Going for Gold at the Jewish Olympics
by Gabi P. Remz
Since 1932, when a 50,000-resident town called Tel Aviv hosted the first Jewish equivalent of the Olympics, the Maccabiah Games have drawn the finest Jewish athletes to participate in a wide array of events. This year’s JCC Games, which began on Sunday, include the staples of sport, such as basketball and soccer, as well as more niche competitions, such as chess, bridge and squash. The event has grown so big that it is now one of the five largest sports gatherings in the world, causing the International Olympic Committee to officially recognize it as “regional games.”
And while these games offer nearly everyone a chance to play (the games have youth, open, and senior divisions allowing for almost all ages to participate) in a variety of settings—in addition to the Maccabiah of Israel, there are the European, Pan-American and North American JCC Games— the goal of the event is more than to simply provide Jews a forum in which to exhibit their athletic prowess.
In some cases, as with the European Games that were held in Vienna just a few weeks ago, it can be to show the endurance of the Jewish spirit.
This years European games in Vienna were the first in a German-speaking country since 1945, and overcoming the Holocaust was a constant theme of the games.
The opening ceremony took place at Vienna’s City Hall, several hundred yards away from where Hitler announced Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. The opening ceremony included footage of Hitler’s speech as well as pictures of the destruction he would go on to cause. However, the video then moved on to the Jewish recovery effort, as images of Jews rebuilding their communities in Europe and Israel flashed across the screen.
Speaker of the Israeli Knesset Reuven Rivlin focused on the spirit of endurance, saying, “We can’t forget the Vienna that was the city of Theodor Herzl, nor can we forget the Vienna of the Nazis…It’s a festival of the victory of the Jewish spirit over Nazi extermination.”
Two members of the American delegation in Vienna were, in fact, Austrian-born Jews, both of whom fled the country in 1938.
“I’m doing a symbolic swim,” one of those men, John Benfield, told the JTA. “I need to show the Nazis I’m still around.”
And Benfield, like many others, is there for something more than just athletic achievement.
Maccabi USA’s slogan is “building Jewish pride through sports.” The Maccabiah website describes the “principal mission” of the games as being not only “to facilitate a worldwide gathering of young Jewish athletes in Israel,” but also “strengthening their connection to the State of Israel and the Jewish People.”
The various versions of the Maccabi games do this by engaging host communities as well as including as many people as possible in delegations. The Maccabiah Games in Israel draw nearly 5,000 athletes, but the organization looks to include the “majority of Israeli citizens” in some capacity, whether as athletes, volunteers, or even just as spectators.
The JCC Games allow players from all over North America to connect with host families in the event’s host city, and the Games also provide social programming so that participants can develop relationships with Jewish athletes from all over. This year’s event will be held in Philadelphia and Springfield, Mass. three weeks from now.
Jonah Weisel, who represented the Greater Washington delegation in basketball from 2005 through 2008, says the connections he made at the games were strong and have been maintained over the years.
“I definitely made connections with many other kids at the Maccabi Games, to the point that I saw kids in Israel this year that I recognized from years past,” Weisel said. “I had conversations with other kids that started with, ‘Hey did you happen to play basketball in the Orange County Maccabi Games?’ I also keep in touch with my teammates and the families that hosted me.”
One issue many athletes voice about the games is the wildly expensive costs of participating. This years Pan-Am Games will cost nearly $5,000 a player, quite a price for a little more than a week of competition. Of course, many teams work hard to fundraise so that any qualified player can get a shot.
In the end, though, the mass gatherings of Jews that just occurred in Vienna, are currently happening in Israel, and will happen in a few weeks in Philadelphia and Springfield, are considered by many to exceed any price. It is a chance to show the Jews are as strong and proud as ever.