Maccabiah athletes roll with the punches

Wheelchair Basketball competitors discuss the Games’ uniqueness and Israel’s role as perpetual host.

 Maccabiah Wheelchair Basketball story by Joshua Halickman on page 11 – Pictures of member of Team USA Maccabiah Wheelchair Basketball delegation. (photo credit: JOSHUA HALICKMAN)
Maccabiah Wheelchair Basketball story by Joshua Halickman on page 11 – Pictures of member of Team USA Maccabiah Wheelchair Basketball delegation.
(photo credit: JOSHUA HALICKMAN)

The Maccabiah Games is all about bringing Jews from around the world to Israel to compete in various sporting events and disciplines, while also showing the values of sportsmanship.

While the 21st edition of the Games primarily showcases able-bodied individuals, there is one group of very special athletes who are competing in Wheelchair Basketball, an adaptive sport.

Although the wheelchair players are primarily Israelis, there is a contingent of those from aboard, including the coach of the United States team, Michael Rosenkrantz, along with Seth Goldberg and Moshe Kraiem from America, as well as the only woman in this year’s edition of the sport, Freya Levy who hails from England.

The Jerusalem Post had the privilege of spending an entire Shabbat with the team and learned very quickly that their drive is as great or even greater than that of all the other athletes combined.

“It’s crucial for a sport such as wheelchair basketball to be part of the Maccabiah because it gives athletes with physical challenges a chance to compete in a sport on a level playing field."

Moshe Kraiem
 PARADING the Israeli flag at the Tokyo Paralympics closing ceremony, September 5. (credit: Issei Kato/Reuters) PARADING the Israeli flag at the Tokyo Paralympics closing ceremony, September 5. (credit: Issei Kato/Reuters)

Goldberg, with his infectious smile, was born with a form of muscular dystrophy and seems to know everyone associated with the Maccabiah as he competes in his second Games.

“I wanted to show the world the athlete I can be and show them how hard I have worked to be on this grand stage.”

Another veteran of the games, the 26-year-old Levy was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at the age of 14 and has used the opportunity in order to get the most out of life as nothing in her future is guaranteed.

“It’s left me unable to walk, raise my arms above my chest, I have a weak diaphragm and eventually will lose the ability to smile and close my eyes at night to sleep. I see my disability as a blessing because from a very young age I understood that you cannot take anything for granted and you have to seize every moment possible. When I was diagnosed I asked the doctor ‘will I ever get any better?’ He said no. I asked ‘do you know how bad it will get?’ He said no. I asked ‘is there anything we can do?’ He said no.

“From that day I knew I had to take every opportunity and not take a minute on this earth for granted. My disability is my greatest motivation because I have to do as much as I can, while I can because the future is uncertain. I don’t know how far my disability will progress and if I’ll be able to play sports for much longer so I try to do as much as I can, while I can.”

Kraiem, who was born with cerebral palsy and is making his Maccabiah debut, found out about the Games from Goldberg and has been overwhelmed with the experience so far.

“I have gained a heightened competitive spirit and an appreciation for all the competitive sports. All the athletes and staff across most of the delegations have been so amazing and welcoming throughout this entire experience. I feel like I have friends from all over the world.

“It’s crucial for a sport such as wheelchair basketball to be part of the Maccabiah because it gives athletes with physical challenges a chance to compete in a sport on a level playing field. This is my first Maccabi Games and it’s a complete rush. Right now, I’m living my dream as a professional athlete competing in the sport I love.”

The first year Maccabiah coach, Rosenkrantz, comes to the Games with a tremendous amount of experience in wheelchair basketball as he is the executive director of SoCal Adaptive Sports in California. For Rosenkrantz, this is also his first time in Israel after having spent a number of years volunteering and working in India and Nepal with people with disabilities.

“I became very passionate about this work and combined that with my love for sports. This is my path for the remainder of my life as I will be using sport as a vehicle to learn life lessons, level the playing field and create more inclusion throughout society.”

Having adaptive sports, and wheelchair basketball in particular, at the Maccabiah is critical in its mission of inclusiveness of Jewish athletes, Levy commented.

“To put disability sport on this stage is phenomenal, the Maccabiah is the most inclusive sporting event in the world. To have junior, open, masters, Paralympic, male and female all competing alongside each other is unlike any sporting competition out there. It’s an incredible environment to be a part of and I hope we can build the momentum to include even more para sports in the future and to inspire Jewish people to reach for the stars within sport.”

Rosenkrantz would like to see how he can work with Maccabi USA to see how more adaptive sport athletes can get involved in future Games in order for more individuals to experience the uniqueness of the Maccabiah.

“I would first like to get Maccabi USA to recognize how important adapted sports are. Second, we need to reach out to other countries and encourage them to also take a stand to find more athletes with disabilities... A lot of this is education and creating greater awareness.”

As participants in adaptive sports look for greater recognition, Levy had the privilege to be the flag bearer for Great Britain, which she says showed the importance Maccabi GB placed on a para-athlete.

“Being a part of the Maccabiah Games is an incredible honor as I gain friends for life, connections from all over the world and I relight the fire within me to be a better athlete, but more importantly, a better person. This year I had the huge honor of being Maccabi GB’s flag bearer which gives me goosebumps just thinking about what a monumental occasion that was for me and for Maccabi GB; to recognize a para-athlete on a stage that big which I hope will inspire many more athletes with disabilities to reach for their dreams.”

One of the most crucial elements of the Maccabiah, or as some call it, the Jewish Olympics, is the fact that it takes place in Israel. That is something that makes the competition that much more special for all of the athletes, and that is no different for those playing wheelchair basketball.

“The Games need to be in Israel because this is the birthplace of the Maccabiah,” Kraiem said. “It gives Israelis and other Jews from around the world an opportunity to unite with a common goal and a sense of pride to compete for a medal in a country we’re all connected to.”

Levy wholeheartedly agreed.

“It’s incredibly important that the Games are held in Israel as it feels like we can come home here. It’s a beautiful country with beautiful people and I think every Jewish person should come and experience it, the fact that we can do it alongside sport is a bonus. To come to Israel is an honor as a Jewish person and it feels like home from the minute you step off the plane.

“Being here makes me feel as one with my faith and helps me push even further in my career as an athlete. It’s crucial that the main Maccabiah is in Israel – to understand the history of our people, the land and to feel the safety that Israel can give. It’s an incredible experience and I feel indebted to Maccabi GB and Maccabi World Union.”

Goldberg was plain, simple and to the point as to why Israel is the ultimate place for the Games.

“Every time that I am here, I am constantly learning more about my Jewish roots and more Jewish history. In my mind, it is very important that Israel hosts the Maccabiah and it means a lot to me personally. I just love the food and people here as they are so nice and I feel like this is my second home.”