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Four Days in Israel for the Maccabiah Games

Four Days in Israel for the Maccabiah Games

Rabbi Steven Lowenstein with Maccabiah athlete and two other people

“As a Jew, I need Israel. More precisely: I can live as a Jew outside Israel, but not without Israel.”
-- Elie Wiesel

It has been a tough few weeks in Israel. Jews around the world have been devastated to see Israel's prime minister renege on promises to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel (Western Wall), not to mention the conversion crisis, the blacklist of 160 rabbis whose rulings regarding who is a Jew are not recognized by Israel’s chief rabbi, and most recently, a terror attack on the Temple Mount. Amidst all this negativity, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote: “Today, Israel’s very identity is at a crossroad: runaway Jewish nationalism threatens to meld Israel with the Palestinians in the West Bank, while runaway Orthodox politics threatens to disconnect Israel from its most committed supporters.”  

I’m one of those committed supporters. I love the little strip of land in the middle of the middle of the middle of the world. It’s in my bones, and has been since my first family trip in 1978. I jump at any chance to visit, whether popping over for a bar or bat mitzvah or leading a congregational trip. When I am there, I feel more connected and alive, aware of my surroundings, and proud of my heritage. Last month, when seven members of my congregation, Am Shalom in Glencoe, IL, participated in the Maccabiah Games, I had to go.

The Maccabiah Games are the third largest sporting event in the world, behind only the Olympics and The World Cup. This year, more than 10,000 athletes from 59 countries made their way to Israel to compete. Equipped with an Eldan rental car, WAZE, and Mobileye, (Israeli collision avoidance technology) I traversed the country for four days watching Am Shalom members compete.

In Haifa, I watched as Larry – at age 71, among the oldest members of the 1,100 strong American delegation – endured a knee injury in his first-round judo match, achieving a silver medal nonetheless. Later, I travelled to Petach Tikvah to see Camille and the women’s field hockey team upset Holland 2 to 1. The team went on to lose a heartbreaker for the gold against Israel.

Back in Haifa the next day, I watched 14-year-old Elie – the youngest American participant –  compete in karate among religious and secular Jews from around the world. At the end of each match, win or lose, the competitors shook hands, embraced, and bowed. With tears in my eyes, I watched the judge place a bronze medal around Elie's neck as Hatikvah (Israel’s national anthem) played for the 15-year-old Israeli who had won the division.

On the third day, I drove to the Kinneret (a geographic region in Israel), but couldn’t find the sports venue and arrived just as Josh and his partner David won the gold medal in two-man rowing. I hung out with the American team between races in the only air-conditioned room for miles before they went on to win three more silver medals against fierce competitors. Returning to Haifa, I watched David and the American 16-and-under Futbol – we call it soccer – team defeat Germany in a hard-fought match. They went on to win the gold in a double-overtime victory. Racing to Jerusalem, I made it in time to see Jessica and the women’s soccer team defeat Australia 4 zip before they lost to Israel 2 to 1in a heartbreaker for the gold. At the new ice hockey rink in Jerusalem the next day, just before I headed to the airport, I watched Doug and the American over-35-year-old masters team beat Israel for the bronze medal, ensuring that each of the seven Am Shalom members returned home with medals from the competition, making the congregation and me immensely proud.

More than medals, though, the Maccabiah Games represent sportsmanship at its best as athletes came out to cheer on their teammates and friends. I especially loved hearing the chants of competitors from Mexico and Argentina as they demonstrated their over-the-top patriotism and genuine ruach (spirit).

Despite the backdrop of terror and infighting in Israel today, I continue – through my own “mobile eye” – to see an Israel of miracles and challenges, a country not merely surviving but thriving, and one that teems with hope, energy, meaning, and possibility. It is a place of contradictions, one I support even as it frustrates me, and one I believe in, even if I don’t always agree with it.

Rabbi Steven Stark Lowenstein, the senior rabbi of Am Shalom Congregation in Glencoe, IL, is the author of For the Love of Being Jewish and For the Love of Israel.

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