Destination, Israel: Maccabi athletes get trip of a lifetime

(L-R) Dakota Kordsiemon, Daniel Goldstein, Shawn Spitzer and Austen Berens paint a mural at a school in Kiryat Shmona during the “Day of Caring, Day of Sharing.” (Courtesy TJCC)

Each year for the past 15 years, the Tucson Jewish Community Center has taken a delegation of young athletes to the JCC Maccabi Games in another U.S. city: Omaha, or Boca Raton, or Dallas. In 2000, Tucson hosted the games, which brought excitement and nachas (pride) to our city and our JCC.

But this year was different. This year, the JCC Maccabi Games/Artsfest took place in Israel.

It was “an unforgettable experience,” Stu Epstein, Maccabi delegation head and JCC sports and wellness director, wrote in the TJCC CenterView, a “two-week adventure that included competitions, a visit to our sister city and a tour of the country.”

For the first week, the Tucson delegates stayed in a guest hostel on the Sea of Galilee while the opening ceremonies and playoff games took place in Kiryat Shmona. The Tucson team spent the traditional “Day of Caring, Day of Sharing” at a Kiryat Shmona school, planting trees, painting murals and renovating classrooms, before heading off to Tucson’s sister community in Hof Ashkelon for beach trips, pool parties and a memorable excursion to view the Gaza Strip.

The final stage of the games was held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In addition to visiting historic sites in Jerusalem, including the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, Mount Herzl and the Western Wall, the Tucson delegates toured the country, visiting sites such as the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, an archeological dig, Masada and the Dead Sea. “This tour took our breath away as we experienced things you can only dream of seeing,” says Epstein.

Ten athletes represented Tucson at the games: Austen Berens, Josh Goldberg, Ben Klinkenberg and Daniel Benita (basketball); Kendall Karon, Shawn Spitzer and Benji Benita (soccer); Daniel Goldstein (tennis); and Bonnie Diamond and Dakota Kordsiemon (swimming).

Visiting the Dead Sea, Masada and Jerusalem’s Old City were particularly memorable for Spitzer, 16. “That’s where I really connected with my religion and I understood it more, as a Jew,” he says. He was impressed by the underground water system of the Old City “and looking at the remains on Masada, and seeing how they survived with all the Roman camps around.”

Spitzer, who competed in two previous JCC Maccabi Games, played in Israel on Team Arizona with soccer players from Tucson and Phoenix. The team won a bronze medal.

“It’s a great way to meet people. I had a great time,” he says, noting that he reconnected with teens from all over whom he’d met at the 2009 games in San Francisco and last year in Omaha.

Spitzer has been chosen to play on the Juniors Boys soccer team at the Pan American Maccabi Games in Brazil this winter. Eager to return to Israel, he hopes to make a good showing in Brazil and at the JCC games next summer, so he’ll be eligible to try out for the World Maccabiah Games in Israel in 2013.

Kordsiemon, 15, who was also participating in his third JCC Maccabi Games, told the AJP it was fun to see athletes from other cities he’d met at previous games — including several Israelis who’d competed last year in Omaha. Kordsiemon, who brought home one gold, one silver and two bronze swimming medals from Israel, competed in basketball at the 2009 JCC Maccabi Games and was selected to join the Juniors Men’s U.S. basketball team at the Pan American Maccabi Games in Brazil in December.

The TJCC is making plans to attend the 2012 games in Memphis or Houston. The games are open to Jewish athletes, ages 13-16. For information, contact Jason at 299-3000, ext. 119.