A sporting chance

The Maccabiah Games might not be the most competitive event on the athletic scene, but Maccabi USA president Ron Carner says nothing can compare to the opportunity to represent one’s country as a Jew

Maccabi Baseball521 (photo credit: Courtesy Maccabi USA)
Maccabi Baseball521
(photo credit: Courtesy Maccabi USA)
It is easy to ridicule the Maccabiah Games from a sporting perspective. However, there is no doubting their immensity and the effect they have had on so many lives over the years.
Almost 9,000 athletes from over 70 countries are expected to take part in the 19th Maccabiah this year, taking place throughout Israel from July 18 to 30.
Israel’s delegation will be the largest, but the sheer size of the upcoming games is perhaps most evident by the US delegation, by far the biggest from abroad.
America will be sending some 1,200 athletes of all ages and sizes, as well as hundreds of staff and supporters.
“In 2009 we brought 903 people, and that was the largest sports delegation ever to leave North America, and now we have increased it by a third – that’s amazing,” Maccabi USA president Ron Carner tells The Jerusalem Post.
“The United States will be bringing the largest delegation it has ever brought, with 105 teams in 33 different sports in different age groups,” he continues.
“And that does not include the 400 to 500 people who will be coming to root for the athletes. Maccabi USA has worked very hard to put the team together.
It’s going to cost almost $10 million to bring the US team. It shows how seriously the US is taking the program.
Obviously, we are doing it for more than sports, but we are bringing the best athletes we can find.”
Carner was in Israel last month for the Seventh Maccabi World Union Plenary, and he was pleased with the ongoing preparations for the biggest Maccabiah to date.
The American group booked its hotels and flights a year in advance, and the Maccabi USA president believes all arrangements are under way to ensure the games will be a resounding success.
“What people don’t understand is the [immensity] of the project,” he says. “There is NIS 80m. being invested just on the Israeli side. You have to take this whole project very seriously or it doesn’t come out properly. You have to treat it on a very professional level. It cannot be haphazard.”
Of the $10m. required to fund the US delegation, around $2.5m. will be coming from Maccabi USA, with donations and the participants themselves expected to cover the rest of the costs.
Part of the financing will come from the +35 Masters program, which helps pay the younger athletes’ way.
The financial crisis also took its toll on fund-raising for the Maccabiah four years ago, but Carner is confident that it “will be okay this year.”
Two months ago, Maccabi USA announced the receipt of a $1m. gift from shoe designer Stuart Weitzman through the Weitzman Family Foundation, the largest single contribution in the history of the organization. A portion of the gift will help fund the delegation, with the bulk of the remainder to be invested in the Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel Endowment Fund to support the organization’s mission and programs for future generations.
Weitzman first got involved with Maccabi USA as a member of the Masters Table Tennis team at the 18th Maccabiah Games in 2009.
“My participation in the Maccabiah Games was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” he stated.
“After experiencing the Games myself, I saw how Maccabi USA changes the lives of the athletes by enhancing their connection to their Jewish culture and heritage. I knew that I had to support the work they do so future Jewish athletes can participate in this life-changing event and feel a strong connection to the State of Israel.”
He expressed his hope that “this gift spurs other individuals and foundations to support Maccabi USA and the important work they do with similar gifts.”
Carner was dumbfounded by Weitzman’s generosity and by the fact that he didn’t just make a pledge, but actually wrote a check on the spot.
“Weitzman said to me three years ago that ‘the Maccabiah was the greatest experience of my life,’” Carner recalls. “I said to him, ‘Come on, I know who you are,’ but he insisted that it was the greatest experience of his life. That was very significant to me. And I have heard many young people through the years using that phrase time and again. I’m so immersed in it, and sometimes you don’t realize how effective it is.
Sports are an amazing hook for young people, and people of all ages.”
Carner was elected Maccabi USA president in December 2009, but the New York native and resident was involved with the organization long before, volunteering with it for the past 28 years. In 2009, he became the fifth North American in 77 years to receive the Yakir Award, the Maccabi World Union’s highest honor, which it presents every four years in recognition of exceptional activists’ dedication to the Maccabi Movement.
Nevertheless, the personal accolades are not what motivate him.
“I’ve said for years that if this were only a sporting event, I would have done it once, maybe twice, and it would have been fun,” he says. “But it is very important to the Jewish world. You have a younger generation that needs to learn so much about who we are and what we are. And we really expose them to that. Part of our program is a one-week Israel Connect trip around Israel. A lot of these kids don’t know that much. They know they are Jewish, but not much else.”
Among the American stars coming to Israel this summer are two-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Garrett Weber-Gale, and Aly Raisman, who won two gold medals at the 2012 London Games and will attend the Maccabiah as an honorary guest.
“The Maccabiah is a major feather in [a person’s] cap,” Carner claims. “Many people don’t get the chance to represent their country, and certainly not represent their country as a Jew. How exciting is that?” •