By Denise Heimlich
Three weeks ago, most people outside the figure skating world had no idea who Jason Brown was. Then came his free skate in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston, and now the video of that performance has more than 3 million hits on YouTube and his pony tail has its own Twitter account. Oh, and he’s headed to the Olympics today.
I’ve known his mom, OSRUI Alum Marla Kell Brown, for many years and have followed his skating career. I was thrilled to be able to speak with him recently about growing up as a skater, his summers at OSRUI, and his Jewish life. His exuberance, so evident in the video, comes through on the phone as well.
Jason started skating at the age of 3, following in the footsteps of his sister Jordan. And although his talent was evident, he says it wasn’t until he was about 12 that he became a more serious skater, traveling more for competitions and realizing this was his passion.
I asked Jason what his life was like in those days. In junior high he was getting up every morning at 5:30 so he could be at the rink at 6:30 and get in an hour of practice before school. After school it was back to the rink for another 2 hours of practice and then working out with his coach and, of course, homework. With all of that he still had time for some extracurriculars, like the school musicals at Northwood Junior High, where his featured roles included Conrad Birdie, an Oompah Loompah, and Sandy the dog.
The other thing Jason made time for during those years was OSRUI. His parents, Marla and Steve, were committed to giving him a Jewish summer camp experience, and he wanted to go to OSRUI just like his big sister Jordan. Jason followed her to camp, attending for five summers, from 2004 to 2008. He spent summers in Kallah, Tzofim, and Moshavah. He says Tzofim was his favorite unit. “The tents, the fun, and the outdoors – it was perfect!” His first year in Tzofim was also when he made close friends, many of whom he is still in touch with. Jason also loved the Moshavah trips, saying “they were such a great bonding experience.” But canoeing was his favorite, he says, “because I just love being in the water!” His summer in Moshavah was the first summer he was at camp for 4 weeks, but it was clear by then that he couldn’t be away from the rink for that long. His mom called me to arrange a few trips to a local rink and he left the session a little early to get back to skating.
Jason says he loved sports at OSRUI and the special sports activities like the Mosh/Tzofim soccer games. And he loved Shabbat Shira. “Nothing beats that…everyone together, everyone singing…it was amazing!” Jason said he would love to come to camp for Shabbat this summer if he’s in the area, and we are hoping to have him visit OSRUI at some point to share his experiences with our campers.
At the recent OSRUI Reunion for 2013 campers, we passed out paper and markers and asked campers to write a note to Jason. In the end we gave him a booklet filled with well wishes, advice on traveling in Russia, and one comment that said “I know someone who knows your brother.” He was very appreciative, and of course his brother Dylan loved the comment about him. The package included some OSRUI swag along with a card good for a free Slushy in canteen next summer (although honestly we would give him a free Slushy even without the card!).
The Browns are members of Congregation Solel, a URJ congregation in Highland Park, IL, where Jason had his Bar Mitzvah and was confirmed. To celebrate his Bar Mitzvah, Jason and his friends & family helped to renovate a school in Waukegan, IL, through Chicago Cares (an organization that builds volunteer experiences that instill lifelong values of service). “It was so much fun!” he says. “We painted murals, made blankets for younger students, did mosaics, painted games on the sidewalk like hopscotch & foursquare, did gardening and painted picnic benches.” After all that hard work they went into the school gym for a party. And it wasn’t just the celebration that he enjoyed. “I love reading Torah!! I read Torah on the High Holy Days after my Bar Mitzvah and again when I was confirmed.”
Jason went on to attend Highland Park High School. “I didn’t want to be home schooled or take classes online. I wanted to be in public school in a regular classroom with my friends,” he says. School became his social life because by that point he says he didn’t have time for socializing outside of school. When he was about 15 Jason realized that he wanted the Olympics in his future, but at that time he was thinking 2018, not 2014.
After graduating high school in January 2013, Jason moved to Colorado with his coach. “I wanted to make sure that was the right environment for me.” He spent last spring just training and enrolled at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs last fall, attending classes part time while he was training.
Now that he’s living in Colorado, what does he miss? “Spending time with family and friends,” he says. “Highland Park is such a tight community. Everywhere you go you run into someone you know. I miss that.” He got the chance to connect with residents via Skype during a recent Highland Park City Council meeting, where the city officially congratulated him on his achievement and wished him luck in Sochi. Banners are waving in local businesses and on trees, and February 7th is Jason Brown Day in Highland Park. When he competes on February 14th, the local ice rink (where Jason got his start and where he returns every year to perform in the ice show) will host a community viewing party.
Jason says he loves the Jewish holidays, especially Passover and Hanukkah, and comes home when he can. Even in high school he was occasionally travelling on the High Holy Days. “My parents would find a local temple and we would go to services,” he says. He’s attended services in Milan and Istanbul and says they felt, “such a sense of community…people were so welcoming.” Now living in Colorado Springs, Jason met another skater at the rink whose mom is a rabbi, and he has spent holidays with their family when he couldn’t make it home. Although he has traveled all over the world for skating competitions, Jason has never been to Israel. “I’m dying to go,” he says. “I want to go on Birthright!”
Next stop for Jason is Sochi. The opening ceremony is February 7th, the Men’s Figure Skating Competition is February 13th and 14th, and the Olympics ends on February 23rd. Jason will be tweeting throughout. Follow him on Twitter: @jasonbskates (Oh, and you can also follow his pony tail at @2014PonyPower)
Good luck Jason … Your OSRUI family will be cheering you on!!
Denise Heimlich is the Manager of Marketing and Camper Registration at URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI), and a figure skating fan.