By Tom Tugend
LOS ANGELES — JJ Harel, newly 14 years old and standing at 6-foot-2, expects to face some tough competition when the Olympics return to Los Angeles in 2028 and the starting pistol for the track and field events sounds off.
But his first decision will be whether to march into the Olympic stadium under the American, Australian or Israeli flag.
In any other family, such musings would be taken as the fantasies of an over-stimulated adolescent mind. However, to skeptics JJ need only unveil the array of 27 international medals he won over the past year as a 13-year old, including at the Maccabiah Games in Israel, where he placed first in high jump and second in triple jump in the under-18 category after needing to receive special permission to participate since he was underage.
Then there’s the record-breaking high jump that earned him a profile in the Los Angeles Times this week.
Last month, Harel participated in the American Athletic Union (AAU) Junior Olympics, one of the largest youth track and field competitions in the world, where he won three gold medals and cleared 6 feet and 5 inches in the high jump — breaking a record for the 14-and-under age group that had stood for 42 years (he was still 13 at the time). Harel won gold in the triple jump and javelin as well, and he was the only athlete to achieve All American status in five events, a title awarded to only the top eight athletes in the country for each event.
JJ (Joshua Jayden) inherited his triple citizenship through his father, Oren, 47, born in Houston, and his mother Lucy, a native Australian. Oren Harel spent his formative years in Israel and served in the Israel Defense Forces, afterwards attending Cornell, where he met Lucy who was participating in an exchange program from Sydney University. After two years in Manhattan, and following Sept. 11, the couple moved to Sydney for 10 years, where all three of their children were born. They relocated as a family to Israel for two years before moving to Los Angeles in 2013.
JJ is now a freshman at the Catholic Chaminade High School in the Los Angeles suburb of West Hills. When asked why his parents didn’t place their son in a public or Jewish school, Harel replied that Chaminade, noted for its outstanding sports program, offered a high level of track training, while Jewish schools offered none. However, his father consulted with school authorities beforehand to make certain that his son would not be compelled to participate in Catholic morning services.
JJ said that his being Jewish never comes up — even though he occasionally wears a Star of David necklace and does not eat non-kosher types of meat (like his father, he will eat non-kosher beef and other things in certain situations, but never pork).
When he was too young to know the names of non-Jewish faiths, and when he wanted to know whether another kid was Jewish like him, JJ would ask “are you Jewish or are you pork?”
JJ seems to be as focused on his academic studies as he is on his athletic pursuits, as the only freshman in his current school taking pre-calculus mathematics. Oren Harel noted that JJ’s grandfather worked for NASA for about 20 years starting in the early 1970s, contributing research to the Voyager 2 and Galileo space exploration projects.
“Sometimes I say a joke when people ask me about [JJ’s] ability: I tell them his grandfather worked for NASA, maybe that’s how he learned the secret on how to defy gravity,” Oren Harel said.