Lost no more

The story of Maccabi Carasso, the man who traveled the world looking for ‘lost communities’ of Jews to participate in the 19th Maccabiah

July 16, 2013 15:52

Hundreds of Jews from across the world may not know it just yet, but it was the desire and determination of Maccabi Carasso that brought them to Israel this summer to participate in the Maccabiah. Considering his name, it is almost surprising that Carasso has only been involved with Maccabi World Union for the past 15 years, serving as an executive and an Ambassador-at-large for the Maccabiah. He was named after his uncle, who received the unusual first name from his parents, the founders of the Maccabi club in Cairo in 1905. The uncle died on the road to besieged Jerusalem in 1948, four years before Carasso was born.

Almost 9,000 athletes from nearly 80 countries are expected to take part in the games, making the 19th Maccabiah the largest ever in the history of the event. Some 27 countries who had never previously participated in the Maccabiah will be represented this summer, thanks in large to Carasso’s globetrotting. The idea to attempt and attract new countries to send a delegation to the Maccabiah was the brainstorm of American entrepreneur Jeffrey Sudikoff.

Sudikoff, who made his fortune as founder and former CEO of IDB Communications, the predecessor company of WorldCom, wanted to do more than just financially support the Maccabiah and together with wife Joyce decided to initiate the ‘lost communities’ project. “Watching all the delegations marching with their flags in the opening ceremony you think ‘wow, I didn’t think there was a Jewish community under that flag’ and then you begin to think ‘I wonder where the rest of them are’, or at least that’s how Joyce and I thought about it,” Sudikoff said. “From my perspective, it was ‘don’t talk to me about giving more money’. I’m going to go home to think about what I and my money can do to provide the Maccabiah with growth capital.”

The man chosen by Eyal Tiberger, the Executive Director of Maccabi World Union, to travel the world in the hope of convincing Jews to participate in the Maccabiah was Carasso and he embraced the task. “I didn’t realize in the beginning how much effort I would be putting into this project,” said Carasso. “I initially had no idea where to start from. For example, I was visiting the ex-Yugoslavia, representing Maccabi World Union in memorial ceremonies, and I located the chairman of the Serbian Jewish community.

Following a very short conversation I convinced him that with my money and his knowledge we could tour all the communities in ex-Yugoslavia. We drove around for two weeks, visiting Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Croatia and convinced people to join Maccabi and come to the Maccabiah.”

The small communities range in size from 30 to 5,000 Jews, with around 300 from 27 different countries set to compete in Israel for the first time this summer. Some countries will be sending just one representative, Mongolia for example. “I can’t explain why, but I had a special interest in Mongolia,” Carasso said. “I kept receiving refusals.

I managed to reach the chairman of the Mongolian community and he told me to leave him alone. He said we have no community and don’t even have a minyan, but I told him that I won’t give up. Eventually the Israeli Honorary Consul in Mongolia and the Mongolian Honorary Consul in Israel found me a 20-year-old tennis player and he will be coming to compete. I’m not sure why Mongolia was so important to me but maybe it had something to do with the fact that it sounds so inconceivable that there will be someone from Mongolia in the Maccabiah.”

However, the crowning glory of the project is the large delegation being sent by Cuba. “They were so ready for me when I arrived there. I didn’t have to convince them at all,” he explained. “They listened to everything I had to say and I felt they were totally ready. They were so ready that they had prepared a detailed list of how many Jews live in each town and how many athletes they have. They are sending a delegation of around 45 athletes from a community which numbers a total of 1,000 Jews and that is extremely admirable.”

However, not every community was as welcoming as Cuba’s. “There were plenty of disappointments. Many of the people have never previously left their country and there is a lot of fear involved,” Carasso said.

“Malta, for example, is a big failure as far as I’m concerned. I should have not only spoken to the head of the community but also done more ground work and surely I would have found someone. As soon as I would have found one person, not only would he become my ambassador in Malta, but he would speak to his Jewish friends every night about his amazing experience in Israel.

It’s a snowball effect and that is why it is so important for me to bring even just one or two people from a country.

“For someone who has never previously participated in the Maccabiah it is very easy to find an excuse not to come as they are unaware of the intensity of the experience of taking part in the Games,” he added. “As many videos as I show him and as much as I try to explain it to him he will not truly understand until he experiences it firsthand.”

Carasso admitted that the results of the project have well exceeded his expectations and he’s hoping that he will be able to bring even more newcomers to the 20th Maccabiah in four years’ time. “This project started in the head of a donor and if he agrees and my wife agrees we will continue with it ahead of the next Maccabiah,” he said.

“When I came back from my trip to Central America, which lasted almost a month, I received a very stormy welcome at home.

My family told me that this was the last time that I’m going on such a trip. However, the kids are getting older and there are four more years until the next Maccabiah.

I hope that they have forgiven me and that when they see the Maccabiah they will understand me better. As long as my family approves it and my body holds up, my soul would really like to continue this project.”

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