2016-03-02 / Local News

Voorhees teen documents powerful experiences at Pan Am Maccabi


FAMILY: Parents Marc and Cathy, sister Hannah, 15 brother Jacob, 21

SYNAGOGUE: Cong. Beth El





Rachel Backal’s decision to play soccer in the Pan American Maccabi Games in Santiago, Chile was a very last minute one: The USA’s women’s soccer team desperately needed another player and her parents were going to be there anyway as volunteers. So three weeks before opening ceremony, the Penn State freshman booked her ticket and trained as best she could in between studying for finals.

In retrospect, she could not have imagined a better way to spend her first college winter break. The Voorhees resident was part of a talented team that bonded quickly and took home Gold. Just as memorable, she made a powerful video documenting how Maccabi’s community-service eye-screening project not only made a difference in a poor community but also a lasting impression on the participating athletes—herself included.

“I really wanted to get the message across,” said Rachel, 18. “I would not have known about what kind of need exists if we only stayed in the good part of Santiago. It’s crazy that 30 minutes away from such a pretty city, people are living in cardboard boxes. It was eye-opening.”

The 13th Pan Am Maccabi Games drew 2,500 Jewish athletes from some 22 countries, including 300 from the United States, Dec. 27 through Jan. 4. Among South Jersey participants, Merrick Wetzler, a Voorheesbased orthopedic surgeon, signed on as a physician for Team USA. The other three participants were all members of the Backal family. Besides Rachel, her mother Cathy served in a jack-of-all-trades position as welfare coordinator for the U.S. athletes. Dr. Marc Backal, her pediatrician father, was also assigned to the medical team. More significantly, he was in charge of the weeklong project responsible for screening the eyes of some 900 children and outfitting 600 of them with prescription glasses at a health clinic in San Bernardo, an impoverished city on the outskirts of Santiago. With money raised prior to the event, the medical team came armed with four vision-testing machines that cost $7,500 each. Having trained the clinic’s staff, they left two behind as a donation.

As the medical team performed vision screenings, Maccabi athletes on their day off from competition played soccer and hung out with the local kids who were waiting their turn. Rachel went, intending to hang out with the kids for the day. Like the others, she was overcome with emotion by how appreciative the kids were just to play with the Maccabi athletes and for the needed medical attention.

“We were taking pictures with the kids and talking about how not every athlete had this experience when I thought it would be cool to film it,” said Rachel, noting that making music videos and movies for YouTube has been a longtime hobby.

With just an iPhone 6, Rachel recorded a busy day in the life of the clinic, from her father making his entrance on roller blades in the early morning to the enthusiastic children waiting their turn for screenings and then being fitted with glasses, suddenly able to see better. She also interviewed the athletes about the experience. Back at home before returning to State College, she used other footage from the event, set it to music and produced a short documentary about the Pan Am Maccabi experience that her father has been using to generate interest for future Maccabi service projects.

“Rachel was fantastic,” said Marc Backal. “By documenting the project, I can get the word out and hopefully inspire other people to get involved.”

The vision project has already had a positive ripple effect. With high-profile media coverage of the clinic as a result of the games, funding for an elementary school for San Bernardo that dried up two years ago was kickstarted. Moreover, the two vision screening machines will remain in heavy use, allowing Chilean doctors to continue screening thousands more in the region..

To see Rachel’s video, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tl8X94ejvxE

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