Original article published in the JNS

Maccabiah educator Jennifer Brodsky says “there is an opportunity to think about Jewish identity and to add context that can often be as impactful” as the sports competitions themselves.

ISRAEL—The road to the Maccabiah is long and challenging for athletes in individual and team sports. Those lucky enough to make it to Israel’s 21st Maccabiah Games had to persevere through tryouts and qualifications, and meet standards set by each sport. The games, which held its opening ceremony on July 14 at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, are slowly winding down this week with finals underway.

They offered an array of sports—familiar and less familiar—in cities throughout Israel, both well-known and off the beaten path. Athletes, family members and all the media that covered the events needed to be mindful of travel times and distances to assure they were in the right place for each event. Jerusalem served as host for many competitions, including football (soccer) basketball, athletics, tennis, hockey, futsal and weightlifting. Haifa hosted the Youth Maccabiah version of many of the same events.

Netanya, which lies between Tel Aviv and Haifa on the Mediterranean coast and is home to beautiful beaches, hosted several competitions, including beach volleyball, basketball 3×3 (pronounced three ex-three), surfing, ninja, climbing, and beach football. For the first time, it also held surf life-saving competitions.

Other host cities and venues included Wingate Institute (rugby, swimming, water polo and futsal masters competition); Tel Aviv (artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics and cycling in the Velodrome); Tiberias (sprint triathlon); Ra’anana (netball competitions, table tennis, squash and youth baseball); Ramat Hasharon (tennis masters); Hadera (judo, karate and masters football); Ganei Tikva (fencing); Ashdod and Lod (cricket); Nof HaGalil (youth football); Ramat Gan (paddle competitions); Dalyiat al-Karmel (badminton); Gezer Regional Council (softball); and Sharona (equestrian).

As of Sunday, Israel led the medal wins by far with a total in the hundreds, with the United States in second place and Argentina in third.

Uruguay playing the United States on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on July 24, 2022. Photo by Howard Blas.

‘Inseparable part of the Israeli community’

Maccabiah chairman Arik Ze’evi is very aware of the scale of this year’s games. He says “the Maccabiah has grown over the years, and there is not a single Olympic village that can accommodate it all. Therefore, this year, the entire State of Israel is going to be our Olympic village, with competitions and events all over the country.”

Some sports even made their debut this year. In addition to surf life-saving, they include wave surfing, climbing, 3X3 basketball, motocross and paddle. In addition, after 33 years, the weightlifting contest has returned.

One singular aspect of the Maccabiah as compared to other large sports events like the Olympics is that it features juniors’ adults, masters and people with disabilities in one event. Ze’evi is particularly proud of the inclusion of people with disabilities, noting that “the Maccabiah is an inseparable part of the Israeli community. As such, this year the Maccabiah is hosting the Paralympic Games in a variety of sports and competitions.”

There is another note to the games, and that is in the realm of teaching and culture, assisted by an entire Maccabiah education department.

A U.S. athlete watches the game with Uruguay on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on July 24, 2022. Photo by Howard Blas.

Maccabiah educator Jennifer Brodsky notes that many non-sports opportunities are woven into the games, including tourism, information on Israel in general and resources for Jewish players. “There is an opportunity to think about Jewish identity and to add context,” she says, “that can be as impactful” as the competitions themselves.

The final few days of the Maccabiah proved especially exciting with the July 21 artistic gymnastics and wheelchair basketball finals, as well as the motocross competition. July 22 featured the ice-hockey final and July 23 the women’s soccer final.

July 24 was a big day with finals in men’s and women’s rugby, men’s water polo, men’s and women’s basketball, and men’s soccer. In men’s basketball, the United States defeated France 81-70.

Usually, the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is quiet this time of the year, but it was very much alive on Sunday night. The stands were packed with soccer fans wearing blue and white “Uruguay” jerseys as they enthusiastically cheered on their beloved team. Uruguay went up 3-0 and held on to defeat the United States 3-2.

Jacky Wyluzanski, a Jerusalem native of 20 years who made aliyah from Uruguay, was coordinating a last-minute Mincha minyan at halftime as the Tararam Israeli music and dance group performed on the field. While clearly pleased that his team was ahead at halftime, he noted: “Achdut (‘unity’) is what the Maccabiah is about; it doesn’t matter if you root for Uruguay or the U.S.!”

