The competition — win or lose — at the JCC Maccabi Games held recently in Israel for the first time since 2011, was a blast for the 38 boys and girls comprising the Philadelphia delegation.
But getting to spend three weeks in the Jewish homeland, interacting with kids from not only across the United States but from other countries, and experiencing Israeli culture and food, that’s what will have the most lasting impact.
“Going in, I didn’t know what to expect,” admitted Cherry Hill’s Yehudah Mahlab, who co-captained the soccer team to a silver medal, losing the championship game on penalty kicks. “But it just blew me away. The fields were incredible, and it was really cool to be able to play at that level. I met so many new people from all over the world — Argentina, Israel, Germany, Hungary, even Ukraine. This was my third time in Israel. Last year, I went for a family bar mitzvah, and I definitely want to go back.”
So does volleyball player Lily Brownstein, who was joined on the team by Lauren Elgert, Hannah Sturtz and Abby Koudinov.
“You need six, so our team was a mix,” said Brownstein, an Upper Dublin High School junior who was in Israel last year with a BBYO summer program. “We had one girl from Hungary and another from Romania.
“It was really cool to learn about their culture. And we met some of the Ukrainian players, who were the sweetest girls and came to our games to support us. We talked to them a bit, and they talked about their families. Some of them told us they had to move out of their homes and live in Spain with different families. During the opening ceremonies, everyone wanted to show them support and waved Ukraine flags. It was so emotional.”
Those opening ceremonies took place July 5 in Haifa, where the bulk of the competition took place.
That’s where Rachel Kohler’s swimmers, Ava Walters, Reed Harris, Sophia Barone and Tyler Strieb, were able to capture a whopping 44 medals. Walters and Harris took home 12 apiece, while Barone won 11 and Strieb nine.
For Kohler, whose parents, Beth and Bill, were instrumental in the creation of Philadelphia’s JCC Maccabi teams, it was an unforgettable experience.
“I’ve been to Israel twice before this,” said Kohler, a psychologist in the Haverford School District when she’s not coaching, “but this time was so different.
“To go as someone within the Maccabi organization was so meaningful because of my Maccabi background. To have that experience in Israel, I was in awe because you’re in a place where, as a Jewish person, you know you always have a space. Having it be in a country where almost everyone identifies as Jewish was so meaningful.”
Kohler said seeing the way the kids interacted was equally gratifying.
“I’m always amazed by teens in sports who are competing at a high level,” said Kohler, a competitive dancer who served as Kaiserman JCC Director of Engagement Barrie Mittica’s second-in-command. “The dedication and mental state they’re in is so great, they’re usually exhausted.
“But our Philadelphia kids were able to voice their needs, which is usually hard with teenagers. They were able to spend time with Jewish people they normally wouldn’t have relationships with and were able to have conversations about what they were going through. That’s the great thing about Maccabi. There are so many people experiencing different things, so it’s easy to make friends.”
Mason Rosenbaum, the goaltender on the fourth-place PAWS ice hockey team, consisting of players from Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Slovakia, certainly did.
“It was cool getting to know them,” said Rosenbaum, a rising senior at Cherry Hill East High School, who had his bar mitzvah in Israel, where he has family. “And our Philadelphia team became friends with the team from Detroit. “There was a lot of camaraderie. We had a good time. We did a lot of stuff up north at the Druze village. We had a meal with them, and they gave us a brief history and shared a little about their religion.”
Unlike most of the other sports, hockey was played in Tnuvot, closer to the middle of the country. But the players stayed in Hadera, a beach town north of Netanya, which allowed Rosenbaum and his friends plenty of time for sun and fun.
Mittica was thrilled to see it come together.
“We brought 38 kids in eight sports — one of the largest delegations,” said Mittica, who left town almost immediately upon returning home in preparation for the upcoming Maccabi Continental Games from Aug. 6-11 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “Then, after the games, we had eight buses touring Israel.
“Some went north, and some went south. Then we all joined back together for a night at the Bedouin tents and then hiked to Masada the next day. It was a really wonderful trip. We had a great group and bonded across team lines. I know many of them can’t wait until they can come back again.”
Jon Marks is a freelance writer.