Tucsonans enjoy unforgettable Israel experience at Maccabiah Games

The Maccabi USA Youth Men’s Basketball team display their gold medals at the 2017 Maccabiah Games in Israel. Front row (L-R): Tucsonan Sam Beskind, Caleb Milobsky, Jackson Blaufeld, Max Leibowitz, Griffin Levine, Coach Brian Seitz; back row: Coach Jeff Klein, Amitai Afenjar, Gabriel Ravetz, Casey Ring, Bryan Knapp, Daniel Schlakman, Abraham Rosow, Ben Lubarsky, Coach Howard Fisher (Courtesy Sam Beskind)

Whether they made it to the medals podium or not, six participants with Tucson ties who went to Israel last month for the 20th Maccabiah Games, known as “the Jewish Olympics,” say the experience was priceless.

Members of the Maccabi USA Open Women’s Softball team at the 2017 Maccabiah Games in Israel (L-R): Cori Coleman, Coach Emily Bliss, Jenny Goldsher, Ellen Goldstein, Tucsonan T Statman (Courtesy T Statman)

“Softball is why I came to Israel, but Israel really came to me and made me connect more with my Jewish roots culturally,” says Tamara (“T”) Statman, 20, a member of the University of Arizona Wildcats softball team.

“During the one week Israel Connect program I had the opportunity to see snippets of the country that I had only heard of and got to participate in the b’nai mitzvah ceremony,” says Statman, who was among the Maccabiah participants who’d never celebrated a bar/bat mitzvah and never visited Israel.

”Going up on stage and reading the prayer for the ceremony with American-Jewish athletes who were in the same situation as me was so incredibly special. Not only because I got to share the memory with my Maccabiah teammates but other USA athletes, and the IDF soldiers that were traveling with us as well,” she says, adding that after getting to know Jewish athletes from all over the world, she can truly attest to the Maccabiah theme of “80 Countries, One Heart.”

The U.S. women’s softball team lost its first game to Canada. “However, the sad tale was halted in its tracks after that game,” Statman says, and the team went on to beat Canada and Israel in the next six games, winning the gold medal.

Members of the Maccabi USA Open Mens and Women’s Gymnastic teams at the 2017 Maccabiah Games in Israel (L-R): Max Soifer, Evelyn Micco, Matthew Leon, Sarah Weisberg, Sarah Buchner, Evan Hymanson, Tucsonan Brett Miller, Veronica Binstock, Skylar Kabatsky, Keith Kohn, Katherine Margolin, Cobey Pava (Courtesy Brett Miller)

Brett Miller, 20, a gymnast and student at Pima Community College, also loved the Israel Connect experience. “We visited so many beautiful places including my favorite, the Dead Sea,” he says.

The opening and closing ceremonies were “one of kind experiences,” Miller says. “Walking out into a huge crowd that is chanting U.S.A. is an indescribable feeling.”

He was also impressed by the sportsmanship at the Games. “Every team there was cheering for everyone. The amount of energy in the room was unbelievable and it was so much fun being able to compete alongside my new teammates.”

Former Tucsonan Joseph Schwartz looks for the throw as Les Bernstein of Canada rounds first base in the Open Men’s Softball final July 16 at the 2017 Maccabiah Games in Israel. (Courtesy Joseph Schwartz)

Joseph Schwartz, 32, a UA graduate who grew up in Tucson and now lives in Phoenix,  returned for his second Maccabiah Games after helping the Open Men’s Softball team take gold in 2013 (see .

“I got the chance to revisit historic sites such as the Western Wall and Masada, as well as the Holocaust museum known as Yad Vashem, with an entirely new group of people. When you experience these powerful places with people you just met, you become closer than you could ever imagine almost instantly,” he says.

The U.S. men’s softball team came close to repeating their gold-medal victory, but had to settle for silver after a black cat ran across the field in the final match against Canada, halting play for several minutes. Although disappointed after winning gold in 2013 and at the Pan American Games in Brazil in 2011, Schwartz says “the experience was unforgettable, and I don’t regret a thing.”

Maccabi USA team members lead the U.S. delegation into the opening ceremonies at the 2017 Maccabiah Games in Israel July 6 (L-R): Adam Moyerman (judo), Zack Test (flag bearer/rugby), Tucsonan Rachel Meyer (Taekwondo), BJ Johnson (swimming), Kevin Swiryn (rugby) (Courtesy Rachel Meyer)

Rachel Meyer, 21, a UA student, also returned for her second Maccabiah Games, competing in Taekwondo.

“This trip was quite different from my last, as I had a whole new team and my dad was the head coach, but it was still an amazing and fun experience! To my surprise, I was also selected along with seven other athletes to be a banner bearer during opening ceremonies. I was quite humbled by the selection and was proud to lead the U.S. delegation on stage in front of thousands of fellow Jews cheering for Team USA,” she says.

Although Meyer brought home bronze instead of gold this year after what she considers “a few rough calls” from the referees, “I am still happy to have won a medal while representing the USA,” she says.

“We had an amazing time in Israel,” says Scott Meyer, who coached the U.S. Taekwondo team.

Tucsonan Scott Meyer coaches his daughter, Rachel Meyer, before a Taekwondo match at the 2017 Maccabiah Games in Israel.(Courtesy Scott Meyer)

“The Israel Connect program was great, taking us to the Old City [of Jerusalem], to the Old Port of Jaffa, to the Dead Sea, to Masada, and the beach at Herzliya. I was amazed both at the old and the new, and felt tremendous pride in seeing how our people turned a land of rock and dirt into forests and agricultural fields, modern cities and infrastructure,” he says.

But the coach feels it would be better to move the program to after the competition, as all the walking “took the legs out of my players.”

Nevertheless, “the week ended on a high note” as he watched his daughter helping to carry the banner and lead the U.S. team into the arena at the opening ceremonies.

For Sam Beskind, a 17-year-old who plays on the Catalina Foothills High School varsity basketball team, the Maccabiah Games were “one of the most memorable experiences of my life.”

“First of all, it was absolutely amazing to see how beautiful, historic yet modern, and different Israel is, in comparison to how it’s portrayed in the media. Through the Israel Connect program I was able to see what a thriving country they have built.

“Next, the games were so much fun. There were parties, trips to the beach, and excursions to see more of the country. By the end of the day I was absolutely exhausted, but couldn’t wait to wake up early and do it all over again. Each and every day I had the opportunity to meet new people from all over the world, play the game I love, and become closer and closer with my teammates. It is incredible how just three weeks can make strangers feel like brothers,” he says.

Finally, he says, the U.S. Youth Men’s Basketball team won the gold medal, “quite the way to cap off the trip. I can’t wait to go back.”