Having slipped momentarily out of line for a group picture, Josh Hersz and fellow members of the Australian Maccabiah basketball team were about to cross a makeshift bridge over the Yarkon River leading into Ramat Gan Stadium for the 1997 Maccabiah Games opening ceremonies when all hell broke loose.
Under the crush of participants, the bridge collapsed, sending many of those on it into the water. What initially seemed almost comic turned tragic: Four members of the Aussie contingent were killed under the crush of humanity, combined with breathing in pesticides, while 60 more were injured.
“I was feet away, right at the foot of the bridge,” Hersz vividly recalled, knowing if he and his buddies hadn’t gotten out of line to snap that picture they could’ve well been among the victims. “We thought at first just that everyone had gotten wet. We had no idea there was any problem.
“It wasn’t a very deep river. The trouble was everyone fell on top of each other and there were people stuck on the bottom of the pile. And they had sprayed the whole thing with so much pesticide some people drowned because they were breathing in those fumes.”
Next week, Hersz and three members of that ’97 hoops squad — including his younger brother, Tom — will return for a July 4 memorial service marking that tragic occasion.
Following that, they’ll march into Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium, which now hosts the opening ceremonies, before preparing for the six-team master’s 35-to-44 competition. For Hersz and company, there’s unfinished business.
“Traditionally at Maccabiah, whatever the age group, Israel and America tend to dominate and everyone else plays for the bronze,” said the 6-foot-9-inch Hersz, who won bronze in the 1999 Pan American Games in Mexico City, as well the 2001 Maccabiah Games. “But there have been exceptions.
“It would be considered a big upset, but our goal is to knock off Israel or the U.S. in the round robin and play for the gold medal.”
To prepare, Hersz has spent the past few months not only training but honing his game. It had been more than a decade since he’d played competitively, giving up his uniform for a referee’s uniform.
So the Dresher resident originally from Melbourne has been a regular at the Adult Jewish Basketball League in Jenkintown, where he’s worked on perfecting those back-to-the-basket moves, along with a decent jump shot — just like the Boston Celtics Kevin McHale, the player he fell in love with first watching NBA games in the 1980s.
Back then, Hersz never could’ve foreseen he’d one day leave his home to settle in the Philadelphia area.
Upon arriving in a strange country, Hersz found solace and warmth working in the Jewish community — at JCCs in Margate, N.J., and Wilmington, Del., followed by Tribe 12 and The Collaborative. Now he’s a Realtor, where he discovered that being tall has some unexpected advantages.
“As crazy as it sounds, in real estate height lends credibility,” Hersz said. “It gives people an instant reason to believe you and trust you.”
Height aside, Hersz knows how fortunate he is next to others from his family and his country.
“The majority of the Australian Jewish community descend from Holocaust survivors,” said Hersz, who changed his name from the Polish Herszlikowicz. “All four of my grandparents were survivors, so I’d hear some crazy stories.
“Part of the reason we all came back to the [the Australian club team Maccabi Warriors] is being Jewish and having Jewish pride. Growing up, we were always sitting at the Shabbat table with my grandparents every Friday night.
“Going to Israel to play is a continuation of the same thing. I’m always honoring my grandparents and everything they went through and honoring their extended families where everyone was killed when I do things like work in the Jewish community and go to the Maccabiah Games, which brings Jews around the world together.”
In his case Jews from the Land Down Under with a special purpose. “A bunch of us started talking how we’d love to go back and be there for the 20th anniversary of the bridge collapse,” said Hersz, who recalls just before the tragedy Israeli security warning there were too many people on the bridge. “Twenty years later to those of us who were there in ’97 it’s the idea of never forgetting.
“Just our way of always make sure we remember four people who went and never came back.”
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