A spirit of unity

The 20th Maccabiah draws a record 10,000 athletes from 80 countries.

The closing ceremony of the 20th Maccabiah in Latrun on July 17 (photo credit: KAYLA STEINBERG)
The closing ceremony of the 20th Maccabiah in Latrun on July 17
(photo credit: KAYLA STEINBERG)
IT’S EASY to be cynical about the Maccabiah, the so-called Jewish Olympics.
After all, a sporting competition for Jews sounds like something from a bygone era certainly not fitting the political correctness of the 21st century.
The future of the quadrennial multi-sport event looked to be doubtful after the Maccabiah bridge collapse in 1997 resulted in the death of four Australian athletes and the second intifada led to a poor turnout in 2001.
But after seemingly losing relevance with each passing series of the games, the Maccabiah has found renewed purpose.
Sports remains the focus, but more than ever before it has become a tool by which to strengthen the connection between the Jewish Diaspora and the State of Israel.
That has been one of the objectives of the games since the first Maccabiah in 1932, but never to such an extent.
Just ask those participating, some of whom spent more than $10,000 to make the trip to Israel.
“We got together only three weeks ago, but these guys are like my brothers now,” says Jake Rozhansky, who scored a hat trick for the USA in a 3-0 win over France in the men’s soccer final. “I never thought the Maccabiah would be like this. This is my first time in Israel and it has been amazing.”
Maren Angus, who won a gold medal as a player on the USA softball team, expressed a similar sentiment.“I come from a really small town in Tennessee, so I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place with this many Jewish people in my life,” she says.
Such is the bond created by the Maccabiah, that many of the participants are already making plans to come back for the next games.
The coach of the USA’s men’s basketball team, Doug Gottlieb, a renowned basketball analyst who now works for FOX Sports following tenures with ESPN and CBS Sports, is one.
“The hospitality was wonderful and I’m looking forward to coming back in four years,” said Gottlieb, who had previously won a Maccabiah gold medal as a player.
“It is more special to win as a coach, to see the players became a real team. They love each other and fought for each other.”
WHILE AN initiative to increase the number of participants inevitably hurt the level of competition, there was still sporting excellence of the highest order on display during the fortnight event.
Australia’s Matt Levy was named male athlete of the games after setting a world record in the Paralympic swimming competition.
The seven-time Paralympic medalist improved his own record in the 200-meter freestyle in the S7 class. The 30-year-old, who has cerebral palsy, won five gold medals in total in what was his first Maccabiah.
Levy won a gold medal at the London 2012 Paralympics as part of Australia’s 4x100m freestyle relay team and a gold medal at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics in the 4x100m medley relay event. He also claimed one silver and three bronze medals in London and competed in Israel a year after taking a bronze in the 200m individual medley in the Rio Paralympic Games.
“It is an honor to be asked to go to these games to represent Australia,” said Levy, who was born at 25 weeks and has survived 46 operations. “When I go overseas, I love to learn about the different cultures and people, and learning about the cultural side of Judaism in a place like Israel is pretty amazing.”
Canadian track and field star Sasha Gollish was named female athlete of the games.
Arguably the biggest name to compete in the 20th Maccabiah was American Olympic swimming champion Anthony Ervin.
The native Californian who now lives in Florida captured a pair of gold medals at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio in the 50m freestyle and the 4x100m relay. The victories were a near repeat of his gold and silver medals in the same events at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
Ervin, who also has won two gold and one silver World Championship medals, sat out competition for nearly nine years before returning in 2012 to the top of the Olympic podium at the age of 35, making him the oldest individual Olympic gold medal winner in swimming.
“This is not like anything I’ve ever experienced,” says Ervin, who won all his events at the Maccabiah. “I’ve been to the Olympic Games and this is a little different. Lighting the Maccabiah flame in the opening ceremony is something I will never forget.
“When I was 12, I went to a youth Maccabiah competition in the US, but have been to nothing similar since. I thought this was a good time to come, being an Olympic champion again.”
THE OFFICIAL slogan of the 20th Maccabiah was “80 countries, one heart” and was meant to represent the unity of the worldwide Maccabi community, which came to Israel in record numbers for the games.
More than 10,000 people participated in the various events, including masters and juniors competitions ‒ that equates to some 23 hotels, 600,000 meals, 1.2 million water bottles and income of 350 million shekels for local tourism. All in all, 2,100 medals were handed out across 43 sports played in eight different cities, with Jerusalem acting as the main host city.
“Fifty years after unification, we have finally returned the Maccabiah to its rightful place, Jerusalem ‒ the capital of Israel,” Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said.
In welcoming Maccabi World Union chiefs, heads of delegations and athletes to his official residence in Jerusalem on July 10, President Reuven Rivlin stressed that the Maccabiah was about so much more than athletics.
“Sports brings people closer because it is a celebration of the human spirit and body, but also because sports, at its best, reflects the world in the way we would like to see it where talent is celebrated regardless of religion, race or gender, and everyone must play by the rules,” he said.
“As Jews, we know that it is far from a given that all people can take part in sporting competitions and that sports and politics don’t mix. Jews have been victims of racism and discrimination in sports. The Maccabiah is the answer to this. We can argue and we can disagree among ourselves. But we are always one family.”
As it grows, the Maccabiah is also attracting non-Jews in a way not previously possible.
Eligibility rules for Maccabiah competitors vary from country to country. Some delegations require athletes to be Jewish according to a strict interpretation of religious law, while others have more liberal rules.
The son of Brazil’s legendary soccer player Ronaldo is one such example. Ronaldo’s son Ronald, 17, is not Jewish, but he was a member of Brazil’s under-18 soccer team in the games. Ronald is part of São Paulo’s “Hebraica,” a type of club popular across South America that functions as a cross between Jewish community center and country club.
Still, there never seems to be any shortage of jokes centered around the games being the biggest Jewish matchmaking event in the world.
At a time when numerous issues threaten to widen the rift between Israel and the Diaspora, the Maccabiah has become a point of optimism that Jewish unity ultimately will prevail.