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The 17th Maccabiah Games in Israel, ‘jewish Olympics’ Attract Top-level Jewish Athletes

Ron Carner has no problem mixing politics with sports — in fact, that’s one of the reasons he’s so proud of the Maccabiah Games. “We’re telling the anti-Semites where they can shove their hate,” says Carner, the vice president of Maccabi USA, which is sending about 780 athletes to the 17th Games, which run from July 11-21 in Israel. “I feel very strongly about that.”

That hate almost led the Games to be called off in 2001 because of concerns over Palestinian terrorism. The Games were eventually held, although the number of athletes — more than 3,000 — was down from previous Games.

A record number of participants is expected for this year’s Maccabiah. Nearly 8,000 Jewish athletes from around the world will be competing in the Games, which include competition on four levels — open, youth, junior and masters.

Swimming traditionally draws some of the highest-level athletes from around the world — former Olympic gold medalists Mark Spitz and Lenny Krayzelburg have won gold at past Maccabiah Games.

Krayzelburg, who is slated to be inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame at Israel’s Wingate Institute on July 14, is the honorary captain of this year’s U.S. team.

Soccer, women’s basketball and tennis also draw high-level athletes, says Carner, who is also the vice president of the Maccabi World Union.

For most of the athletes, particularly the younger ones, the competition is the draw.

“I haven’t competed outside the U.S. before,” says gymnast Joshua Fox, 15, of Ellicott City, Md. “I think it will be stiff competition.”

Like many of the younger athletes, Fox earned his spot on the team through a tryout.

But many have a sense that this is about more than just sports. For some, it’s about American patriotism.

“It’s an honor to represent my country in a sport I love so much,” said Jordan Schilit, 14, of Tampa, Fla., who will be competing in track and field.

Others say they are proud of competing against other Jewish athletes.

“The fact that we are all Jewish gives us a bond,” says South Jersey’s Jamie Hacker, 16, who will be on the girls soccer team.

Older athletes are just as serious about their sports.

Take tennis player Stan Kleckner, for example. Over the last 40 years, Kleckner has won 150 amateur tournaments, including gold medals won while representing the United States in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Japan and Israel.

Though he has competed in the Maccabiah several times — winning gold in 1989 at the age of 65 — this trip is special, Kleckner says, because his son-in-law will be competing and several members of his family will be in attendance.

“This is the experience of a lifetime,” says Kleckner, who lives in Greenwich, Conn.

In 1932, the First Maccabiah Games were held in Tel Aviv, with 14 countries and 390 athletes participating. Held the same year as “Hitler’s Olympics” in Berlin, the Games took on a political tone.

“The Maccabiah would show the world that Eretz Yisrael is the land of a strong and healthy Jewish people,” said Josef Yekutieli, considered to be the founder of the Maccabiah.

The Second Maccabiah Games were also held in Palestine, but because of World War II, the Games were not held again until 1950, when they took place in Israel. The next Games were held in 1953; since that time they have been held, like the Olympics, at four-year intervals.

In 1989, the Games expanded, with the addition of teams from behind the Iron Curtain. The Lithuanian team was the first from the Soviet Union to take part.

In 1997, four members of the Australian team died when a bridge collapsed during the Games’ Opening Ceremonies in Ramat Gan. A memorial service was slated to be held at the site of a new bridge in the Israeli city on Friday.

The Ramat Gan Stadium will host this year’s Opening Ceremonies on July 11.

Throughout their history, the Games have attracted some of the top U.S. athletes: In addition to Spitz and Krayzelburg, gymnast Mitch Gaylord, tennis player Andrea Leand and basketball players Danny Schayes and Larry Brown — who now coaches the NBA’s Detroit Pistons — have competed in Maccabiahs past.

It’s no different this time around.

American swimmer Scott Goldblatt, who won a gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle relay at the 2004 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, will compete — as will fellow Kansas City resident Max Jaben, a swimming hopeful for the 2008 Olympics.

Jaben said he found irony in the fact that he is going to Israel for the first time as the result of his swimming skills. He said his pursuit of swimming at such a high level — with weekend meets and constant practicing — kept him away from his family’s synagogue during childhood.

That’s exactly the point, Carner says.

“Sports is the hook,” he says. The Maccabiah is a way to “build Jewish solidarity and a way to get people to Israel.”

The American athletes will also get around Israel as well. The teens on the American team — each of whom had to contribute $5,000 for the experience — flew to Israel a week before the Games to tour the country. During and after the Games, there will be other tours as well.

“We change a lot of lives,” Carner says.

Wendy R. Levine Gross of the Jewish Press of Tampa, Fla., David Portnoe of the Jewish Community Voice of Cherry Hill, N.J., Stacy Karten of the Baltimore Jewish Times, Rick Hellman of the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle and Judie Jacobson of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger contributed to this report.

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