy, with springy curls and an angular face. He said that his parents, who “are very proud,” always encouraged him in his running, even though they didn’t have the financial means. His father has worked in physical jobs and his mother cleans in a hospital. At first, the only pair of running shoes they could afford to buy Guadie were soccer cleats — but that didn’t stop him from surging ahead of other runners. (Today, he runs in Nike shoes, he said.) He recently broke the Israeli 10-K record, with a time of 28:10. His dream is to participate in the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.

During a Zoom interview with The Times of Israel, Guadie apologized as he took a few moments to make himself coffee, grinding beans from Ethiopia, where he was born. When he was 3 years old, his family moved to Israel.

Israeli runner Adisu Guadie runs for Oklahoma State. (Mason Harbour/Run4okstate)

Big embrace from the Jewish community

Guadie, who has five siblings, said he’s the “first generation” to study at a university. He’s a management information systems major, and during his first semester, in the fall of 2023, it was very hard to immerse himself in a new language and culture. And then came the October 7 massacre, when some 3,000 Hamas terrorists stormed into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 252 hostages, mostly civilians.

“I spent so much time watching the news,” Guadie recalled. “I kept asking myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ I felt so alone.”

He said he stayed close to Auerbach, who had similar feelings of helplessness. The two young athletes both served in the IDF; Guadie as an assistant coach in an Air Force special unit, and Auerbach as a fitness instructor. For Auerbach, who grew up in Moshav Ein Ayala, only another Israeli could understand her feelings after October 7.

“Every Israeli knows someone who was killed,” Auerbach, 24, told The Times of Israel. She has always assumed that she, Guadie, and Lior Garzon, an OSU basketball player, were the only Israelis in all of Oklahoma. The closest Hillel chapter is at the University of Oklahoma, about 84 miles away. But after the war started, Auerbach said the local Jewish community reached out to the three Israeli athletes to give them the sense that they weren’t alone.

Israeli runner Sivan Auerbach runs for Oklahoma State. (Mason Harbour/Run4okstate)

“For me, everything is connected to what’s going on in Israel,” Auerbach said. “When I run, I view my sport as a primary channel to represent Israel.”

On her social media, Auerbach posts about running — and Israel. She feels a responsibility to educate people, explaining that Zionism is “not a bad word,” but rather means “the right to self-determination for the Jewish people.” She is distressed that students don’t understand “the genocidal messages” because “very violent hate speech is being normalized.”

There have been very small protests on the OSU campus, with students chanting “from the river to the sea,” but for the most part, she said, the atmosphere is calm.

She knows that her pro-Israel posts are “just a drop of water in all this hate,” but she continues to juggle her training practices — twice daily — and her studies, where she’s a double major in computer science and computer engineering.

“It takes a lot out of me,” Auerbach admitted, and then seemed much happier to talk about her sport, in between munching on slices of a clementine.

At home in Israel, she runs by the sea or up in the Carmel Mountains. In Stillwater, she’s had to get used to “miles and miles of flat dirt roads,” and, she joked, “an occasional tumbleweed.”

Auerbach was also used to winning “lots of races” in Israel; in American collegiate sports, she said she’s had to get used to “my butt being kicked.”

Yet now, she is practicing “running to win” on OSU’s Cowgirl team, ranked third in the nation. She recently received an Elite 90 Award, given to athletes who reach the National NCAA championships with the highest GPA. In February, she won the 1-K race at the Big-12 Conference. Her goal is to break the Israeli National Record in the 800-meter race, which has been at 2:04 since 1993. Auerbach has run it in 2:05. She, like Guadie, hopes to represent Israel in the 2028 Olympics.

Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, left, with Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, center, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a visit to Israel in November 2023. (Courtesy)

When asked about the anti-Israel protesters on campuses, Stitt told Fox News recently that he would “kick them out,” claiming that they should be “held accountable” for hate speech.

“Who stands with Hamas?” Stitt asked rhetorically. “That’s why it’s been so important for me to speak out for Israel and our Jewish brothers and sisters.”

Stitt, who considers himself a “Torah-loving Christian,” was severely criticized in 2023, when, after his successful reelection, he announced he would claim “every square inch” of Oklahoma for Jesus. Since then, Jewish leaders have met with him and are satisfied that he has resolved the issue.

Shortly after the war broke out, Stitt became the first sitting Oklahoma governor to visit Israel since 2003.

Meanwhile, in his OSU dormitory room, Guadie said that he realizes he’s even “more Zionist” than ever before. He misses the country along with his family and friends.

“I’m here in Stillwater, doing my best,” he wrote in a recent Instagram post. “My heart is with my people in Israel. Stay strong and help each other.”

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