From playing soccer to being nationally recognized in the sport of squash, Leo Bensky has taken his game to the next level by incorporating the importance of Judaism into his role as the president of the Maccabi World Union.
“It’s not only the sport, it’s the background,” Bensky said.
“[It’s] the feeling of being a member of something more than just the sports.”
Bensky’s career began as a boy in Helsinki, Finland, where he remembered his father as a large influence on his love of squash.
“My father was one of the founders of the Finnish Squash Federation,” he said.
“It came naturally for me to pick up squash after him.”
Bensky said that soccer was a popular among schoolchildren within his small Jewish community in Helsinki and therefore, he began to play this sport as well.
He also mentioned that the Helsinki Maccabi Club was founded in 1906, making it one of the oldest Maccabi organizations still active today.
Bensky played for Finland’s Junior National Team in world championships during the late seventies. At the same time, he actively participated in Maccabi games for Helsinki, playing soccer, squash and golf, starting in 1970.
Today, he is a business man, owner of a professional hockey club and president of the Maccabi World Union, the largest Jewish sports organization in the world.
His experiences as a participant in the games have greatly helped his impact as a leader of the MWU.
“The fact that I have been participating myself as a sportsman and a world union president gives me a good understanding [of the Maccabi games],” he said. “It’s important to remember [the past] when we plan future events.”
Bensky took over the role as president recently when his predecessor, Guiora Esrubilsky passed away in November of 2013.
“He has done wonderful work and he was supposed to continue for four more years,” Bensky said of Esrubilsky.
The Maccabiah Games have grown from its small beginnings to now spanning over five continents with more than 60 countries included as participants of the organization.
Bensky said he is confident that this growth will continue in the future.
“In the last 10 to 15 years, we have developed and the activities have grown,” he said. “It used to be only one in four years, now there are possibilities for more.”
He believes that the goal of Maccabiah as a whole is to unite the world Jewish community.
“The objective of the Maccabiah was to strengthen the Jewish people as a national body, emphasize Israel and ensure Jewish continuity,” Bensky said.
He spoke about the differences between Jews who come from a tight-knit Jewish community like his in Helsinki, and Jews that come from large cities and a secular background.
“Our small community in Helsinki has a Jewish school, different [Jewish] organizations and Jewish education is taken care of in general,” Bensky said. “In bigger communities, where you have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of Jews, there might be a lot of Jewish youngsters who might have little affiliation with Jewish life.”
He continued to elaborate on how members of the Maccabi program have strengthened their Judaism through participating in the event, specifically speaking of a story that took place in Marseille, France in 1991.
“We had young boys playing football and there was a Shabbat dinner when everybody arrived,” Bensky said.
“One young boy told us this was the first time he participated in his life at a Shabbat.”
He has continued with helping smaller Jewish communities become active within the Maccabi Games, citing Cuba as another example.
“Maccabi Cuba had 40 or 50 participants and most of them had never been to Israel before,” Bensky said. “A few decided to make Aliya.”
Bensky stressed the importance of making the Maccabi games an experience to remember, but also as a way for Jews to unite all around the world.
“It is definitely a lot about sports,” he said. “But it is so much more when you connect with people from so many different places who have something in common.”
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