Israel hosted the world’s largest sporting event of the year this summer, the 19th Maccabiah Games, held July 17-30. Three Tucsonans participated as athletes in the Olympic-style games, which included Jewish athletes from 70 countries, while one current and one former Tucsonan were inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Fred Lewis, 65, has lived in Tucson for 34 years. A handball player, he was named to the Jewish hall of fame in 2011, but the ceremonies are held every four years, in conjunction with the Maccabiah Games, he explains.
Many times national handball champion, both in four-wall and three-wall competition, Lewis was inducted into the U.S. Handball Association Hall of Fame — headquartered in Tucson — in 1992.
Love of the sport has helped him give back to the community. In 1997, he cofounded Yes-2-Kids, a nonprofit organization that used handball “to enrich the lives of so-called disadvantaged kids here in the community,” he says. More recently, he formed the Fred Lewis Foundation for Youth Handball, with the same mission.
This summer’s trip was his first to Israel. “It was extremely heartwarming,” he says, explaining that along with his son and his brother and sister-in-law, he spent a week touring the sites, from the Diaspora Museum to Masada.
Lewis gets emotional talking about the hall of fame ceremony, where he sat next to “Israel’s treasured athletes,” he says, such as Yael Arad, the first Israeli silver medalist in the Olympics, who hoisted the Israeli flag at the Maccabiah opening ceremonies.
There was also Esther Roth, “who dropped out of the women’s 100-meter hurdles at the Munich Oympics after 11 of her countrymen were murdered” in 1972, he says. “To me, this is what it’s all about. Although I’m an American, I identify with the Jews of Israel and their quest to have an independent state, and all the great things that they’ve done there since 1948.”
Former tennis pro Jimmy Grabb, 49, a native Tucsonan who now lives in New York, was also humbled at being honored alongside the Munich athletes. The ceremonies were “touching – very simple but very elegant,” he says.
Grabb was the world’s No. 1 ranked doubles player in 1989 and 1993.
He was in Israel with family members, including his mother, Tucsonan Lola Grabb, and his wife, Sarah Stenn, who ran the half marathon at the games, winning gold in the 40-49 age division.
“We brought our two little girls, ages 8 and 10, with us, so they got to take it all in. So we had three generations there,” says Grabb, who also got to spend time with Israeli cousins.
Rachel Meyer, 17, who competed in Taekwondo, won the gold medal in the open women’s division, defeating Israel’s national champion, who claimed silver. The only member of the U.S. Taekwondo team to win gold, Meyer made the U.S. National Junior Olympic Team.
“My trip to Israel was unforgettable, more amazing than I ever imagined. My Taekwondo team was a great group, which was a big part of what made this such a great trip. I am very proud of all our performances at the Games!” she wrote in an email from the Junior Team “Future Stars” camp at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs.
For Joseph Schwartz, 28, helping the U.S. men’s softball team win gold was “nice,” but being in Israel for the first time was “amazing.” He especially enjoyed the “Israel Connect” program, a mandatory guided weeklong tour for Team USA members of the youth, junior and open divisions (except masters) prior to the games. He also delighted in the softball division’s beachside accommodations in Tel Aviv, where the water was surprisingly warm. “It’s so different, it’s weird. It’s great,” says Schwartz.
Laurence Kaye, 52, who competed in squash, also helped his U.S. team take home the gold and won a bronze individual medal. But for Kaye, the competition was secondary. His uncle, Mervyn Tankelowitz of Johannesburg, South Africa, was one of eight Maccabiah officials from around the world honored, with many members of Kaye’s family from the United States and South Africa on hand. “The ceremony was really cool. It was quite moving,” says Kaye. The camaraderie among the athletes “was very heartening” he says, and being in Israel for the first time in 35 years, he was fascinated “to see the general growth, the commercial success” as well as getting to revisit historical sites.