We need more Orthodox Jews planning the Maccabiah Games - opinion

We want the Maccabiah Experience – A Lifetime to Remember to include everyone.

 YONATAN, A 17-year-old yeshiva high school graduate wearing a kippah, receives a medal at the Maccabiah Games, last month.  (photo credit: DR. ALEX STERNBERG)
YONATAN, A 17-year-old yeshiva high school graduate wearing a kippah, receives a medal at the Maccabiah Games, last month.
(photo credit: DR. ALEX STERNBERG)

The World Maccabiah Games is often described as the Jewish Olympics. It came into being largely as an antidote to discrimination against Jewish athletes across Europe in the 1930s. I have been involved since my first Maccabiah Games in 1977. This year, M21 Games was my 12th Maccabiah Games. As a Jew, I am very proud of the Maccabiah Games, but as an Orthodox Jew, I feel M21 Games was a series of missed opportunities.

Over the years, I have advocated for the Games, recruiting athletes, donations and support. I explained that the Jewish Olympics brings together Jewish athletes in a spirit of brotherhood: Am Yisrael Chai. My karate teams consisted of both observant and non-observant athletes. Each had a rewarding take-home experience, lasting long after the Games ended. For some, it was life-changing. But, this July, my observant athletes traveled home with a bittersweet taste.

I have been coaching karate athletes for many years. Some made it to the United States National Team and competed in the World Championships. Some were Orthodox, like me, and walked hours at times to reach the competition venue when it was scheduled on Shabbat. Some decided against competing altogether.

As a result of such obstacles, the Maccabiah Games is a ray of sunshine for Orthodox athletes. Maccabi USA (MUSA) organizes the US athletes for the Games. Overall scheduling of the Games is the responsibility of the Maccabi World Union (MWU).

While the Games are a two-week adventure, MUSA includes an additional week, called Israel Connect (IC). This week is devoted to touring all over Israel in order to familiarize the 1,300-member US contingency with Israel and her culture: Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, the Kotel and, of course, Masada. We in MUSA are very proud of this effort, perhaps the core reason we labor every four years to arrange this experience.

 ISRAELI PLAYERS celebrate with their Maccabiah medals (credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN) ISRAELI PLAYERS celebrate with their Maccabiah medals (credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN)

Scheduling faux-pas 

But this year the trip to Masada was scheduled for Shabbat, much to the disappointment of all Orthodox athletes. I received numerous calls and emails from anxious parents demanding an explanation. “Did I not guarantee them that the Maccabiah Games, the Jewish Olympics, never schedules any events on Shabbat?” they demanded to know.

After I reached out to MUSA leadership, I was assured that any affected athletes would be taken to Masada on a different day. Separate but equal? In fact, my karate athletes were taken later on. But I am told that orthodox athletes from other sports were not. Observant Maccabiah participants felt that by violating the Sabbath laws, who knows if even the laws of Kashrut were observed? MUSA certainly missed an opportunity to teach about Shabbat.

Yonatan S., a 17-year-old yeshiva high school graduate, offered: “Touring on Shabbos alienates the Orthodox athletes, coaches and other staff members. But it also undermines the entire Jewish experience of being in Israel. Most of the athletes already know what it feels like to travel, tour and have such fun on Saturday. It would be a special and new experience to have Saturday as a set aside rest day.”

Shabbat struggles

During the IC Shabbat, all athletes were mandated to stay together in the IC venue even on Shabbat. They were promised traditional Shabbat activities.

 But Yechiel L., a 15-year-old from Long Island, wrote: “I recall walking around the grounds with two of my Orthodox teammates, looking for other Orthodox males to have a minyan for Shabbat services. It would have been nice had there been information sent out of where the Orthodox athletes could meet up, and hold Shabbat prayers and meals together.”

After the first Shabbat, parents were allowed to pick up their children from the Haifa hotel on Shabbat morning but had to return them in the afternoon. Were the organizers unfamiliar with the Sabbath prohibition of driving on the Holy Day? After much pleading, permission was granted to pick up the teens Friday before Shabbat and return them immediately after. With many parents staying in Yerushalayim, Tel Aviv or Netanya this rushed trip during the pre- and post-Sabbath traffic was extremely hectic.

High school hassle

When applying to the team, high school athletes were informed about a scholarship available to reduce their $8,500 (NIS 28,257) participation fee by a partner organization called RootOne.

To be eligible, they needed to complete a separate background application including listing the name of their high school and agree to participate in Israel in a pro-Israel information session. But RootOne flagged the orthodox high schools and informed parents that their children were ineligible.

When I asked RootOne for an explanation for this blatant discrimination, they graciously informed me that if my son switched from a yeshiva to a public high school, he would become eligible.

Later MUSA leadership promised to absorb the $3,000 (NIS 9,973) for each orthodox high schooler discriminated against by RootOne. Why did RootOne adopt such an anti-orthodox policy? Why did MUSA leadership allow it?

Recently, the executive director of RootOne, Simon Amiel, in his op-ed article in The Jerusalem Post (July 28) reported about the success of their program, explaining that they were targeting North American Jews facing antisemitism.

The caption under the photo in his article proclaimed “Some 2,300 North American Jewish teens attend RootOne’s Big Tent Event in Israel.” I wondered, Amiel, couldn’t you find room under your Big Tent for a few Orthodox youngsters? Don’t the kippah-wearing Orthodox also face antisemitism?

The Games were not all welcoming to observant athletes as one might believe. In the past, events have been scheduled during fast days on the 17th of Tammuz and 9th of Av, and swimming events during the Nine Days. The organizers at MWU can avoid such conflicts by consulting members of the orthodox community.

We started the “Shomer Shabbat Maccabi” WhatsApp chat group, to offer constructive ideas for improvement. It is growing fast. I believe that my friends in MUSA simply overlooked the Orthodox needs because they may not be part of that community.

We offer our help and ask that more Orthodox people be invited to join the committees planning such trips. We want the Maccabiah Experience – A Lifetime to Remember to include everyone. Even the Orthodox.

The writer is MaccabiUSA Karate co-chair, recipient of “Legend of the Maccabiah” 2018 and a USA Karate Federation Hall of Fame inductee 2015, in addition to a professor of Zionism and Jewish history.