Local athletes delight in opportunities to connect with other Jewish athletes, Jewish identity and Israel

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For Owings Mills resident Jeff Rubin, participating in the 2022 World Maccabiah Games in Israel meant more than a chance to nail some perfect serves on the tennis court.

Jeff Rubin (left), a tennis player from Owings Mills, with newfound friend Julio Adler, a surfer from Brazil. (Courtesy of Jeff Rubin)

The 65-year-old contractor and architect, who also owns The Baltimore Handyman Co., spent a total of three weeks in Israel with his wife Esther Greenberg — a trip he was looking forward to since his first visit to the country more than 40 years ago.


“Maccabiah was the motivation for the whole thing, but our trip was about a lot more than Maccabiah. This was a way to combine athletics with Judaism, but really, more like athletics and Israel and Jews.” In addition to Ramat Hasharon, where Rubin competed in the tennis events, the couple visited Tel Aviv, Netanya, Caesarea, Masada, the Dead Sea, Galilee, Golan Heights and the Old City of Jerusalem, among other sites.

“I think being Jewish has to be an important part of the reason to go. I can play in tournaments all over the place. But to go to Israel and play other people who are Jewish, in this once-every-four-years event, I feel it’s Jews first, athletes second. It’s a tremendous experience. I would encourage anybody that is able and is a good athlete to consider trying out.”

The 21st World Maccabiah Games took place July 12-26 in host cities Jerusalem, Netanya, and Haifa. 10,000 Jewish athletes, ranging in age from teens to seniors and hailing from 80 countries, converged for the chance to compete in more than 40 sports. The U.S. delegation numbered 1,350 — as President Joe Biden pointed out, it was larger than the
U.S. delegation to the Olympics — with Rubin among a handful of athletes from the Baltimore area.

“It’s very meaningful. The right kind of athlete responds to it,” Rubin said.

Rubin, a member of the JCC of Greater Baltimore member, qualified for the 65+ Grand Masters Tournament in Florida before making his way to the clay court in Ramat Hasharon. In Israel he won one match but subsequently lost to Haim Ohn, the No. 1 ranked 65+ player in Israel, who took the tournament.

One of the best parts of the Maccabiah Games for Rubin was meeting a new friend: Julio Adler, a 54-year-old Brazilian surfer. Adler was the oldest surfer in the competition, Rubin pointed out — “and possibly a long-lost cousin on my wife’s side,” he added. “This is really what Maccabiah is all about, sharing time with Jewish athletes from all over the world!”

‘A sense of belonging that’s hard to describe’

Back in the United States, the annual JCC Maccabi Games took place July 31-Aug. 5, in San Diego, California — the first summer games since the start of the pandemic.

Team sports competitions included boys’ baseball, basketball, and soccer; girls’ basketball, soccer, and volleyball; and coed ice hockey and flag football. Individual sports included coed swimming, dance, tennis, golf, table tennis, and even e-sports. More than 1,500 athletes from between the ages 13 to 16 competed, including members of the JCC of Greater Baltimore.

Held across North America since 1982, the Games came to Baltimore in 1992, 2002, 2007 and 2010. Regional Mini & Junior Maccabi Games have been hosted by Baltimore in past years, and will be held here again in 2023. This year, the JCC of Greater Baltimore sent 44 teen athletes, seven coaches and one delegation head, according a representative from the JCC.

Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School student Evan Rubenstein had a blast in San Diego at his very first JCC Maccabi Games. The 14-year-old — who plays soccer, basketball, and lacrosse, among other sports — concentrated on basketball at Maccabi, competing in the Five-on-Five category. His favorite takeaways from the experience were playing basketball, being with friends, and meeting people from all over the world. (Participants came from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Israel, and Bulgaria.)

This was 16-year old Pikesville High School student Dylan Kodeck’s first Maccabi Games as well. A golfer and baseball player, Kodeck competed in 16 & Under baseball.

“I loved the location of the games this year and all the people that I met,” he said. “It was awesome to meet Jewish teens from all around.” He said it’s important for Jewish athletes to get together “because it gives us an opportunity to bond over the sports we play and our shared faith.”

For Jenna Greenwald, 14, that element of the Games was a revelation.

Jenna Greewald (back row, right) poses with her teammates at the 2022 JCC Maccabi Games in San Diego, California (Courtesy of Jeff Rubin)

The Roland Park Country School student, who plays basketball and lacrosse, played basketball in the Mini Maccabi games in Baltimore in 2018 and the Junior Maccabi games in Philadelphia in 2019. This year was her first experience with the full Maccabi Games, when she got to both play on the same team as her best friend and meet girls from all over the United Stated and Canada; but it was the experience of an all-Jewish sports setting “was definitely the most meaningful part of the Games for me,” she said.

“I am usually the only Jewish player on my sports teams, and there are only a few other Jewish students at my school. During the Maccabi Games, at every venue, it was incredible to look around and realize that everyone in every direction was Jewish. That’s something I’ve never experienced before, and I felt a sense of belonging that is hard to describe.”

“There was such an instinctive comfort level among all the participants, and I made amazing friends from Baltimore and all around the US,” she added. “The Maccabi Games really highlighted the value of Jewish connection in a way that I wasn’t expecting, and that’s why I think this experience is so important.”

After this impactful experience, Jenna is excited to explore the opportunity of attending Israel’s Maccabiah Games in the future.

This was the first time competeting in the Maccabi Games for Ashton Seeman, 14, but he is a second-generation JCC Maccabi athlete. His mom Lisa (Ackerman) Roberts competed in gymnastics at Maccabi in 1986 in Toronto and 1988 in Chicago.

“My favorite part about this year’s Maccabi games was how Maccabi was more than just sports,” Seeman said. “Even though I loved playing baseball and representing the Baltimore team, being with other athletes at different events was great. Watching different games and events throughout the day was special too. Maccabi was more than just experiences on the field.” When Jewish athletes gather, compete, and get to know one another at Maccabi, “bonds are created throughout the community and across the country.”

A student at St. Paul’s School for Boys, Ashton plays baseball and squash there and does running cross-country and skiing. At this year’s Games he competed in 14 & Under baseball, but he said he’d love to represent the USA in baseball and squash in the World Maccabiah Games in Israel one day.

“Being in Israel would make the Games more special because I have never traveled there,” he said.

The opportunity might come sooner than he thinks. The JCC Maccabi Games will have not one but two locations in 2023: Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and Israel.

 

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