Original article published in the JNS

“The training and working out for hours and hours has been so exhilarating,” says 65-year-old martial-arts expert Dr. Leeber Cohen, who has lost 10 or 15 pounds in the process.

Some doctors and lawyers of a certain age spend their days working at the office. Others fly to Israel to participate in a Maccabiah martial-arts event—or stay at home counting the days until they recover from a hip transplant and can compete in the 2025 Maccabiah triathlon in three more years—at age 83.

Dr. Leeber Cohen, 65, of Teaneck, N.J., is currently in Israel now competing in his first Maccabiah. When he saw a post in the Teaneck Shuls email group this past November asking for “high-level Jewish athletes” who might want to consider competing in the once every four year international event often affectionately called “The Jewish Olympics,” Leeber jumped at the chance.

“It was always in the back of my mind. I love ophthalmology; it is very fulfilling,” says Leeber, who also has rabbinic ordination and enjoys teaching daf Yomi (daily pages of Talmud). But he has been practicing martial arts much longer than his livelihood. “I was at a friend’s sleepover at age 12 and started going to a [martial-arts] class.” The former Upper West Side and Great Neck, N.Y., resident has been connected to the Tora Dojo Martial Arts Association ever since.

Tora Dojo was founded in 1967 by Grandmaster Harvey Sober, a professor at the Yeshiva University of New York. The name is a bit of a play on words as tora is translated as “tiger” in Japanese, and “Torah” in Hebrew refers to the Jewish Five Books of Moses. Dojo means “school” in Japanese. The martial-arts form stresses physical and mental discipline, classical Chinese-style martial arts as Jewish spiritual and mystical concepts.

Leeber has been working with the same teacher almost continuously since age 12, with a few years off for college and medical school. He contacted Maccabiah USA karate co-chair Alex Sternberg, as well as the two karate masters he had been working with for years. He completed the forms, sent a video of him performing and was accepted to the team. In preparing for the Maccabiah, Leeber had to learn a new form and be prepared to perform with younger athletes as the masters division was potentially going to be canceled.

Cohen at practice at home. Credit: Courtesy.

Leeber spent the first part of his trip in Jerusalem—close to his mother and sister, and the Teddy Stadium, the site of the July 14 Opening Ceremonies attended by U.S. President Biden, Israeli President Herzog and approximately 10,000 athletes from 80 countries and tens of thousands of spectators in attendance.

He then relocated with the team to Hadera for the July 18 and July 19 karate competition at the Anerbox Arena.

“This has been a fabulous, fantastic experience,” he reported before leaving for Israel. “The training and working out for hours and hours has been so exhilarating,” adds Leeber, who has lost 10 or 15 pounds in the process.

The excitement started at John F. Kennedy, and then in Israel, which was buzzing; there were posters everywhere and signs,” he reports. “And the Opening Ceremony was fantastic!”

He went on to say that on Tuesday, the day of the competition, “we competed with the 18s and older. Some were top-level. One was third in Europe; one was eighth in the world …

“We entered, bowed to the judges, bowed to the audience, and then they played “Hatikvah,” which was the highlight of my experience. I did not medal; I missed eligibility for the bronze by one-tenth of a point.”

Leeber reports that “the achdut (‘unity’) was terrific. We are really all Jews in the end; we are competing with we are all cousins and family.”

And he also doesn’t forget to credit the true heroes: “My wife has been incredibly supportive, and my family says they are proud.”

Leeber recounts playfully, “When I told my [then] 9-year-old grandson that I was going to the Maccabiah Games, he excitedly told his day-school teacher that his grandfather was going to the Olympics.”

Dr. Leeber Cohen in his official Maccabiah jacket. Credit: Courtesy.

Leeber may not be participating in the Olympics, but he is giving his grandson, family, the Teaneck Jewish community and the Jewish people reasons to feel proud.

‘A connection and devotion to Israel’

Robert Sugarman, 80, a veteran of the 2009, 2013 and 2017 games, is sitting out this Maccabiah as he is recovering from mid-June hip surgery. For now, he will have to be content playing golf, which he can resume in August, according to his doctor.

Robert Sugarman running in a competition in the United States. Credit: Courtesy.

Sugarman’s interest in competing in triathlons started with his early exposure to swimming. “I started swimming at age 4 because my parents were swim counselors,” he says. “I swam in high school and tried to swim at Yale.”

The idea for triathlons was planted in 1999 during a conversation with a friend from KJ (Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun), Sugarman’s synagogue on New York’s Upper East Side, “I had swam forever and biked as a kid, but I had never run,” he recalls. “I started with a triathlon in Central Park in 2000 to see if I could and have continued to do triathlons. I did my first triathlon in Israel in 2009 and won a bronze medal.”

Sugarman finds participating in the Maccabiah “falls into place” for several reasons: “I have an affinity to swim and bike, and I have a connection and devotion to Israel—going back to my parents who were active in the ADL.”

Sugarman first visited Israel in 1956 when he was one of six New York City high school students chosen by the New York City Department of Education to participate in a three-week program sponsored by the Ministry of Education, and notes that his “love and support of Israel started then.”

Sugarman also describes himself as a “patriot” and proud American. He served in the U.S. Army for several years, including a year-and-a-half stint at Fort Lewis, a former army base located nine miles from Tacoma, Wash. He served as a commander and returned to the East Coast to practice law as the Vietnam War was taking place.

Given his love of both Israel and sports, Sugarman notes: “The thought of doing a triathlon in Israel was very attractive to me. I did it in 2009, 2013 and 2017, and 2021 was supposed to be next.”

Sugarman at a swimming competition in Israel. Credit: Courtesy.

