Jewish athletes came together for the Pan American Maccabi Games held in Santiago, Chile this year.
As the clock ticked down to midnight on New Year’s Eve, while many of us toasted with Champagne, over in Santiago, Chile, thousands of Jewish athletes celebrated together as they entered their last week of the Pan American Maccabi Games.
The games, held Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, brought together more than 3,000 athletes — including about 400 from the U.S. — from countries such as Uruguay, Brazil, Peru and Colombia and more to compete in everything from volleyball to futsal.
Before making the 10-plus-hour flight to Chile, General Chairman of the Organizing Committee Lou Moyerman was looking forward to the athletes getting some of the same experiences he’s had with past Maccabi Games.
Moyerman’s history with Maccabi reaches back to 1981 when he first competed as a judo athlete in the Maccabiah Games. Since then, he has remained involved and worn many hats including coach and team manager. He also was the USA team manager in judo for the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney, Australia.
Watching the athletes now can make him a little nostalgic.
“I think sometimes when I watch it, I’m jealous,” he said before the games. “I get jealous sometimes of the coaches because they’re out there coaching, and I’m just watching.”
Moyerman, a retired teacher from the Philadelphia School District, made the trek to South America with his two sons, one of whom took after him and got into judo.
His son, Adam, was also given the honor of carrying the USA banner during the opening ceremonies along with two other athletes, Lauren Greenberg and Dallen Stanford, all of whom were surprised with the task.
The opening ceremonies at the Estadio Israelita Maccabi, which he said were like “a big party,” were one thing Moyerman was looking forward to, both for himself and for the athletes.
The bond and sportsmanship between the participants, which is particularly demonstrated through the opening ceremonies, is one of Moyerman’s favorite aspects of the games.
“Part of the whole Maccabi experience,” he said, “is the camaraderie amongst the athletes.”
“The world is such a small place now,” he continued. “A Mexican soccer player meets a U.S. soccer player and they’re friends. They could go home and email each other, and Skype each other and they become friends forever — that kind of thing.”
He added that the games are also “a big trading bazaar,” as many athletes exchange hats and pins with their country’s name on them.
He also was looking forward to a service component they were adding to the Pan Am Games for the first time. One of the aspects of the Maccabiah Games in Israel that always stuck out to Moyerman was the opportunity to do tzedakah, which he pushed to replicate in Chile.
“One of my favorite things in Israel when I coached the judo team was to do one of the projects,” Moyerman said. “I always was very touched and my athletes seemed to be very touched.”
There were three different community service projects in which the athletes could partake while in Chile, including visiting a cancer ward for children, putting together food baskets for the city’s Jewish poor and, under Dr. Marc Backal, providing eye exams and glasses for the poor in Santiago.
In an email update sent out during the games, Maccabi executive director Jed Margolis shared that “through the efforts of Marc and the Team USA Medical Team, they have raised enough funds to purchase the machines they were using so that they can leave them in Chile for future exams.”
For Moyerman, these projects were important “for us to do as a team.”
The team building aspect came through through these experiences off the field, but also through competing together and getting to know their fellow athletes, which was a key takeaway for Moyerman.
Though, of course, a few medals wouldn’t hurt. Team USA won 133 medals — the highest count — with host country Chile finishing in second with 95.
The games gave the athletes the opportunity of “the pride of being a Jew and being around Jewish people and seeing other Jewish communities,” he said. “Knowing you’re representing your country and representing as an American Jew and these people are cheering for you and you’re cheering for yourself and your teammates.”
For the athletes themselves, those feelings rang particularly true during the opening ceremonies.
“One of the most incredible things that happened was walking into opening ceremonies,” said Ellie Greenberg from Gladwyne, who played on the soccer team in the junior division.
“Everyone’s decked out in their own country’s apparel — hats, sweatshirts — and we walk into the stadium chanting ‘USA!’ and it’s very patriotic,” the 17-year-old recalled. “All the countries are standing together and the first thing you do to open the event, you sing ‘Hatikvah.’ It was incredible representing your own country but singing the same words and coming together with someone from Uruguay or Brazil.”
Greenberg returned to the U.S. on Jan. 5 — and went right to classes at the Baldwin School in the afternoon.
She has been playing soccer ever since she can remember and always looks for opportunities to keep playing. In 2013, she got her first taste of Maccabi through traveling to Israel for the Maccabiah games.
“I had just finished my freshman year of high school,” she said. “I had such an incredible and positive experience there, I knew I needed to do the Santiago games.”
Similar to her experience in Israel, she didn’t know any of her teammates before arriving in Santiago. Their first practice just a few days before the competitions began was the first time they played together — but she wasn’t worried.
“It’s impressive how fast you can get to know each other,” she said.
The bond with her teammates was one thing she was looking forward to developing.
“I think one of the things I took away from Israel was, a lot of my teammates have become my best friends that I still talk to daily three years later,” she said. “One of the biggest things of the Maccabi experience I was looking forward to was making those relationships with my teammates in Santiago.”
While the opening ceremonies were definitely a highlight for Greenberg, one of her favorite memories came on the field.
As the last whistle blew in the final match against Brazil, Greenberg, who plays forward, noticed that the Brazilian captains had gone up to the referees. They had asked to present the USA team their gold medals.
“Having the Brazilian girls come up to me and give me a hug and put the medal around my neck — I never experienced sportsmanship like that before,” Greenberg said.
Before that, Greenberg scored two goals — including the game-winner — after being down 1-0 in the match against Chile that sent the USA team to the finals.
“It was such an incredible opportunity to meet Jews from all over the world that share your love for athletics and to really create lasting friendships with other Jewish people from around the world,” she said.
Evie Shanefield from Drexel Hill valued the games for similar reasons — plus, the weather wasn’t so bad, she joked.
The games were the first Maccabi experience for Shanefield, a senior at Upper Darby High School, who has been playing volleyball since seventh grade.
“I was excited for the competition and to play against other countries,” she said, “and being able to meet people from everywhere and form new connections with people in other countries.”
After learning she was selceted to Team USA in February, she connected with her teammates over social media, but they hadn’t met in person until they all got to Chile.
Like Greenberg, Shanefield said they were looking forward to see how they all played together, which worked out quite well. “It seems like we’ve been playing together for a while even though we only played together for the first time at competition,” she said.
The opening ceremonies were a “powerful” experience for her and a highlight from her trip.
Included in the speakers during the event was a Holocaust survivor, whose “inspiring” story, Shanefield said, affected many of the athletes. “I think we all took the inspiration from that and put it into our playing.”