The games of the 20th Maccabiah got under way on Tuesday, marking the start of a 15-day sporting festival across Israel.
Over 7,000 competitors from 80 countries will take part in some 40 different sporting events in the latest installment of the so-called Jewish Olympics, with the official opening ceremony slated for Thursday in Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium.
The competition will be fierce in many events, with drama and sporting excellence to be on display throughout the next fortnight.
But while the Maccabiah is first and foremost about sports, it is the stories behind those competing that turn it into a truly special event.
Take, for example, Sherry Levin, the head coach of the US Women’s Open basketball team. The 54-year-old Newton, Massachusetts, native participated in the Maccabiah for the first time as a player in 1981, winning the silver medal with the US Open team. She also won a gold medal as a coach with the USA’s U-18 Girls’ squad at the 19th Maccabiah four years ago.
But she will be entering these games with a completely different perspective on basketball and life.
Three years ago, Levin was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent intense chemotherapy, yet made sure she missed as little time as possible as the varsity girls’ coach at Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill.
“Everyone who battles cancer says that it changes their outlook on things. It does. Every positive moment becomes cherished, while every negative one you let wash away and forget,” Levin told the Boston Globe last year.
Levin, who has since been appointed as the girls’ basketball coach at Worcester Academy, will be targeting her third gold medal as a head coach in the next two weeks, guiding the Open women’s basketball team to first place at the 12th Pan American Maccabi Games in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 2011 to go with her gold from the previous Maccabiah.
Making the 20th Maccabiah even more special for Levin will be the fact that her daughter Marcia will be serving as team manager.
“She was and is an inspiration to me. We would come home each day exhausted and I would head to bed. She kept track of my medications, cooked dinners and encouraged me to be strong,” Levin said of her daughter.
“This is kind of the pinnacle of coaching for me,” she added. “I’ve come full circle from when I was a player on the team. It’s the highest level of basketball that most Jewish women in the United States will play.
“It’s also a life-changing event. For me, it’s an opportunity to give back.
You get to experience going to Israel, connecting with your heritage, and do it with the spirit and passion of having USA on your uniform.”
Emotions will surely be running high in the Levin family when the USA faces Russia in its first game on July 9. The Americans will also play Israel and Australia in group action.
The final of the Open women’s event will be held at Malha Arena in Jerusalem on July 16.
Tears will also surely flow at the equestrian venue at Winter Stadium in Ramat Gan. Rebecca Weissbard, who won a gold medal in the equestrian events at the last Maccabiah, died last year at the age of 22 while riding in a jumping competition at the HITS-on-the-Hudson equestrian facility in Saugerties, New York.
The horse she was on did not clear the second of 10 hurdles, stumbled and fell on top of Weissbard. She was pronounced dead at the scene. A special ceremony will be held in her memory at the 20th Maccabiah, with her parents to be the guests of honor.
In many ways, the Maccabiah is a family event. The sense of togetherness and unity of the Jewish people will be felt at every venue over the next couple of weeks.
For some of the athletes it will be more literal than others. Brothers Jake, Luke, and Nick Rivera are all part of the USA Open ice hockey team, playing together on the same team and visiting Israel for the first time.
“We have all been dreaming of putting on a Team USA jersey and representing our country,” said the brothers, Division I and Division III collegiate athletes.
“The ability to play alongside each other is an incredible opportunity that will make for an even more memorable experience. To make it that much more special, we will be able to do it front of our entire family, on their first trip to Israel, a very proud moment for all of us.”
Maccabi USA will bring a team of over 1,100 athletes, including three generations of athletes competing in the same sport. The Jurick/Woidislawsky family will represent multiple divisions in the tennis competition: Jonah Jurick, 17, as a junior athlete, Michael Jurick, 49, as a masters athlete, and Avram Woidislawsky, 77, as a grand-masters athlete. Though they will be competing separately on the court, they will march in the opening ceremony as a family.
Avram, the family patriarch, originally from Russia, moved to Israel as a child, and immigrated to the United States as an adult after serving in the Israeli military. He fell in love with tennis when he began playing in his early 1940’s and was captain of a local chapter of Philadelphia’s USTA 40 and Over Men’s Team for many years.
Avram’s son-in-law, Michael, was a USTA high school and collegiate tennis player. Michael passed down his love of tennis to his son Jonah who he said was “born with a racket in his hand.”
The Maccabiah tennis competitions will take place in the Israel Tennis Centers in Ramat Hasharon, Haifa and Jerusalem, as well as the Kfar Maccabiah.
While the family is eager to win in each of their categories, they are even more excited to travel to Israel together, meet fellow players from around the world, and compete as a family.
“I’m imaging myself in the moment, marching with my son and father-in-law, and thousands of other Jews, and just beaming with pride,” Michael said. “These games will be the culmination of years of hard work, practice and dedication.”[email protected]