The 2022 Maccabiah Games were originally planned for 2021. Since they are scheduled to take place every four years, they will get back on track with the 22nd Maccabiah in 2025.

The audience watches Uruguay vs. the United States on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on July 24, 2022. Photo by Howard Blas.
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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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“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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A historical film in the making by Michele Kupfer shows the connection “of all of us—Jewish people from Israel and the Diaspora—as part of a big nation with a long tradition.”

Swimming has always been at the center of Michele Kupfer’s life. She swam as a child growing up in Florida, she swam during her childhood summers in Israel, and she had the amazing fortune to swim for the Israeli National Swim Team from 1977 to 1982.

Kupfer was also a member of the 1980 Israeli Olympic team, though sadly did not compete in Moscow because of the U.S. boycott of Russia. Fortunately, one year later, she had the opportunity to experience what she describes as her “personal and athletic coming of age.” She and her teammates took the gold at the 1981 Maccabiah Games in Israel.

Kupfer’s Maccabiah experience was so personally inspiring and life-changing that she has found innovative ways to share the games with the rest of the world. In fact, she is reuniting her championship swim—40 years later—to complete in the 21st Maccabiah Games in Israel this month from July 12 to July 26 (the opening ceremony takes place on July 14).

More than that, she is producing a movie, “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.

In the process, she has been capturing meaningful stories of the game’s participants, as well as revisiting such inspiring and chilling chapters in Jewish sports history—namely, the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 games in Munich.

Michele Kupfer films Israeli Gershon Shefa, one of her coaches, who competed in the 1960, 1964 and 1968 Summer Olympics. Credit: Courtesy.

‘The perfect opportunity to tell this story’

The first Maccabiah Games were held in Tel Aviv just before Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and 16 years before the founding of the modern State of Israel. That year, the Maccabiah brought together more than 400 Jewish athletes from Europe, North America and the Middle East. The games quickly grew in importance and showcased the talents of such future Olympians as American backstroker Lenny Krayzelburg and nine-time champion Mark Spitz.

Kupfer has stayed connected to many swimmers and coaches in the Maccabiah swimming world, including Krayzelburg (four Olympic gold medals and a former world record-holder), Nir Shamir (a team member from both the Olympic and Maccabiah team) and Dr. Naama Constantini, one of her first coaches, and now professor of sports medicine and director of the Heidi Rothberg Sports Medicine Center at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.

Michele Kupfer at the Israeli trials for the Masters Maccabiah 2022, in which she broke a record for her age group. Credit: Courtesy.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, several events and insights got Kupfer thinking about making the film.

First, noted being touched when she saw her former teammates rallying around a team member who was dying of cancer. “It got me thinking: What is the story here?” Kupfer did some research and discovered that there was no in-depth movie about Maccabiah, despite it being the third-largest athletic competition in the world behind the Olympics and the FISU World University Games.

Kupfer said she began to observe the rise of anti-Semitism in the world, as well as what she describes as “Israel’s big PR problem with our youth.” She notes what others have said, that young Jews often feel disconnected and even apathetic. She thought that this was “the perfect opportunity to tell this story, a human-interest story. And it is not political!”

And so, she started a 501(c)(3) charitable organization that is currently raising money to cover the costs of filming. She has already acquired Maccabiah footage going back to 1932 and will be filming this month at the Maccabiah Games. She is also aware that the clock is ticking on interviewing some older Maccabiah athletes, noting that “we are at a pivotal point—some won’t be alive much longer.”

Kupfer hopes the film will be completed sometime in 2023.

The Israeli National Swim Team in Europe in 1980. Credit: Courtesy.

‘We were all in’

Given Kupfer’s deep and extensive ties to the swimming world, as well as to Israel and the Jewish people, she is well-suited for the film project. She grew up in a strongly Jewish-identified and Zionistic home in South Florida and was a self-described “big Florida swimmer” by age 12.

