Jennie Shulkin’s grandparents purchased flights to watch her play tennis this summer at the Maccabiah Games in Israel before she even tried out for the U.S. team — and she considered herself a long shot.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of a series of profiles spotlighting some of the more than 100 teens and adults preparing to represent the United States this summer in the World Maccabiah Games in Israel.
Jennie Shulkin’s grandparents had already made firm plans to watch her play tennis this summer at the Maccabiah Games in Israel before she had even tried out for the U.S. team — and she considered herself a long shot.
When she called her grandfather in November to say that she had made it, he said, “We booked the tickets in August.”
While Shulkin’s grandparents had been thinking about watching her from the stands, she had been thinking about what her place on the court at the 19th World Maccabiah Games would mean to her and her family.
Sid Bari had wanted to compete in the games when he was a little younger than Shulkin, who is 20. In 1930s Germany, he was an aspiring track-and-field athlete and, at age 15, hoped to compete in the 1938 Maccabiah Games or the next round.
He never got that chance. The games were canceled as Nazism spread in Europe and they were not held again until 1950.
“Overwhelming activities took place at that time. You didn’t think of the games. You thought of the destruction, the loss of jobs,” he said.
Bari’s father and an older brother fled Germany for the United States in December 1938 on an affidavit that allowed for only two people to depart. Bari, his mother and a younger brother anxiously waited to hear if the two in America had been able to raise enough money to get them out. They did, and the three remaining family members left Germany in May 1939. By the time of the next games, Bari’s athletic aspirations had become secondary to his assimilation into a new country.
With his own athletic dreams dashed, he said, he is especially proud whenever he watches his granddaughter compete. Watching her in some way makes up for the chance that had been taken away from him, he said.
When she competed in the 2009 games as a squash player, he told her, “Don’t come home without the gold.”
Shulkin, of Gladwyne, said her grandfather has been a constant supporter, attending her tennis tournaments since she won her first one at age 8. When deciding which sport to play at the games, she considered her 90-year-old grandfather, who always preferred tennis over squash. She said he had always been concerned that playing squash would interfere with her tennis stroke.
He had, in fact, introduced his own daughter, Merle, to tennis at an early age, taking her to lessons and arranging for her to be a ball girl on the Virginia Slims Circuit, the women’s tennis tour.
Jennie’s mom also attended the Maccabiah Games in 1977 as a youth participant, meaning that she was part of the U.S. delegation. She stayed in the athlete’s village but did not compete; at that time there was no juniors division. She talked to her daughter about her experiences in tennis and at the Maccabiah Games.
“Life in the Olympic village was the most memorable part, just being with Jewish athletes from around the world,”said Merle Bari, a dermatologist. “It was a great experience, so I always wanted her to compete in it.”
In 2009, Shulkin’s squash team did in fact win the top prize, something her family has become accustomed to, watching her compete in tennis over the years. At Harriton High School in Rosemont, her tennis team won the state championship each year that Shulkin competed as the top player on the team. (She missed one year due to a shoulder injury, but the team won that year, too.)
That might explain why Bari didn’t worry about buying non-refundable airline tickets to Israel.
“We felt certain she was going to make the team, she was that good,” Bari said.
Shulkin wasn’t so sure. She had been competing in squash, not tennis, at the University of Pennsylvania. Her competitors were all Division 1 tennis players, and Shulkin felt she wasn’t in good enough shape.
“I’m not sure why they had so much faith in me, but it makes it so much more special that they’re going,” Shulkin, a Penn sophomore, said of her grandparents.
She stopped playing squash at the college level to focus on training for tennis for this summer’s games. She knows what she’s giving up. But she said winning gold in 2009 in Israel meant more than any of her high school state championships.
“While the state championship was an incredible experience that I would not trade for anything, who was I representing — my high school, myself? At the Maccabiah Games, I’m representing my family; I’m representing America. I think the Maccabiah is also so meaningful to me because it is in Israel, which for me is the most special place on Earth,” said Shulkin, a Communications and Public Service major.
Shulkin, who grew up at Har Zion Temple, said she “thinks about Judaism in everything” she does. She attended the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in March as a representative for Penn.
Her grandfather, who served as executive director of the Brith Sholom Foundation, said he looks forward to seeing the thousands of Jewish athletes come together at the games.
“I will be beaming,” Bari said. “My cheeks will be red — you know, puffed up — both seeing the nations marching in during the opening ceremonies, as well as seeing Jennie play tennis and win — we hope.”