First came sports. Then came Zionism.
Like all athletes, Jews who come to participate in the Maccabiah love their sport, and love to compete. But the Maccabiah isn't like any other sports competition - and they know it.
Encouraging Jewish pride, strengthening Jewish bonds, creating a heightened awareness of Israel and Jewish identity, and promoting aliyah at every opportunity is the Maccabiah's primary purpose as much as the competition itself.
It has always been this way. Indeed, the second Maccabiah, held in 1935, became known as the "Aliyah Maccabiah": With anti-Semitism sweeping Europe, and Jewish immigration to Palestine greatly restricted - the Games were held despite the British Mandatory government's opposition - many of the European participants decided not to return home. Bulgaria led the way: All 350 members of its delegation stayed after the Games. The 134 Jews from Germany defied the Nazi ban on even sending a delegation, and then protested their government by refusing to hoist the German flag during the opening ceremonies. Many of them stayed as well.
Encouraging aliyah is an ever-present theme at the quadrennial Games. The opening events always feature a speech by the prime minister, who basically says: "I hope that by the next Maccabiah you will all have made aliyah to the Jewish homeland, and be a part of the Israeli delegation." It is a part of every Israeli politician's standard pitch to Diaspora Jews - and what better audience than the 5,300 athletes from 60 countries expected at the July 13 ceremony?
The government goes out of its way to encourage participants to stay. At the last Maccabiah Games, in 2005, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry gave all delegates a 36-page booklet detailing the special assistance for athletes and coaches who make aliyah. Athletes "who receive high marks in their sport, and [who] receive recognition by Israel's Olympic committee, can get a monthly grant of NIS 2,500 for 33 months" and the ministry "will contribute to the salaries of immigrants [who] are employed by Israeli sport organizations for a two-year period." Additionally, "athletes [who] achieve extraordinary results can receive additional grants from the Fund for Athletic Achievement." In short: Win a gold medal, set a record, and you can expedite the aliyah experience - and get paid for it!
Many Maccabiah athletes have made aliyah. The most famous is Tal Brody, an American basketball player who led his team to a gold medal in the 1965 Maccabiah Games. He turned down a potential NBA career and answered Maccabi Tel Aviv's call to help put Israeli basketball "on the map," as he famously declared on TV.
"I only knew what I learned in Hebrew school," said Brody. "We only talked about the Bible, not modern Israel - the only thing I knew was that people were riding on camels and living in tents. It was a great culture shock. I never met Jews from around the world, Jews who spoke different languages. It was a big cultural experience for us," he said in a recent interview, describing his experience at the 1965 Maccabiah.
He was just a kid, fresh out of college, and had never left the United States. Suddenly he was 6,000 miles away.
"My father and grandfather had been here in the 1920s - my father helped build an electric station - so my parents weren't against it," Brody said. "They always thought whatever was good for me was good for them. It changed all my goals and ideals, what I wanted to do with my life - I took up the challenge of Maccabi Tel Aviv to help improve Israeli basketball."
Another immigrant U.S. athlete also became famous, but for the wrong reasons: David Berger was a Cleveland-born weight lifter and a member of the U.S. Maccabiah team in both 1965 and 1969, winning bronze in the lightweight division in 1965, and gold in the middleweight division in 1969. Berger immigrated to Israel a year later, and became a member of the Israeli Olympic team in 1972. He was one of 11 team members taken hostage and subsequently murdered by Arab terrorists at the Munich Olympic Games.
Many other athletes stayed in Israel and became well-known, like basketball players David Blatt and Willie Simms. Famous or not, many speak of the emotional pull of the country, the anxieties of leaving family and friends behind, and the fear of the unknown.
"I thought Israel was a much smaller country than it was, it really opened my eyes," said Amanda Cooperman, a basketball player for Australia, who won a silver medal as a 10th grader at the 1993 Games and later moved to Israel. "It was a very unifying experience. What made it so special was that it didn't matter from which end of the globe the athletes came - this was common ground, ground zero. We have nothing in common if we just take our background or nationality, but when you take the Jewishness, it comes together in Israel. Then you realize this is home."
A rough move
Though it has become home for so many who stayed, it was not always easy making the move. Judith Sambol was a half-marathoner on the 2005 U.S. women's team, which won the silver ("but as the slowest runner on the team, I personally did not do much to help the team win that"). Sambol was nervous about leaving home, and missing all of the people she cared about in New York.
"I did not leave home because I was unhappy there, and so I was scared that being away would feel like a loss," Sambol said. "The fear about missing home turned out to be both warranted and unwarranted. I am happy and able to live in Tel Aviv, as the city has all of the infrastructure that I need in my life, including a beautiful park for running purposes, a public transportation system, synagogues, kosher food, enough English speakers, and a job offer. There was also a warm community of people who embraced me as an olah hadasha [new immigrant], and were helpful in terms of teaching me things about the city."
One of the things she learned was where to find road races, and places to train. That's all she needed to get started.
"At one of my first races here, I met and befriended some Israeli runners, some of whom had competed in the Maccabiah in 2005. These people have become my closest friends in Israel," she said. "There were cultural differences and language barriers to be overcome; one of these new friends is Ethiopian, and Hebrew is a second language for both of us. However, there remains a shared culture of running and love for sport. Meeting the runners at the track and participating in running events in Israel has been the most positive aspect of my time here."
For Dara Podjarski, the excitement is just now building. The 27-year-old soccer player from Sydney, Australia, has been to Israel before, but this will be her first Maccabiah. She has already decided to stay after the Games and make aliyah.
"I'm excited about the move, but sometimes I actually find it hard to say'aliyah'. I don't say that to denigrate the concept - on the contrary, I deeply connect to it being a grand term with high expectations. So how does one live up to that. And what does it really mean?"
"But without a doubt, I'm also extremely proud to say 'I'm making aliyah' - it embodies so much context, possibility and excitement. And I love how it doesn't just affect one individual - other people also get so excited when I tell them. The idea of 'aliyah' touches the individual, the inner core and extended groups associated with the individual, not to mention a nation and a people. How powerful is that?"
All the athletes gave different reasons for making aliyah, from the natural extension of a Zionist upbringing, to experiencing an epiphany that just shouted, "This is the place!"
For 80-year-old Edna Kaplan, a competitor in the 1950 Games in the 60-meter and 100-meter race (gold in the 60, silver in the 100), it was a simple stroll in Tel Aviv.
"The first time I walked down Rothschild Boulevard, I saw, for the first time, a European man with a broom in his hand," said Kaplan, the only woman among the 45 athletes in South Africa's delegation - and one of only two who spoke Hebrew. He was in his 40s, sweeping, looking very happy, and I saw he had a number on his arm - he was a survivor of the Shoah. "I thought to myself: 'This is a survivor sweeping the street with dignity.' And I decided right then I couldn't settle in South Africa, where you didn't get your hands dirty."
But when Kaplan got married, her husband didn't want to make aliyah, so they lived in what was then Rhodesia. Kaplan never gave up the dream, and raised her three daughters the same way. They all made aliyah. "I got divorced, and then when I turned 60, I got some money and came. My only regret is that I didn't come sooner."