JERUSALEM (Jul. 9)
Greg Spector, a strapping, 6-foot-4-inch volleyball player from Los Angeles, tends to be philosophical when discussing why he decided to participate in this year’s Maccabiah Games.
"The Maccabiah makes a statement," said Spector, 31, sporting a yellow visor and green satin yarmulke for lunch at Jerusalem’s Haas Promenade. "It’s about representing a world of Jews and showing what it is to be Jewish."
During the quadrennial Maccabiah Games — known as the Jewish Olympics — there are usually 5,000 participants competing for 10 days.
But this year, because of ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence, only some 2,000 athletes from 40 countries are expected to attend the 16th edition of the Games, which have been shortened to seven days and officially begin July 16.
North America usually sends the largest contingent of competitors, with 600 of the continent’s best Jewish athletes taking part. This year, there will be about 380 athletes coming from North America.
For a while, it wasn’t clear whether the U.S. team would attend the Games.
In early June, Maccabi USA’s executive committee urged organizers to postpone the Games until next year because of the current security situation.
When the Israeli government asked the committee to reconsider, it met again on June 14. After a series of discussions, members voted to attend.
"We’re Jews, and we’re here in the State of Israel as an expression of solidarity," Jordan Weinstein, chairman of the Maccabi USA steering committee, told U.S. participants Monday. "Israel needs us now, and you are ambassadors for the U.S."
His remarks triggered a round of high fives among the audience, as the participants congratulated each other on making it to Israel this summer.
A recent U.S.-mediated cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian Authority played a major role in getting the players here this year, said Bob Spivack, president of the Philadelphia-based Maccabi USA.
"When we felt more comfortable after the cease-fire, we polled our leadership and felt that we could provide a quality cultural and educational experience," said Spivack, who has been involved with the Maccabiah for 20 years. "And the proof that we made the right decision is that" so many "kids showed up."
The cease-fire has been far from complete, however, and Israeli officials are taking precautions because of the security concerns.
At least one armed guard is being assigned to each busload of athletes, and there will be more than 600 police officers and soldiers at the opening ceremony at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium.
There is also a 24-hour hotline for athletes to call with any problems or questions.
About half of the American athletes are first-timers, Spivack said. Through e-mails, letters and phone calls, Maccabi USA organizers told potential participants about a U.S. State Department travel advisory warning of regional violence, and then let them make their own decisions.
"This is a group of special kids," he said. "The fact is, they had a choice. In years past, it was just about a free trip to Israel. This time they had to decide."
The U.S. team arrived Sunday evening — an El Al plane full of energetic, excited participants wearing official Maccabiah blue T-shirts and baseball caps.
Gathering for the introductory session Monday morning at Kfar Maccabiah in Ramat Gan, the group hooted and hollered its way through a video history of the Maccabiah Games.
Created in 1932, the first games were held in the Ramat Gan stadium. Over the years the Games have featured some of the world’s best Jewish athletes, such as swimmer Mark Spitz, baseball player Sandy Koufax and gymnast Mitch Gaylord.
This year, one of the American swimmers is Olympic gold medalist Lenny Krayzelburg, who won two gold medals in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Most of the participants are not professionals athletes. Some 75 members of the U.S. team are under 17 and play on their school varsity teams.
The swimmers are mostly college-age, while the rugby players are generally in their late twenties, said Barbara Lissy, one of the Maccabiah coordinators.
While the Maccabiah isn’t a professional competition, it does take time — and money — to prepare for and participate in the Games.
Each player must raise $5,000 to cover participation costs. In addition, there are the tryouts and mid-year training sessions. There is also the four-day pre-camp when the U.S. team spends time touring around Israel.
Josh Henkin, a muscular 30-year-old rugby player from Burlington, Vt., currently working on a doctorate in molecular physiology, decided to attend nine months ago.
A second-time Maccabiah participant, Henkin didn’t have any doubts about attending, considering it his duty both to the rugby team and the State of Israel.
His tennis player sister, however, "bailed" because she found the security situation precarious.
Avi Fogel, a high school basketball player from San Diego, Calif., had some trouble getting the necessary support for making the trip, particularly from his mother.
"My mom was flipping out," said Fogel, a long-legged 16-year-old whose father is Israeli. "I always wanted to come, and I was planning on it since last summer. We finally got my family in Israel to convince her."
Many of the players present said they had little hesitation when deciding whether to attend.
In fact, Seth Baron, a swimming coach from Atlanta, found himself becoming a proponent for this year’s Games.
"I’ve been to the Games three times, so I didn’t have to come again," Baron pointed out. "I think some of my swimmers jumped on board because of that."
Now that they have arrived, the U.S. athletes are happy about being in Israel.
During yesterday’s 6:30 a.m. volleyball practice, one team member couldn’t stop grinning, said Spector, a graduate student in classroom education who is also co-coaching the women’s team.
Why the smile?
"’I'm playing volleyball in Israel," said his teammate. "’What could be better than that?’"
Well, winning — although there may well be a slim chance of that happening.
The Israeli team has consistently won the gold medal in volleyball, as well as in swimming.
It’s the camaraderie that brings athletes back time after time, Spector said.
It’s also an opportunity to compete against and get to know other Jewish athletes from around the world, even when they have to use sign language to understand one another, he said.
"We had such a good time playing Turkey in volleyball last year, and then hanging out with them afterward in the lobby," he said.
"Or look at the rugby players. They go out and break noses, rip off ears, but then they go to the pub and hang out. It’s just a lot of fun."