The European Maccabi Games saw 2,000 athletes competing for themselves and for those not allowed to do so in days gone by.
BERLIN — More than 2,000 Jewish athletes from 36 countries around the world descended on Berlin to participate in the European Maccabi Games, which ran from July 27 to Aug. 5. Many of these athletes traveled with family members there to support them. Some families came to sightsee; others, like Tori Klevan’s father, came to compete.
Klevan, 18, came from Lower Merion to play soccer on the women’s open team. After learning about Maccabi when she was invited to join the team, her dad, Fred, decided he wanted to come, too. He competed in a half marathon in the master’s group over the weekend.
Klevan didn’t start playing soccer competitively until high school, when she played on the varsity team at Lower Merion High School as a freshman. Soon, she will be taking her talents to the pitch at the University of Pennsylvania, where she will start her freshman year in the fall.
For her, competing in Berlin was a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”
“I didn’t realize how incredible it was going to be, but anytime you can represent your country and Jewish community is a privilege,” she said. “It’s incredible that I get to do it by playing soccer.”
She said that it was “empowering” for her as a Jewish athlete to play soccer “within the walls that the Nazis built.”
Seeing all the athletes from all over the world and getting to know them has been one of the best parts of the trip so far, she said.
“I will never be in a situation again when I’m staying in a hotel with 2,000 athletes from 36 other countries,” she said. “It’s incredible to come into the lobby and see athletes from Italy and Gibraltar.”
The history provided inspiration for other athletes to succeed during their time in the city.
“When I learned I was going to Berlin, I was ecstatic because I had never been to Europe and the significance of us being here, competing in an international competition, was so impactful given the city’s history,” Ben Feld, 24, wrote in an email. He played golf in the open age group.
Feld, from Plymouth Meeting, played on the golf team at Drexel University from 2009 to 2013; he now serves as the team’s assistant coach. He said his time in Berlin so far has been an “incredible experience.”
That certainly extends to his performance at the games. He won the gold medal and received a plaque commemorating his course-breaking record round of 65 shot during the first round of the tournament.
For some participants, the trophies garnered during the games are not strictly limited to those awarded during their events.
Adam Mack, 18, hoped to trade some of his USA gear for some apparel from other countries, he wrote in an email. “I want to go home with not just USA gear but stuff from other counties. The things I bring home from this week will stay with me for the rest of my life,” he added.
Mack, a Yardley resident, was on the open fencing team, a sport in which he has been participating for five years. He will continue fencing when he begins his freshman year at Cleveland State University in the fall.
Walking into the Waldbühne for the opening ceremonies is “easily” his favorite memory of the games so far, he wrote — despite the long wait to walk down onto the stage with the USA delegation.
This was a highlight not just because it was a big and exciting night, he explained, but “also because Hitler stood across the street and announced in 1936 that Jews would be banned from the Olympic Games. Even though we waited two hours to walk in for a minute and half, it was all worth it. That moment was truly an emotional and memorable moment for me.”
He was a part of the open foil team, which took home the silver medal. In his individual event, he lost to a Hungarian player for second place. For him, the impact of the past and its lingering presence in Olympic park was quite prominent.
“It’s very important to hold these games in Germany because it shows that the Jewish community around the world — we are all one,” he wrote. “We might represent different countries, but we all came here as one. We all came here as proud Jews. Hitler and the Nazi soldiers tried to get rid of us more than 70 years ago, but these games show that the Jews are still here and stronger than ever.”
For some of the coaches, the connection to Berlin is even deeper than meeting international athletes.
Joe Nemzer, 28, grew up in Newtown and came to Berlin to coach the women’s open soccer team. But his reason for coaching the team in Germany was a personal one.
His grandfather, Morris Shenberger, survived Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, among other scenes of atrocities, after he and his family were pulled from their home in 1944 by Hungarian soldiers.
When Nemzer told his grandfather about the opportunity to go to Berlin for the Maccabi Games, he was “excited,” Nemzer said.
Despite his experience, Shenberger, who passed away in February, always saw the best in people and never held grudges, Nemzer said. This inspired him to come to the city in his grandfather’s honor.
“One of the last conversations we had was he told me he wanted me to go,” Nemzer said. “He wanted me to be here and see what he saw.”
Being in Berlin was a way for Nemzer to honor his grandfather’s legacy, he said. And it was something he believed that he — and the athletes — owed to those who could not represent their country the way they are for these games.
“Our mindset as a team is results will be what they’ll be. They have a debt that they owe to the Jewish people at that time. They owe it to those athletes who didn’t get that chance to compete,” he said.