Behind the Desk…is an ongoing series that profiles people influencing and advancing the climbing gym industry around the world. This year, CBJ has (virtually) traveled to South America, Canada, Australia and elsewhere to speak to gym owners and managers. And for this Behind the Desk edition, we reached out to Yuval Hamburg, owner of Performance Rock in Israel, to talk about the climbing scene there, the birth of Israel’s bouldering culture, and the opening of a brand new facility.
Name: Yuval Hamburg
Title: Owner, Performance Rock
Location: Tel Aviv, Israel
Gym Instagram: @performancerock
CBJ: I do not know much about the history of indoor climbing in Israel. Can you tell me a little bit about climbing gym history in the country?
HAMBURG: Outdoor climbing started in Israel in the 1970s. The first climbing wall was built around 1988. During the 90s a few climbing walls opened and a new era started with climbing competitions and more climbers on the cliffs over the weekend. In 2006 there were about six climbing gyms with mostly sport climbing terrain and small bouldering areas. 2007 was the year [Performance Rock] opened the first bouldering gym in the country. Today there are more than 25 gyms across the country—with most of them being bouldering-dedicated gyms. In the Israeli climbing organization there are over 10,000 members today.
CBJ: And how did you, personally, become interested in climbing?
HAMBURG: I started climbing as a teenager in the early 1990s. One afternoon in May, I saw a piece on TV about teens climbing. It took me a few months to find out that one of the two gyms in the country was close to the kibbutz I grew up on—and used to cycle about an hour each way to the gym.
From the first time I tried climbing, I knew I had found my passion. Later, I did some competition (was never very good) and climbed a lot outdoors. After my army service, I started managing the gym I grew up in and started coaching the Israeli national team. In 2005 I moved to the US and managed Portland Rock Gym in Portland, Oregon, for a year. I opened Performance Rock in Tel Aviv in 2007 after a year of searching for the right property. As long as I can remember, climbing has always been the center of my life.
CBJ: That original Performance Rock—opened in 2007—was Israel’s first bouldering gym. But was there already some degree of “bouldering culture” in Israel at the time, or did the culture emerge as a result of the gym?
HAMBURG: When we opened in 2007, climbers did not understand the concept of a bouldering gym. Most climbers did not get the idea and were not very receptive to the gym. It was only after six month of operating that we sold our first membership. After that, many came too. Two years later, in 2009, the second bouldering gym opened and today there are around 20 bouldering gyms across the country.
CBJ: Please tell me about the new Performance Rock gym—Midtown. I read that a group of movie art designers built the walls because the Blocz people could not travel to Israel (due to COVID). That seems like some very unique design improvisation.
HAMBURG: Opening a “real” gym was our dream for a few years. Tel Aviv is one of the most expensive cities in the world and we were looking for 15,000 square feet of prime real estate…
And looking at more than 30 properties in the last five years, we did not always believe we’d find a space. A Lot of the buildings we looked at were old and on the way to becoming an office tower; others did not have the height or were in a bad neighborhood.
In mid-2019, we found Midtown and after a few months we signed. We planned the gym with Blocz. Three days before the installment team from Blocz was scheduled to arrive, Israel closed its air traffic. Hearing crazy COVID-19 stories, I heard of a company that started making parts for CPR machines instead of car parts. That got me thinking: Who can build the climbing walls instead of Blocz?
One phone call to a friend got me in touch with Eyal Elhadad, who on a regular day builds movie sets. Eyel did not know what climbing was—and definitely did not have any idea what a bouldering gym was. At this point I knew I had my solution! Blocz were great as always and started working with Eyel and the team in Zoom meetings on the gym plans. Two weeks later we started the build. This was the most amazing experience we could wish for in special times like these to bring our dream to life.
CBJ: The Midtown gym just opened. How has the customer response been so far—and are people in Israel adjusting to the realities of climbing in a COVID world?
HAMBURG: I believe that our community knows that they are climbing in the best gym we could build for them. Climbers and non-climbers that come into the gym are super excited to see the size of the gym, the walls, the holds, the art, and all the small details that we spent many hours thinking of. The gym location brings in many non-climbers and it’s great to see their response to bouldering so close to their fingertips. The feeling they have is that this is something they want and can be part of; it is exciting for us.
COVID-19 changed who and how you get in the gym. To schedule a session, you need to sign up as a member of the Israeli climbing organization and then choose the date and time—and order a place like at a restaurant; sometimes you’ll need to schedule a week in advance.
CBJ: So, how do you see Israel’s climbing community evolving in the future?
HAMBURG: I’m positive. Climbing is at its early stages in Israel. In the next few years we’ll see more money being invested in the industry by the government and by investors. As climbing gyms become more popular, more kids, teens and adults will take part in the community. Israeli athletes will be on podiums in international competitions, and Israel will become a great outdoor climbing destination for climbers looking for good weather during the European winter.
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Are you leading a climbing gym or brand through this unprecedented period? Or, do you work in the industry and have a story that others could benefit from hearing? If so, please contact us and tell us about it.
John Burgman is the author of High Drama, a book that chronicles the history of American competition climbing. He is a Fulbright journalism grant recipient and a former magazine editor. He holds a master’s degree from New York University and bachelor’s degree from Miami University. In addition to writing, he coaches a youth bouldering team. Follow him on Twitter @John_Burgman and Instagram @jbclimbs