Maccabiah teams scrape to fill rosters


JERUSALEM, July 23 (JTA) — “Israel’s in the house,” shouted a bleacher full of Black Hebrews, rooting for the Israel B team during a Maccabiah softball game this week against Venezuela.

The softball game was full of ironies — like this year’s Maccbiah Games themselves.

Israel’s softball players include Black Hebrews — African-American immigrants who believe they are descended from the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel — other American immigrants and a handful of second-generation Israelis whose American parents developed their love for the game.

In other sports, teams decimated by cancellations because of security concerns borrowed players to fill out their rosters.

In some sports, every team won a medal — because only three teams took part in the competition.

“They’re a sharp, young, talented team,” Mark Berman, a Dayton, Ohio, expatriate who coaches Great Britain’s national softball team, said of the Israeli softballers.

Berman came to coach Israel A for the Maccabiah when the British team dropped out in January.

“They display tenacity, they scrap and work hard,” he said.

Israel B won, 14 to 9, taking the gold medal in this year’s competitive — but smaller than usual — round of softball games.

The top softball teams generally are Canada, Argentina, Israel and the United States, Berman said.

With only three softball teams this year — down from the usual eight — all won medals.

In the final medal results, Israel B came in first, leaving Venezuela with the silver and Israel A with the bronze.

Israel’s team divided itself in two to add another team to the mix, explained Goose Gillett, secretary general of the Israel Softball Association.

“Obviously, we would have liked to have more teams,” Gillett said. “The Maccabiah’s been a bit of a disappointment this year.”

Because of the ongoing Palestinian uprising, Maccabiah officials considered canceling the quadrennial Maccabiah games just three weeks before they were scheduled to begin.

But last-minute pleas from Israeli and American Jewish leaders brought the athletes to Israel — some of them, at least. Turnout was significantly lower than during normal years.

As final games were being played and medals handed out on the Games’ last day Sunday, many players praised the stiff competition, despite the fact that fewer teams than normal were competing in most sports.

“This has been the best competition we’ve had since 1989, when there were 12 teams,” said Greg Spector, a member of the USA men’s volleyball team and assistant coach of the women’s team.

“There were bumps in the road, because of wavering and teetering, but we were a tight group that worked well together,” Spector said.

The men’s volleyball competition was fairly robust, with teams from Israel, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, the United States, Germany and Turkey participating.

Spector was about to join his teammates to play Israel for the gold in men’s volleyball. Brazil had just taken the silver against Mexico, and the Brazilians in their yellow and blue uniforms were parading around the gym with their green flag.

The U.S. team had to take two players from Israel just to fill out its roster. Nevertheless, it was a tight, solid group that practiced and played hard, Spector said.

As the players warmed up, spiking the ball over the net and jogging around the court, players from other volleyball teams took their seats on the concrete bleachers, waiting for the game to begin.

Jamie Kahn, 20, a member of the U.S. women’s volleyball team from Manhattan Beach, Calif., said her team, too, had to add two Israelis to the roster. It went on to win the silver.

“Our two coaches had quit, and we met five days before the Maccabiah began” last week, said the pre-med student from Wellesley College. “We held our own, considering we scrambled to get it together.”

The Israeli women’s volleyball team won the gold, while Mexico, the third women’s team, took the bronze.

“It’s frustrating for us, because we know what we could have done,” Kahn said. “An athlete is never satisfied with silver. Second place doesn’t cut it.”

Her Israeli competitors, however, were thrilled with the gold, the first the Israeli women’s team had won.

“This is the closest thing we have to the Olympics,” said Dana Bemayo, 18, from Ra’anana.

Bemayo and two of her teammates — Mash Tzivian, 17, also from Ra’anana, and Netta David, 18, from the Jordan Valley — were there to cheer on the Israeli men’s volleyball team.

“Is-ra-el! Is-ra-el!”

The cheering must have helped.

The men’s volleyball team won, defeating the Americans 3-0. Israel took the gold, leaving the silver to USA and the bronze to Brazil.

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