For USA Maccabi athletes, going to the Maccabiah Games in Israel is a bit like going on a blind date, except they’re almost certain the match will work out.
The games, held every four years, will take place from July 5-26 in Israel. Over 1,300 delegates from USA Maccabi, the Philadelphia-based organization for the athletes representing the U.S., will attend the Olympic-style event. The 21st Maccabiah games were supposed to take place in 2021, but were delayed a year due to COVID.
Philadelphia will be well-represented at the games as well, with 85 delegates from Pennsylvania attending, most of them athletes. But while Maccabi USA prides itself on its ability to connect American Jews to Israel, the U.S. and each other for the games, few of the athletes have met each other in-person. As athletes prepare for their respective events, many of which are team sports, team-building takes on some unconventional practices.
“Most, but not all, the other countries we’re competing against — in many of those countries, the Jewish communities are concentrated around one or two metropolitan areas,” said Maccabi USA CEO Marshall Einhorn said. “Some of those countries are able to train and compete together throughout the year.”
The U.S., however, has athletes from all over the country participating on one team, making team training schedules impossible to coordinate.
“If the last few years have taught us nothing else, they’ve taught us that we’re able to be on Maccabi, just as society has been able to form, maintain that and build community,” Einhorn said.
For Jarett Wodotinsky, a 15-year-old Bucks County soccer player competing for the first time in the U16 Juniors team, team building means staying active on a group chat with the other players. Instead of locker room banter and friendly scrimmages, the team bonds with memes and Zoom calls.
As Wodotinsky trains in a more traditional fashion on his own terms, the virtual connections he builds still serve an important purpose to him.
“Where I live there’s not many Jewish kids,” he said. “So just getting to know a bunch of kids from around the country and becoming friends with them, it’s just something that I’ve always wanted.”
The team will meet on July 4 in Israel for training camp and will travel around the country to learn Israeli history. All of Team USA is staying in the same hotel.
For Lauren Sara, 59, a Wynnewood-based equestrian competing in the Masters dressage event, preparing for the games takes an even more unconventional turn. Though she’s been practicing for her event with her mare Lola for the past four years, the steed will not make the trip. Sara will meet the horse with whom she will compete only two weeks before the games.
“The first day, we’ll just sort of do a ride around and see who suits who, and then that’ll be it,” Sara said. “By day two, I will have my partner, and that will be it. And it’s just a matter of forming the partnership.”
Sara has seen two-minute videos of the potential horses and relies on cues from their gait and temperament to make a good match. She remains confident in her ability to train with her horse.
“I’m going to win,” she said.
There are some exceptions to the blind-date approach to team building, however. The USA Masters hockey team holds weekend training camps throughout the year, giving the players a chance to get to know each other after the team was formed in September 2021.
The team has had training camps in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and South Bend, Indiana, and team members hosted Shabbat dinners in their families’ homes to bring the team together off the rink. In past years, the team has stayed on a kibbutz.
“I don’t know that any team is doing Hamotzi and singing a couple of songs,” said Philadelphia-based coach Joshua Petersohn. “You didn’t realize that the defenseman from Los Angeles knows the Mi Chamocha the same way you do…it’s just kind of funny.”
The almost immediate sense of community in chemistry on the team isn’t by chance, Petersohn said. While a shared love of hockey connects the team, shared religious experiences forges deeper connections.
It’s the crux of what makes Maccabi USA and the Maccabiah Games a meaningful experiences to so many Jews, believes Matthew Steinberg, a Jenkintown financial advisor and managing director of Oppenheimer & Co. Inc, who competed in the USA Masters ice hockey team and won gold in the 2013 games.
“There’s cohorts, there’s sports, but when you have Jews around you, it’s just an automatic and immediate connection,” Steinberg said. “We’re already on the same team: We’re Jews.”