Maccabiah Instills Jewish Pride in Athletes from Around the World

With Jewish athletes competing in the Olympics, is there still a need for Israel’s Maccabiah games?

That question gets a resounding yes from the participants in the 14th Maccabiah, which kicked off here Monday evening with a festive opening ceremony.

Though they come from dozens of countries and speak a myriad of languages, the athletes have one thing in common: a pride in being Jewish.

The Maccabiah has come under attack in recent years, largely because of the cost of staging the games. Some believe the Maccabiah’s time has past, since Jewish athletes can and do compete in most international competitions, unlike an earlier time when Jews faced discrimination or exclusion.

But the feeling that the Maccabiah is anachronistic is certainly not shared by the participants. No matter where they come from, or what sport they compete in, the athletes are unanimous in their enthusiasm for the event.

“The reason the games continue is because the athletes want it to,” said Aryeh Rozensweig, chairman of the event’s organizing committee.

“All of them feel that it’s important to come to Israel, and most have paid their own way to come here. Many of the athletes have competed in previous Maccabiahs, and now they are back again,” Rozensweig said.

‘MORE THAN JUST ANOTHER COMPETITION’

The Maccabiah, he said, “is more than just another competition. The athletes are here to soak up the Jewish environment, to be among a larger family of Jewish athletes. For many athletes, combining their Jewish heritage with athletic competition is the best of both worlds.”

That is the case for 27-year-old David Cassuto, a strapping 6-footer from Cedarhurst, N.Y. This is the sprinter’s second Maccabiah, having competed here in 1990.

“It’s wonderful being back in Israel,” said Cassuto. “Last night, during the opening ceremonies, I had the privilege to carry one of the banners. It was incredible to think that everyone walking into the stadium was Jewish. It was a very powerful feeling.”

Jennifer Frank, an 18-year-old track and field star from Oak Park, Calif., is visiting Israel for the first time. “It’s been a thrill to see where everything (in the Bible) originated,” she said. “My family doesn’t keep all the Jewish traditions, but we do celebrate the holidays.”

Frank called the competition “a high point in my sports life so far,” and said, “This visit has made me realize I’m Jewish and that it’s important not to let my Jewishness go.”

Stacey Schefflin, 25, who recently retired from the pro tennis circuit, also called the Maccabiah a high point in her sports career.

“Other than the Maccabiah, the two highlights have been making it to the third round of the Australian Open and getting to” the National Collegiate Athletic Association team finals, she said.

But of the three competitions, said the Charlotte, N.C., native, “only the Maccabiah allowed me to combine my identity as a sportswoman with my identity as a Jew.”

NEXT STORY