Maccabiah athletes find Jewish pride, not just sport, at Games
TEL AVIV— Singing "Shalom Aleichem," the group of Maccabiah athletes ushered in Shabbat together at a brightly lit hotel dining hall, their Hungarian, Spanish, Finnish and British accents momentarily melting into a unified chorus of Hebrew.
Leading them was an energetic young rabbi who has come to provide spiritual context to their first Shabbat together in Israel ahead of their participation the Maccabiah Games, the so-called Jewish Olympics.
"It's exciting to be here getting to know Jews from other countries," said Maxim Poljakov, 23, a member of the Finnish indoor soccer (futsal) team. "It's a much stronger feeling of our Jewish identity being here than we have in our everyday life in Finland."
The Maccabiah Games, which began in 1932, are intended not only to encourage athletic excellence, but also to foster a sense of Jewish belonging and pride among the participants.
So alongside running hurdles, swimming relays and cycling in the Negev, the 8,000 athletes who gathered in Israel for the 18th Games from nearly 60 countries also toured the country and visited historically meaningful sites such as the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Masada. They even took part in mass bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies— some have never had one, others simply wanted to join along.
For Daran Bern, 22, an indoor soccer player for the English team, the time in Israel—his second trip after joining a Birthright Israel group—has been a revelation. Bern grew up in a home with a Jewish father and non- Jewish mother just outside London that was largely disconnected from the local Jewish community.
"I love learning," he said, smiling as he discusses Jewish culture and heritage with his teammates. "The Maccabiah is a fantastic way of getting people to do what they love to do—sport— together with the religious aspect that someone like me knows little about," Bern said. "There is always something in you that wants to know more."
Ahead of the Games' opening, the U.S. Maccabiah team of about 900 members spent several days exploring Israel. They gathered around campfires in the evening to share their experiences. One highlight: a group bar mitzvah ceremony under a full moon overlooking the Judean Desert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem amphitheater.
Olympic swimmer Jason Lezak, 33, who chose to participate in the Maccabiah Games over the World Championships, was among those who took to the stage and joined in even though he had a bar mitzvah 20 years ago.
"To do it with so many other people at the same time was an experience," Lezak told JTA.
Visiting the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, was especially powerful even though he had to fend off a camera crew, Lezak said. Praying, he tucked a note in a crevice between its ancient stones.
"It's hard to put in words," he said, trying to explain the experience. "It's something I've never really felt before.".