2015-09-16 / Editorial

Reflections on being Jewish—and being in Berlin

By DR. MARC BACKAL For the Voice


Dr. Marc Backal and Sara Messenger, a Cherry Hill East junior and member of the gold medal winning women’s soccer team, at the recent European Maccabi Games. Dr. Marc Backal and Sara Messenger, a Cherry Hill East junior and member of the gold medal winning women’s soccer team, at the recent European Maccabi Games. Being a Jew visiting Berlin for the first time creates a true dichotomy of feelings, and can be an emotionally difficult experience. On one hand, we were welcomed back to Germany by a chancellor who expressed the guilt and shame of her country for the murder of our people, while on the other hand, it wasn’t so long ago that we would not have been allowed to be a part of this experience at all. Being a member of the U.S.A. delegation of hundreds who participated in a memorial service at Track 17 (the site where Berlin Jews were deported to Death Camps) upon arrival to Germany on Tisha b’Av was powerful. Being part of a delegation thousands strong from 36 countries from all over the world at Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp where over 100,000 of our people perished at the hands of the Nazis, was existential.

The stories that we had all learned became hard reality. We toured the old Jewish sections of Berlin, which included the barely remaining footprint of a synagogue, many memorials of the Holocaust, memorials of those who risked their own lives to aid our people, and even remembrances of those who stood idly by watching and did nothing. The areas where glass was shattered out of hatred, and where our Jewish books and Torahs were burned are not hidden, but on full display for all to see. These are not fun places to visit, but necessary for this “Jewish sports event” to have full meaning.

Maccabi is not just about Jews playing sports; it is about Jewish pride through sports. The pride of representing your country as a Jew in a sports event in a city that a little over 70 years ago was the capital of the party that tried to wipe us from the face of the earth was just incredible and indescribable. To rise from the ashes and symbolically represent our people gave a sense of pride that was palpable.

The opening ceremony was highlighted by hearing Hatikva in the Olympic amphitheater, the national anthem of a country that did not exist when this Olympic Park actually held the Olympics in 1936. While Jewish American Marty Glickman was not allowed to participate in those Olympics, his daughter represented him as she lit the torch to open these games wearing his actual uniform to be worn by him in those games. After several days of competition, it was easy to forget where you actually were and focus on the beautiful facilities and the games themselves. I made sure to remind myself and those around me that these are not just any games held on any field in any stadium. My Jewish pride resounded every time I remembered where I was and what it meant to be here for this event. We made a statement in history for all to see.

Of course we needed to see and touch the Berlin Wall and a few other tourist sights of the city, but this was not why we were here. Bonding with Jews from around the world as well as from around the United States was amazing and unforgettable. Experiencing and participating in the largest Shabbat dinner in history with these same people was electric. We made friends and relationships that will last a lifetime during the 10-14 days that we were together. This was an incredible journey. Ten or 20 years from now, we may not remember who scored which goal or who won which game against which country, but we certainly will all remember the experience of this event and its significance will certainly grow in our hearts.

While many of us may never have intended to visit Berlin, Germany, all of us are glad that we did and will carry the Jewish pride with us throughout our lives. It has become a beautiful welcoming city that remembers its past in order to enlighten its future.

For me, in addition to being the physician for all of Team USA, being chairman of the USA Women’s Open Division Soccer team was an honor, labor of love, and a true highlight. From organizing and appointing the coaches and players, to initially meeting each other at training camp in New Jersey just before departing for Berlin, to competing and winning the gold medal while not conceding a single goal, this was a special lifetime experience that I will never forget. I informed my team that I gained 17 new daughters and a new son. I already have, but also plan to continue keeping in close contact with them for many years to come. Presently, I hear from and about them in some way every day, and I’m not even on Facebook! While I don’t believe that I committed to paying for the 17 weddings of my new children, I hope to attend a few. This is all part of what I call the “Magic of Maccabi.” We each gave something that we didn’t know we had to give and took something that will change us forever in a special way.

Thank you Maccabi and see you in Santiago, Chile in a few short months! .

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