It’s a balmy summer night in Paris. Jacobo Vahnish, 19, a Modern Orthodox Panamanian table tennis player, is turning his phone off to welcome a Shabbat filled with prayer and ping-pong. He has just spoken to his parents, Maydee and Igal, who live in Panama, wishing them Shabbat Shalom.
Vahnish was born in Panama City to an Israeli-Panamanian family with a home on the coast, and a supportive, hardworking mindset that prepared him for success. At just seven, Vahnish was a top karateka in Panama, coming in second place in the Pan American Karate championships. As a reward, his parents bought him a foosball table with a table tennis attachment.
“I started playing with my mother for fun and I started liking the sport,” he says. “After that, when I was around seven, eight years old my mother took me to some ping-pong classes.”
“The more difficult the challenge, the greater your love is for it.”Jacobo Vahnish
At Vahnish’s first table tennis class, he didn’t hold back, or if he did, no one noticed: his teacher immediately recognized his talent while his mother was impressed. From that day forward, she committed herself to encouraging her son’s talent, taking him to competitions wherever they were.
“I was very motivated, and my reaction was to immediately think of a sports development plan for him,” she says.
The novice player soon found himself in a tournament trial for Panama’s national under-11 team, losing to the former champion. “Then I got into one of the best tournament table tennis groups in Panama, where I developed my skills a little bit,” Vahnish says.
Smart, sociable and ambitious, when Vahnish dreamed, he dreamed big. As his success grew, so did his training needs. His mother, who made fresh challah every Thursday and took her young table tennis player to practice everyday, found a summer camp in China that would better suit his needs. Devoted and proud, they set off on their journey.
Keeping Judaism abroad
Ironically, the various difficulties he ran into were due to his religion, not his form. At the time, Vahnish was just a little kid with a kippa in the middle of China. Balancing being an observant Jew and training with the best table tennis players in the world was a challenge unanticipated by Vahnish, but he was able to continue practicing Judaism with the help and guidance of his mother.
“Thank God it was never a struggle,” she explains. “Of course, it was a challenge because it wasn’t always easy, we traveled to different parts of the world that normally it was difficult to find any Jewish community or especially kosher food.”
Bringing suitcases of kosher food, he also took his Jewish traditions and customs wherever table tennis took him.
“My mother made sure that every Shabbat we had Shabbat food, any place in the world,” Vahnish says. “When we were in China, in Europe, everywhere. Also, every holiday we went to the Shanghai Jewish community, which is a very nice Sephardi community. Also, my mother would bring the kosher food from Panama anyplace we were [training]; she brought chicken and made sure that I had Jewish and Torah classes.”
The physical and spiritual challenges only strengthened Vahnish’s Jewish identity, as he continued going to China for extended periods of time. As a matter of fact, he accredits his fierce love for Judaism and its practices to the struggles he faced training abroad. “The more difficult the challenge, the greater your love is for it,” he says.
Returning from his first summer in China resulted in triumph, as Vahnish became Latin America’s first-ever Panamanian Under-11 champion. “After that, China became my main training base every year, going for around five or six months a year, every year playing bigger tournaments and different tournaments like the Central America Junior Championships, Latin America Junior Championships, and the World Series with world championships.”
By 2017, the kid with a kippa had ranked as the second-best table tennis player under 15 in the world. Vahnish was recognized, respected, and sought after on the international stage, and was recruited for one of the toughest table tennis leagues in the world: the Levallois Sporting Club. There, he joined the Championnat de France par Équipes, entering a team for the first time.
Vahnish describes this experience as “one of the greatest experiences” of his life, which helped him achieve his goals, learn new skills, and discover how to work in a team setting away from the table-tennis table and into the Beit Midrash (a place dedicated to Torah study).
Vahnish says that in terms of learning Torah, his experience in sportsmanship and team-building made him be a more receptive, efficient havruta (Torah-study partner).
A career begins
In 2018, Vahnish’s ping-pong career took off, and he participated in tournaments for the Youth Olympics at just 15 years old. In between his heart pumping and heavy breathing, the sweaty Vahnish truly learned what it meant to lose.
“I played against players who were 17 and 18, so I had a disadvantage,” he says. “I arrived at the finals in the Latin America qualification tournament, but unfortunately I lost.”
When recounting the events, he says that this loss was one of the best and most difficult things that ever happened to him: “It was a very, very hard experience for me to lose such an important competition, but it helped me to learn that in sports and in life, you don’t always win and there are losses, but we need to learn how to deal with that, to learn from them and to improve after that.”
Vahnish went on to win the Latin American Championships for the Under-15 category, and qualified for the World Under-15 Championships as a member of the Latin American team, winning the 2019 Central American Championships.
Eventually, he revisited the idea of competing in the senior Olympic Games, practicing for two to three months for the qualifying competition, but forfeiting his spot due to a flare-up of old and new injuries he sustained while training.
“My arm injury came back again. And that pain was very tough, and I also had an ankle sprain. So we made the decision to not play the qualification. Honestly, the arm pain is what really didn’t let me play.”
But in true Vahnish fashion, these challenges only fueled the fire within him, spurring him to go on to win the New York State Championships and Central America’s Under-19 Championships, both while attending Yeshiva University.
Vahnish plans to play in the upcoming Maccabiah Games, representing Panama in the international sports tournament held in Israel that starts on July 14.
Vahnish has competed in the Pan American tournaments twice before, but this will be his first time at the Maccabiah. What sets this competition apart from the countless tournaments he’s participated in, his mother says, “is that it’s full of friendship, interaction and, most importantly, love for Judaism and love for Israel. I thank God for this great opportunity for Jacobo, not only in the sporting aspect, but for all the experiences that Baruch Hashem he will have.”
Vahnish describes his everyday training as a split six-hour table tennis workout, with breaks in between to pray, eat and rest.
When asked about his nightly routine before a game, Vahnish says: “I visualize before a game, and I usually study my competitors, so that I have an idea of what I am facing. Also, before the game, I like to have some time alone to meditate a little bit and prepare my mind for the game.”
Life looks different for Vahnish during the school year. Being a full-time finance student leaves little time for athletic activities. “Right now, because I am in university, I practice much less, around one hour a week – something like that,” he said.
Although Vahnish is unsure of what his next moves will be after graduation, he is open to anything, including aliyah.
“I cannot tell what the future holds for me,” he says. ■