Let the games begin -- in Israel.
The 17th World Maccabiah Games, an intense, world-class Olympic-style competition, will begin July 10 in Israel. The quadrennial games will bring together more than 7,000 Jewish athletes from 60 countries in 30 sports and four age divisions: youth, juniors, open and masters. More than 80 of those athletes hail from the greater Los Angeles area.
"I'm so excited, so thrilled, you don't even know," said Dr. Jonathan Davidorf, a Calabasas ophthalmologist who will compete in masters tennis.
Although he has played tennis for more than 30 years, the Maccabiah Games will be Davidorf's first international competition.
"I keep running late with my patients, because I'm talking to all of them about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said. "It's my fantasy baseball camp, my Olympics."
Like the Olympics, the World Maccabiah Games kicks off with extravagant opening ceremonies. The four-hour grand spectacle, held at Ramat Gan Stadium, will feature Israeli pop stars, a parade of participating athletes and a crowd of 40,000 spectators.
"I am so looking forward to marching into that stadium wearing my U.S.A. jersey," Davidorf said.
The Maccabiah movement has come a long way from its humble 1895 inception, when the first all-Jewish Maccabi Gymnastics club was created in Constantinople. By the end of World War I, more than 100 Maccabi-style organizations existed across Europe. In 1932, 390 athletes from 14 countries participated in the first World Maccabiah Games. The games have attracted Jewish champions ever since.
Notable Maccabiah alumnae include swimmers Mark Spitz and Lenny Krayzelburg, gymnasts Mitch Gaylord and Kerri Strug, NBA stars Ernie Grunfeld, Dolph Schayes and Danny Schayes, golfer Bruce Fleisher, tennis pros Brad Gilbert and Dick Savitt, World Cup soccer star Jeff Agoos and Olympic triathlete Joann Zeiger.
Drawing world-class participants, the Maccabiah Games have gained an impressive reputation. No longer looked upon as a casual gathering of Jews who enjoy playing sports, the games are now considered one of the top international sporting events in the world.
The 2005 games will feature NCAA athletes, nationally ranked athletes and members of the Olympic Development Program. Team U.S.A. members were chosen at intense national tryouts earlier this year, and once selected, trained rigorously on their own. Now that the games are near, many teams have gathered together for extended practices.
Beverly Hills real estate broker Yael Chotzen, 22, spoke with The Journal from New York, where the U.S.A. women's open soccer team held its demanding weeklong training camp.
"You realize quickly that these are some of the best athletes in the country," said Chotzen, a forward who's played soccer all her life. "It's more than just a Jewish event. It's a major sporting event. The caliber of these athletes is outstanding."
Despite the tough competition, Chotzen and her teammates have big goals. "We'd like to bring home a medal," she said.
Winning is on all the athletes' minds, but it's community that lies at the center of the Maccabiah Games.
"Sports is the attraction. The Land of Israel is the vehicle. Jewish continuity is our primary goal," said Jordan Weinstein, general chairman of the U.S. Maccabiah Committee.
The Maccabiah community starts at home. Southern California athletes spoke of the amazing monetary and spiritual support they received from their local synagogues. Many athletes' proud families are traveling to Israel to cheer on their loved ones.
The sense of community deepens at the games, where Los Angeles athletes will bond with their international counterparts.
"I can't wait to represent my country, but I'm also excited to meet Jewish kids from other countries," said Jillian Schnitman, a Team U.S.A. junior tennis player, who helped Calabasas High win the CIF championship. "Everyone will be so different, and yet, because we're all Jewish, we're all kind of the same," said Schnitman, whose father competed in the 1981 games.
Amanda Maddahi, who will compete in open karate, echoed those thoughts. "I'm excited to compete on the world level. Combine that with going to Israel and meeting other Jews who are passionate about sports -- it's great," the UCLA pre-med student said.
She expects to connect with participants on several levels. "My two worlds of Judaism and karate have always been separate," she explained. "But with the games, everything will come together."
Maccabiah officials foster the idea that it's a small Jewish world after all.
"It is the goal of the U.S. Maccabiah Organizing Committee that the members of Team U.S.A. come to Israel as Jewish athletes and return as athletic Jews," Weinstein said.
But how do 10 days of tough competition lead to Jewish solidarity? Sportsmanship. Shared experience. Shared respect. Shared memories.
"Remember that feeling of brotherhood you felt on Friday night a Jewish camp?" Davidorf said. "I'm expecting the Maccabiah Games to bring on those same feelings. Life doesn't offer many experiences that create a bond as strong and memorable as that."
To further enhance their Jewish experience, members of Team U.S.A. will have enjoyed a weeklong cultural tour of Israel before the games begin.
"I'm ecstatic. Not only do I get to go to Israel for the first time, but I get to go with a team," said Lisa Shirin Goldshani, 17, a recent Beverly Hills High graduate who will compete in karate.
The games focus on extraordinary athletic achievement, social interaction and a unique visit to Israel, but Southern California sportsmen realize the Maccabiah Games also serve Israel's greater good.
"My wife and I want to show our support for Israel; it's important in these times and this seems like the ideal way to do so," said Davidorf, who has not been to Israel since he was 12.
But perhaps showing support isn't enough. Some athletes believe the Maccabiah Games are a missed PR opportunity.
"I wish that the competition was on U.S. TV," Chotzen said. "It would show that Israel is about more than conflict, violence and struggles with our neighbors. Jews are about so much more than that. We're fun, we go to parties, we excel at sports. I wish people could see this side of Judaism."
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