Her late father, Dr. Sanford Kuvin (who died in 2015), was a physician and world-renowned researcher of infectious and tropical diseases. In 1970, he was invited to lecture at Hebrew University. When her mother, Gabrielle, went to Israel for the first time soon after his visit, she felt that Israel was where she truly belonged. The Kuvins considered aliyah (immigration to Israel), but Kuvin’s medical practice in the United States made that difficult.

Still, the family began splitting their time between Israel and the United States.

Swimmer Michele Kupfer (then Kuvin) diving off block No. 5 in 1981. Credit: Courtesy.

“We were all in; we bought an apartment in Israel and spent three to four months a year in Israel,” reported Kupfer. In 1976, her father founded and acted as the chairman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Sanford F. Kuvin Center for the Study of Infectious and Tropical Diseases, the world’s leading research center for malaria and other infectious diseases.

Kupfer looked forward to their months each year in Israel, though noted that she was worried she might not be able to continue swimming. “I said to my dad: I can’t go to Israel and not swim!” She joined the YMCA in Jerusalem and began to swim regularly at the pool there. “In 1977, I was 14, and Israel was already thinking about the 1980s Olympics. Kupfer remembered thinking, “Israel swimming is pretty damn good as a team, but they wouldn’t have made it to the [medal] podium.”

She was pleased when asked to consider joining the national team. “It didn’t take me a second to say, ‘Are you kidding me … YES!” She then became an Israeli citizen. She recalled that “it wasn’t easy. Some had the feeling I was taking a spot from another Israeli while I was going back and forth” from Israel to America.

Kupfer made the 1980s Olympic team as a 17-year-old. “I was a little scared; there was so much hatred. We discussed it with our peer group. We figured we’d go as a team, and [for safety] they wouldn’t let us out.” The Israeli team ultimately did not go due to the boycott of the Moscow Olympics.

But in 1981, Kupfer got her chance to swim on a large world stage. “The 1981 Maccabiah Games became a huge focus. I wanted to represent Israel and show the world what we were capable of.” The team won the gold medal, and Kupfer said she still becomes emotional looking back at the awards ceremony. “Playing ‘Hatikvah’ (at the medal ceremony)—there is nothing like it!”

Michele Kupfer (then Kuvin) at the 1981 Maccabiah games. Credit: Courtesy.

‘The power of sports’

Kupfer has continued to swim for most of her adult life as a way to stay in shape. “I never thought of competing … until now!” In just a week, she will have an opportunity to both swim and produce a film that will tell the important story of the Maccabiah to the world.

Former teammates and members of the Israeli swimming community share Kupfer’s excitement for both the reunion and the field. Constantini, the sports-medicine professor, proclaimed that the reunion is “very exciting.”

She pointed out an especially poignant personal connection: “For me, it is also a kind of memorial for the late Lior Birkhahn, who I coached from the age of 8, and who swam with Michele.” Birkhahn was an Israeli swimmer who died of cancer at age 56 in May 2020; her 14-year-old daughter, Gili, is competing this year in the Maccabiah games.

As for Constantini, she is swimming in memory of her late mother, Aliza Wirz, who won in the Third Maccabiah Games in 1950. “That was 70 years ago!” she says proudly.

Constantini said Kupfer’s film is important because it shows the connection “of all of us—Jewish people from Israel and the Diaspora—as part of a big nation with a long tradition.”

Krayzelburg, 46, who runs a swim academy for kids, continues to be a big supporter of both the Maccabiah and the film. “Maccabiah is an incredible celebration of Jewish heritage in our eternal homeland. Through the power of sports, it is able to bring together Jews from all corners of the world to Israel with a meaningful purpose to celebrate and honor our rich culture and heritage. Being part of this incredible event has always been a humbling and touching experience for me, and Michele’s film will share some unique and inspiring experiences of athletes that ‘lived’ the games and how it has impacted their lives.”

Thanks to the Maccabiah Games, some 10,000 athletes from 80 countries will soon arrive in Israel to compete in more than 40 sports. And thanks to Michele Kupfer’s passion and to “Parting the Waters: The Story of The Maccabiah Games,” the impact of the Maccabiah will be felt for generations.

Members of the 1981 Israeli National Swim Team reunite after 40 years. Credit: Courtesy.
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