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The Experiences of a Maccabiah Mom

10/05/2022 10:46:18 AM


by Sheri Hametz

Shana Tova. This past July, we took our first family trip to Israel. I had last been there 37 years ago as a child, and Craig similarly had last been with his family decades ago. We had intended to plan this trip sooner, around the Bar or Bat Mitzvahs of our older children, but something always seemed to intervene in the planning – having a youngest child that we thought was maybe too young to endure long days of touring, safety concerns, Covid. Our trip planning ended up on the back burner until the “right” time.

And then this incredible opportunity presented itself. The 21st Worldwide Maccabi Games were coming back to Israel after a delay during Covid. Our 17 year-old son is an avid high school wrestler and jumped at the opportunity to apply last fall for a spot on Maccabi USA’s first-ever Under-18 wrestling team. After a few months of waiting to hear back, we were in, and he met his team for the first time in May in Pennsylvania while I was scrambling to get the rest of the family organized in a tour of Israel that also left time for the games.

The junior athletes would be traveling and living together for 3 weeks, and other than 1 visiting day, we wouldn’t be able to experience Israel with our son. When his team gear arrived, his wrestling singlet emblazoned with USA on the back, we knew that his experience would be tremendously fulfilling athletically and socially. But I worried a couple of times that it would just amount to the ultimate sporty teen tour. Even though the stated mission of the Maccabiah is to build Jewish pride through sports, would this experience actually connect him to a larger sense of his Jewish identity? That of course, was the entire point of wanting to plan a family trip to Israel. I wanted him to feel something before he was off on his own in college, that he hadn’t yet felt, even after his education here and participation in Bet Torah services and programs.

I needn’t have been concerned. After the games, as we had a chance back home over the rest of the summer to reflect on our experiences, it was apparent our son left Israel with the deeper connection to Judaism we had hoped. We asked him what he took away from the experience, beyond the thrill of competing in an international athletic tournament. Having lived with other teenage athletes for the better part of a month, he realized, first of all, as he put it, that Jews, as a people are exceptionally good-looking. More importantly, as he toured the sights of the country, witnessed the ingenious farming methods that transformed dessert into fertile ground over the last several decades, met young Israeli citizens entering the armed forces and Holocaust survivors, he saw a real connection between the Jewish experience and what so strongly speaks to us about sports. So many of us are attached to sports because it’s incredible form of storytelling of perseverance, of grit and imagination, and at its best, of survival and success in the face of almost unimaginable odds.

He also came away with a sense of connection to a larger, extended Jewish family. At the opening ceremony at Teddy stadium in Jerusalem, over 60 different countries’ delegations paraded into the stadium, much like in the Olympics. Of course Josh expected large delegations from Canada, the UK and Australia, but he wasn’t expecting the huge delegation from Mexico and so many South American countries. And it was a different treat to witness the tiny delegations too that received thunderous applause from the athletes and the larger crowd. 3 Jewish athletes from the Cayman Islands, a single athlete from Ireland. Our tribal reach is far-flung indeed, and it was eye-opening for him to realize that but for happenstance, he could be a Jewish teenager being raised in any one of those countries. And so he dove into that part of the experience. He spent a lot of his downtime at the athletic complex called The Hub in Haifa, where he could watch some of the other athletic competitions, socialize and exchange pins. One of Josh’s most prized mementos from the games is his ID lanyard containing dozens of pins from the countries of fellow athletes, an unwritten journal of his connection to an extended family around the world. Which makes you realize that Jewish geography is a game you can play anywhere, including at the lunch table with our lovely Jerusalem tour guide Adi, a Yemenite Jew. It took about 2 minutes of conversation to discover that she, of course, knows our very own Brusso family through Camp Ramah.

For the rest of our family, the Maccabiah was an exhibition of another Jewish value as well. I had an evening to myself as I waited for the wrestling tournament in Be’er Sheva to arrive and decided to take the train to Netanya to catch a soccer match, but not a match of high school or college-aged players. Many sports in the Maccabiah, as you may know, involve athletes of all ages. This match was at the 40+ masters level. As the US battled Brazil in the ultimate dad soccer league, what really struck me was that I was watching an athletic version of L’dor vador, with the sandwich generation on the soccer pitch. Many of you, like me, have happily given up any real hope of a weekend social life in favor of championing our kids from the sidelines of their games. So it was a pretty cool juxtaposition to see the players’ kids on the sidelines, pressed up against the fence, cheering “Let’s GO, dad!” And grandpa was in the bleachers too, but not so much cheering as vociferously criticizing the ref. Some things never change I guess.

I wish you health and peace in this New Year. L’shana tova, and happy planning to those of you thinking about your family trip to Israel.

Sat, September 30 2023 15 Tishrei 5784