Israel’s Olympics

The Maccabiah is not about just discovering who is the fastest Jewish swimmer, as opposed to the world’s fastest swimmer.

Preparations for the 19th Maccabiah Games390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Preparations for the 19th Maccabiah Games390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The international sports competition of the 20th Maccabiah has begun – a two-week festival of sport with some 10,000 competitors from 80 countries, including 7,000 from the Diaspora. The so-called Jewish Olympics will showcase athletic achievements in more than 40 events.
The tripartite Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius, Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” expresses the same ideal as the Maccabiah, but when it was proposed by Pierre de Coubertin as he formed the International Olympic Committee in 1894, there were no international sports venues that welcomed Jewish athletes.
The Jewish world at the end of the 19th century, particularly in Europe, had no time for games. It was too concerned with such events as the czarist publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the French persecution of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus. Coubertin’s noble motto was not meant for Jewish ears: “These three words represent a program of moral beauty. The aesthetics of sport are intangible.”
What a sea change has occurred in the Jewish world since then, in 19 previous Maccabiah games that highlighted Jewish athletes, many of whom also participated in the international Olympics. Indeed, that was one of the original purposes of the Maccabiah.
As noted in the Maccabiah’s statement of origin, “The purpose of these worldwide Jewish competitions was to allow the various participating associations an opportunity to test their strength, prepare themselves for international and Olympic competitions and to glorify the sports achievements of Jewish youth.” The Maccabiah is not about just discovering who is the fastest Jewish swimmer, as opposed to the world’s fastest swimmer. Every four years it brings to Israel’s spectacular setting Jewish athletes to experience the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” in a family-like atmosphere. That some Maccabiah competitors eventually make aliya is a bonus; it is taking part in the games that matters.
This year’s competitors include athletes who have already proved their courage and determination in their field of sport. One who stands out is Sherry Levin, the head coach of the US Women’s Open basketball team.
Now 54, the Newton, Massachusetts, native and cancer survivor participated in her first Maccabiah as a player in 1981, winning the silver medal with the US Open team. She then went on to win a gold medal as a coach with the USA’s U-18 Girls’ squad at the 19th Maccabiah in 2013.
“Everyone who battles cancer says that it changes their outlook on things. It does. Every positive moment becomes cherished, while every negative one you let wash away and forget,” Levin told The Boston Globe last year. “I’ve come full circle from when I was a player on the team... It’s also a life-changing event. For me, it’s an opportunity to give back. You get to experience going to Israel, connecting with your heritage, and do it with the spirit and passion of having USA on your uniform.”
The Maccabiah is also literally a family event for some participants. The three Rivera brothers – Jake, Luke and Nick – play together on the USA Open ice hockey team and are visiting Israel for the first time.
“The ability to play alongside each other is an incredible opportunity that will make for an even more memorable experience,” they told The Jerusalem Post. “To make it that much more special, we will be able to do it front of our entire family, on their first trip to Israel, a very proud moment for all of us.”
Some families compete separately. Tennis player Jonah Jurick, 17, is a junior, while Michael Jurick, 49, is a master player, and family member Avram Woidislawsky, 77, is a grandmaster on the court. Despite competing individually, the family will march together in the opening ceremony.
“I’m imaging myself in the moment, marching with my son and father-in-law, and thousands of other Jews, and just beaming with pride,” Michael said.
The Maccabiah was the culmination of a 10-year campaign begun by a 15-year-old Jewish boy in Belarus, Joseph Yekutieli, in response to the 1912 World Olympics in Stockholm. In 1930 and ’31, Yekutieli led a 9,400-kilometer promotional tour for the first Maccabiah on motorcycles from the Sinai desert through Egypt, Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Austria, Germany, and France to England. For the first time, enthusiastic Jewish athletes were invited to participate the following spring in the Jewish Olympics.