My Word: Giving Israel a sporting chance

The arrival of planeloads of Maccabiah Games participants and new Nefesh B'Nefesh immigrants is a timely reminder of what makes this country special.

liat collins 88 (photo credit: )
liat collins 88
(photo credit: )
You'll never guess what grew in our community garden: love. Last week I participated in a special sheva brachot for a bride and groom who met through their involvement in the community gardens project and fittingly held one of the post-nuptial celebrations in our little park, where we sat on the ground and sang Hebrew songs. It was about as Israeli a scene as you can get - a group of hevre singing Ehud Manor by moonlight. The relationship between El-Or Levy and Mor Noy, who worked as madrichim (counselors) for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the International Cultural & Community Council program, was not love at first sight. It was one of those seeds that grew where you didn't expect it, resulting in a particularly precious flower. Mor is from Sasa, a secular kibbutz on the Lebanese border founded by North American members of the Hashomer Hatza'ir youth movement in 1949, when the word "settler" was considered positive. El-Or grew up in Dolev, a religious community in Samaria of the type which apparently requires the whole world's permission to continue to flourish. "Mixed marriages" between religious and secular are not common in today's increasingly divisive society. Their marriage carries with it a message of hope for the future. We are still one people. I thought of Mor and El-Or after the party in the park when I saw news footage of immigrants arriving from North America on a Nefesh B'Nefesh flight last week, just some of the 3,000 expected to come this summer. The sight of Zeev Shamdalov from Chicago kissing the ground at Ben-Gurion Airport is also something that can be seen only in Israel. The emotional high of the immigrants will undoubtedly recede, but they will probably never quite get over how special life here can be. Living as a Jew in the Jewish homeland (whether you are religious, secular or somewhere in between) is not the same as living as a Jew in the Diaspora. That's something the new immigrants already realize. And thousands of special visitors - 5,000 in fact - will also become aware of it in the next couple of weeks as they take part in the Maccabiah Games, nicknamed "The Jewish Olympics." This Maccabiah, the 18th (or "hai" - "life" - in Hebrew), has attracted an excellent turnout numerically; altogether with the Israelis there are 7,000 participants, and if it doesn't make sporting history, well, that's not really the point. When it comes to the Maccabiah, the saying that participation is more important than winning is not just a cliche - it's a truism. The Maccabiah is more a means of fostering Jewish continuity and identity than sporting achievement - even though it can boast "a pool" of talent. It gave the world its first glimpse of swimming superstar Mark Spitz, a 15-year-old champion of the 1965 games. And one of this year's noteworthy competitors is Jason Lezak, a three-time Olympic gold medalist from the US who is making a splash on his first trip to Israel. The 1965 Maccabiah also brought basketball player Tal Brody from the US to Israel for the first time. Brody later immigrated and became a local legend, particularly after he so quotably pointed out in his strong American accent following Maccabi Tel Aviv's big win against CSKA Moscow in 1977: "Anahnu al hamapa ve'anahnu nisharim al hamapa!" (We're on the map and we're staying on the map!). Many immigrant sportsmen (and -women) have made Israel proud, including pole vaulter Alex Averbuch and kayaker Michael Kalganov, each in their own way expressing that same sentiment. The Maccabiah is a family affair and the Diaspora competitors, immigrant Israelis and Sabras are united by more than their love of sport. The competitive spirit contains an element of sibling rivalry. BEING PROUD participants in the Maccabiah is about Jewish pride as well as the sporting spirit. And where else but at the opening ceremony of the "Jewish Olympics" could a basketball coach, like Todd Schayes, carry a banner reading (in Hebrew): "Single American male looking for Israeli wife. Staying at the Hilton Hotel, TA"? Bypassing the hotel switchboard which crashed from the calls, I interviewed Schayes in 2001, a few days after his well-publicized entrance, and discussed how he planned to sift through the details of more than 3,000 girls - and quite a few Jewish mothers. The Maccabiah, like the Olympics, has not all been fun and games. The history of the Olympics has been marked by very inglorious moments. The lowest point of the modern Olympics was the attack by Palestinian terrorists on the Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972, which left 11 of the country's top sportsmen and coaches dead. It was this attack that first made me really aware of the link between Israel and Jews, setting me on the path to aliya. The Maccabiah's worst episode was when the Israeli "Trust me" mentality resulted in the deaths of four Australians and injured more than 70 when the bridge over the Yarkon River collapsed during the 1997 opening ceremony. In a symbolic act of closure, Josh Small - who was seven when his father, Greg, died in the accident - is participating this year on Australia's tenpin bowling team, where his father had been a top player. The 2001 games nearly didn't go on when Palestinian terror attacks left potential participants nervous - especially in the wake of the Dolphinarium discotheque bombing in Tel Aviv (which killed 21 young people) less than a month before the opening. Fortunately, the foreign teams realized that they had too much to lose by letting the terrorists triumph. This year's games are taking place under the shadow of the economic crisis, making the substantial donation by Jamie McCourt, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Dodgers and another Maccabiah VIP, all the more significant. Interestingly, the financial meltdown is playing a role in encouraging many of the new immigrants arriving this summer from "wealthy" countries. They are discovering that life in Israel has a great deal to offer - and there's more to life than money and the rat race. We wish "mazal tov" to all Maccabiah participants, new immigrants and newly-weds building their lives here. Give it a sporting chance and you can't lose.