He says he is disappointed to miss the 2021 event, which was rescheduled for 2022 and taking place from July 12-26. He is also proud to represent America. “The combination of representing the United States in a combination—in Israel—is very special to me.”

Sugarman speaks fondly of gathering with all of the American athletes prior to each Maccabiah—“all in their USA uniforms, ready to march in. Marching into Teddy Stadium is a really thrilling experience.”

And he has used his previous participation in the Maccabiah as an opportunity to “bring everybody” on a family trip. His wife, four children and 10 grandchildren now look forward to cheering him on in the 2025 Maccabiah triathlon.

The family of Robert Sugarman cheers him on in his athletic adventures, even into his 80s. Credit: Courtesy.
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Original article published in the JNS

“It is important for us that the Jews of the world know that we are not just praying and fighting here,” says Yaniv Poria, a professor in the Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management in the Department of Hotel and Tourism Management at Ben-Gurion University.

Bringing more than 10,000 Jewish athletes from 80 countries to compete in 42 sporting events all around Israel for the Maccabiah games is an impressive feat. Returning these athletes to their home countries as ambassadors and spokespeople for the State of Israel is a process that takes planning, coordination and a person like Hillel Akotonas.

The 21st Maccabiah—the biggest sporting event in Israel and reportedly the second-largest in the world (“The Jewish Olympics”)—opened on July 12 and will conclude on July 26. When the athletes aren’t competing in their sports or curiously checking out such popular events as the cycling or motocross competitions, cricket in Lod, badminton at Daliyat el-Carmel in the Haifa District, equestrian competitions in Sharona in northern Israel near Tiberias or the highly anticipated men’s soccer or wheelchair basketball finals, they can choose from a smorgasbord of options for seeing and experiencing the Jewish homeland.

“The event is more than a sports event—it is mainly an educational event, it is a Jewish event. We are trying to connect or reconnect with Diaspora Jews all over the world. It is important not to break their contact with Israel since 50% of Jews are not living in Israel,” recounts Akotonas, who is already looking ahead to the athlete’s return home. “They will be our ambassadors and represent Israel.”

Akotonas is a logical choice for the job. He has 30 years of experience working as a tour guide, manager and operator for such companies as the Tlalim Group and Egged Tours, and he formerly served as an internship advisor in the Department of Hotel and Tourism Management-Guilford Glazer Faculty of Management at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and is a lecturer there.

He says he was not concerned about coordinating an event of this magnitude. A few years ago, he organized a 6,000-person event for the WSP Insurance Company that utilized “100 busses and all of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv’s hotels.”

Hillel Akotonas. Credit: Courtesy.

“It was one of the biggest events since the creation of the State of Israel,” he quips.

The Maccabiah planning committee approached Akotonas. “They called me and said, ‘you did this before!”

Akotonas has been working on what he describes as this “enormous project” for the six months leading up to the Maccabiah. He is working with a team of 90 tour guides to bring every part of Israel to the athletes (and the athletes to every corner of Israel).

He acknowledges that many competitors in the juniors, open and masters divisions have been to Israel before, and may say: “We know Israel, and we don’t want to go on trips.”

“Therefore,” he says, “we try to give them as many possibilities so they will want to go.”

Akotonas and his team are offering more than 100 trips open to everyone by signing up. Each delegation head received a list of trips in May to share with their team members. Adults can sign for including the famous food and market tours through the Yalla Basta Company. Juniors participate by team with 25 unique tours being offered just to them, including kayaking in the Jordan River and whole-day raft-building in the Kineret (Sea of Galilee). Some people sign up at the last minute, once athletes are teams lose and are out of the competition.

‘Part of the heritage of the Jewish people’

As Akotonas prepared for the arrival of the athletes, he stepped back to consider basic ideas and concepts he has learned about tourism “This Maccabiah, we are making a big effort to do what we learn from my teacher, Professor Yaniv Poria [at Ben-Gurion University]—to acknowledge that tourism is a need—it comes from the inside, and we have this need our whole lives.”

Poria, a professor in the Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management in the Department of Hotel and Tourism Management at Ben-Gurion University, adds: “The Maccabiah is not just a sports competition; it is an event that is part of the heritage of the Jewish people.”

He goes on to explain that “when we watch the Maccabiah competitions, we do not do so in the expectation of seeing world records. When we watch the incoming delegations, it is an event of a Jewish nature. Even the athletes who come here are not only interested in competing but in getting to know other Jewish athletes, and getting to know the country and its inhabitants. This is where the tourist experience comes in. The competing athletes are becoming tourists who are not only interested in seeing the country but also feeling it.”

Prof. Yaniv Poria

Poria says “it is important to us that Jews from all over the world come here and are impressed by the Jewish state. I have no doubt that such visits can strengthen the connection between the Jews of the State of Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora. … It is important for us that the Jews of the world know that we are not just praying and fighting here.”

Michelle Kuvin Kupfer, who competed in the 1981 Maccabiah, returned this year to compete with her former team and celebrate their 40th-year reunion. She is also making a documentary—“Parting the Waters: The Story of The Maccabiah Games”—to tell the dramatic, inspiring and often not well-known stories of the Maccabiah, first held in 1932, years before the establishment of modern-day Israel in 1948.

She notes that returning home as an educational ambassador for Israel has always been part of the mission of the Maccabiah.

“The Maccabiah games started in 1932 due to Jews not being able to compete in sports competitions. Their goal from the start was to come up with a way to allow athletes to experience international sporting events, but to also act as a form of international recognition of the Jewish National Homeland through education and travel within the country,” she explains.

“Education and sport have always been the combination of the Maccabi philosophy and their success. Athletes from all countries try to incorporate education about Israel with their experience at the games through strengthening Jewish identities,” she notes, “and instilling a passion and knowledge necessary to advocate for Israel.”

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