By Sarah Odell
The third largest sporting event in the world is the Maccabiah Games. Held every four years in Israel, the so-called Jewish Olympics are a major international sporting competition. Only Jewish athletes can compete, but the range of Jewish heritage is wide: some athletes have only a single Jewish grandparent, while others have been raised Orthodox.
First held in 1932 in Tel Aviv, the Maccabiah Games made squash history in 1977. After three years of lobbying by a group of English players, the tenth Maccabiah Games became the first multi-sport international event to feature squash.
The inaugural U.S. squad in 1977 included Roger Alcaly, Lenny Bernheimer, Bill Kaplan, David Linden and Glenn Whitman on the men’s open team and Maurice Katz, John Kaufman, Jim Prigoff, Art Sicular and Bob Slaughter on the masters team. Although the Games were headquartered in Tel Aviv, there were not enough squash courts in the city, so matches were played on open-air courts at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After upsetting Australia and England, the open team finished with a silver medal with a loss in the finals to South Africa. The masters earned a bronze. These were remarkable results, considering both the lack of softball experience on the team and the one hundred degree heat on the courts.
In 1981 Kaplan led the team, which again lost to South Africa in the finals. Four years later, the first U.S. women’s team was comprised of Carole Dicker, Mariann Greenberg Susan Rose and Phoebe Trubowitz. They finished with a silver medal, as did the men’s team that included Stew Grodman, Kaplan and Brian Roberts. Grodman had to go to the hospital after suffering heat exhaustion.
In the past forty years, nearly three hundred Americans have played squash in the Maccabiah. Team USA has come home with medals in each of the ten previous Games, including a record fourteen in 1997. Many American squash leaders have played in the Maccabiah: US Squash board chairs (Bernheimer and Jeanne Blasberg), board members (Zerline Goodman, Beth Rasin, David Slosberg and Shanin Specter), Harvard squash coaches (Dave Fish and Steve Piltsch), urban squash pioneers (George Polsky and Greg Zaff), top American players (Amy Gross and Ivy Pochoda) and longtime leaders (Steve Green and Jeffrey Laikind). One of the most dedicated might be Brian Roberts, who was a part of the 1981, 1985, 1997, 2005 and 2009 teams.
Many participants vividly recall the excitement of the opening ceremonies—the cheers of the massive crowd as they came into the stadium in uniforms, the dancing and trading pins with other athletes, the taking of photos. “It was truly our Olympic moment and most memorable,” Bernheimer said.
This summer’s games, held in mid-July, will be no different. Among the 9,000 athletes competing on behalf of seventy-eight countries in forty-six sports will be some of America’s top squash players. On the junior girls’ team, there is Alexis Schatzman, who plays for Baldwin, Sydney Soloway, the founder of SquashCares, and Ariel Silverman, Emily Bartos, Caroline Arena, and Julia Fink. On the junior boys’ team, there is Sam Turner, a member of the Haverford team that won the National High School title, and Nathan Feinstein, Daniel Hutt, Thomas Kaye, Eli Kramer, Brad Levin and Brian Schiller. Sam Scherl, who reached the finals of the National Juniors, will be competing on the men’s open team, along with Brian Roberts, Daniel Eisenberg and David Berliner. This year’s women’s open team is Brynn Bank, Nicole Feshback and Zoe Kagan.
They will play just outside Tel Aviv at the Ra’anana Squash Center (the home of Israel’s urban squash program, SquashBond) and the Hertzliya Squash Center.
The real purpose of the games, as stated by Maccabi USA is to, “build Jewish pride through sports.” The U.S. team will fly to Israel ten days before competition begins, in order to join in a unique program called Israel Connect. The athletes spend ten days training for two hours in the morning; in the afternoons, they take seminars and travel all over the country. One day will be spent touring the old city in Jerusalem, another day at the Dead Sea and walking up Masada. Each team is paired with one or two other teams in Israel Connect. It is an intense and intimate opportunity for athletes to bond with one another and deepen the experience of being in Israel. There is an opportunity to have a bar or bat mitzvah and enjoy a Shabbat dinner.
At the end of the ten days, teams move to hotels near their competition site. All of the athletes take part of the opening ceremony, which takes place in Ramat Gam Stadium, the national stadium in Tel Aviv.