From the fanfare of the banner-waving opening ceremonies to the pride of hearing the U.S. national anthem played during their medal ceremonies, Southern California athletes made the most of their experience at the 10th Pan American Maccabi Games. They joined over 2,000 Jewish athletes from 19 countries for the eight-day competition in Santiago, Chile.
"The games were a huge success," Maccabi USA Executive Director Jed Margolis said. "In this time of anti-Semitism, it's important for Jews from around the world to come together and compete, but also to celebrate."
The Pan American Games, which take place once every four years, are an offshoot of the Maccabiah World Games in Israel. Athletes participate at junior (13-16), youth (17-19), open (12-62) and masters (35 and up) levels in sports. This year's official dual theme of "Now More Than Ever" and "If Not Now, When?" highlighted the game's mission of encouraging Jewish pride, strengthening Jewish bonds, and fostering Jewish identity. "It's about the athletes meeting their international counterparts; Joseph Goldberg meets Javier Goldberg," said Margolis.
Maccabi USA assembled its largest Pan Am games presence to date, with an unprecedented 350-athlete and 650-person delegation. The Journal spoke with a few of the more than 20 Los Angeles-area athletes who participated in the games.
Of the U.S. teams' 212 medals, approximately one-third were earned in the pool at the Estadio Nacional swim venue. Danielle Arad, a 15-year-old sophomore at Tarbut V'Torah in Irvine, earned seven of those medals: gold in the 400-meter free relay, 400-meter medley relay, 200-meter freestyle, 400-meter freestyle and 800-meter freestyle; silver in the 200-meter individual medley, and bronze in the 50-meter freestyle.
Arad competed in the JCC Maccabi games in Atlanta, Springfield and St. Louis, but this marked her first Pam American games. "These games were the best because the group of athletes was more cohesive. We were in a foreign setting, without our parents, so we relied on each other, and became close friends quickly," Arad said. "The other athletes felt like my brothers and sisters."
Arad attributes the strong bond to the athletes' largest common denominator: Judaism. "I felt in place in Chile, like it was my world, like I belonged. It was cool because I was so far away, but I felt so at home because we were all Jewish."
Arad, who began swimming at age 8, currently competes on her high school swim team and with the Irvine Novaquatics. She plans to compete in Israel's Maccabiah games in Israel next summer and encourages other young Jewish athletes to join her. "These games were what I expected and more. So don't give up. You can get really far just by working hard -- you could get to 2005 games, and they're going to be great"
Cynthia Bevans, an elementary school technology teacher, medaled four times in Santiago. She earned gold in open teams bowling and open triples bowling and silver in open doubles bowling and open masters bowling. "Receiving the medals, standing there with the national anthem playing, really hit home. We were all crying and singing, and felt this amazing emotion and pride," said Bevans, who resides in Valencia.
The Pan Am games were originally scheduled to take place this summer in Venezuela, but political unrest forced the organizers to postpone the games until winter and relocate the competition to Chile. Bevans, who also attended the Maccabiah Summer 2001 Games in Israel, applauds the organization's preparedness. "Maccabi is very good about security and made everyone feel safe and comfortable," said Bevans, a mother of two sons, ages 21 and 13. "As an athlete, I never once had to worry about a thing."
A participant in league play at Mission Hills Bowl and Valencia Lanes, Bevans recognized that the Pan Am experience was about more than bowling strikes. "The feeling of unity amongst the athletes is overwhelming. The competition is wonderful -- it's hard competition -- but it's secondary to the unity."
The intense court play of men's masters basketball culminated in an all-U.S. championship game, where U.S. Blue defeated U.S. Red 75-58. For Team Blue center and Malibu resident Adam Lapidus, the dream of winning Maccabi gold dates back 20 years. At age 21, Lapidus tried out for and was cut from the Maccabi open men's team. He always said he'd try out again when he became eligible for the masters category. This time, the former Princeton basketball player made the roster.
To prepare for the games, Lapidus played Monday night pick-up games with fellow So Cal Maccabi teammates Steve Maizes, Andy Brog and Jeff Weisberg; but even intense practice didn't compare to the games themselves. "I hadn't played competitive basketball in 20 years. Different from pick-up basketball with friends, you have refs, you can play mean and you can play physical," said Lapidus, a television writer. "I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, how much I enjoyed the idea that each basket counted for something."
Team Blue played Team Argentina, two Chilean teams and Team U.S. Red twice on their road to the gold. The games were intense and left Lapidus impressed with the overall level of competition. "The basketball players -- in masters and open -- were incredible. One guy played at Harvard, one played pro in Israel, another played for the CBA [Canadian Basketball Association]. There were four guys on my team over 6' 6" and I bonded with another 6' 9" player from the U.S. open team."
Lapidus, who would like to go to the next Maccabi games, was amused by small-world similarities between the athletes. "I called my wife to tell her I was standing behind the Mexican soccer team who were all singing 'Dayenu,' and I laughed when I learned that one of the Peruvian soccer players was named Abramowitz."
The open women's volleyball team won their pool play contests against Israel, Chile and Mexico. In the playoffs, they defeated Team Mexico a second time and went on to face Chile in the championship match. The United States rallied from a two-set deficit and took Chile to a fifth set, before falling to the host team. Long Beach City College student Evelyn Bluthenthal and her U.S. volleyball teammates were awarded the silver medal. "We could have won the gold, volleyball is a U.S. sport, but it just wasn't our best day of play," said Bluthenthal, who grew up in Marina del Rey. "But Chile had this one amazing player, who was 40 with five kids!"
Bluthenthal, who didn't pick up volleyball until ninth grade, played in Maccabi Israel in 2001, but it was the Pan Am Games that were changed her life. "I've never been very religious, even after I went to Israel. But now, I want to be more religious," said Bluthenthal, who bonded with fellow Jewish athletes at the EIM (Estadia Israelita Maccabi) campus. It was during the daily activities of eating lunch, playing on the soccer field and hanging out all together, that Bluthenthal gained her new appreciation for Judaism.
"I came back from Chile and told my aunt I want to go to temple with her, I want to visit my brother [former USC and current Maccabi Tel Aviv pro basketball player David Bluthenthal] in Israel, and now I seek out other Jewish kids in my college classes. The trip just made me realize how wonderful Jewish people really are," she said.