NEW YORK – Becoming an elite-level athlete takes years of preparation, determination and hard work, in addition to the requisite natural talent and drive. Even with all these, only a select few will fulfill their potential and reach the pinnacle of their sport. The thousands of athletes at this year’s Maccabiah come to compete for medals and glory, but the fact that this competition (unlike any other in the world) is for Jews is not lost on them, especially a small but visible group of athletes who are also religiously observant.
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The poster child for the religious athlete was for many years Tamir Goodman, a talented basketball player from Baltimore who was recruited to play at the University of Maryland and dubbed the “Jewish Jordan.” His story became national news when he chose to play at Towson University due to his religious beliefs, which included not going to practice or playing on the Sabbath.
Since Goodman’s retirement in 2009, a handful of other players have received media attention for combining sports and religion, including Northwestern’s Aaron Liberman, who was profiled this year in The New York Times, and Naama Shafir, who holds several career records at the University of Toledo after becoming the first female Orthodox Jew to earn a Division 1 scholarship. Their stories shed light on a lifestyle that usually shuns physical activity in favor of Torah study and exemplify the growing number of religious Jews who want to do both.
Plucked from the pitch
Netanel Goldstuck is a naturally athletic person. How else could he have been plucked off the football pitch and placed on the track to compete in sprint races, with no prior training? After a tip from a friend, Allan Nossel and Cliff Garrun, chairman of Maccabi South Africa, scouted Goldstuck at the track and were pleased with the results. South Africa did not have a representative in the 100-meter races, so Goldstuck had a spot with his name on it and a dream to chase. That was just a few months ago.
Today, Goldstuck lives in Israel and studies at a yeshiva. Four days a week, he heads to Hebrew University in Jerusalem for 90 minutes of training with a group of 20 other athletes, two of whom are religious. He misses part of the afternoon yeshiva sessions every time he goes to train; his school has so far been supportive, but it is a decision that gets in the way of his studies. And while the other athletes can compete in local races throughout the year to gauge their progress and hone their skills, Goldstuck is unable to do so as all races in Israel are held on Saturdays; his first real competition will be at the Maccabiah. “It’s pretty nerve-wracking. I would have liked to have already participated in a competition, so I could see where I stand and how a race feels.”
Goldstuck will compete for South Africa in the 100m and 200m races, hoping to make both his country and yeshiva friends proud. Despite his lack of experience, his goal is “hopefully to make it to the finals, at least. I’d like to win a medal. I don’t really know what to expect, but I’m very excited.
“It’s a privilege to be able to compete in Israel with Jews from around the world. That’s very special,” he concludes.
Staying on course
Jacob Lille loves golf. He started playing when he was 12, once he realized that “playing competitive baseball and being a religious Jew would not mesh well.” For him, “it wasn’t a matter of being good, but doing something I love every day.”
Lille, who will be representing the United States on the Maccabiah Golf team, says: “I not only want to win a gold medal, but to bring my fellow teammates, golfers or not, a sense of what real Judaism is about.”
Lille lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, which is a golf hub due to its temperate climate and abundance of award-winning courses but is not a center of Jewish life. His family observes Shabbat and share a love for Judaism. He attends public school, where he is a member of the golf team. “It’s an eye-opener,” he says. “It tests you every day. People want to bring you down but it’s an environment where you can take the high road or get down, and I have chosen the high road thanks to my Judaism.”
During the week, Lille wakes up and lays tefillin before heading to synagogue. He then goes to school, plays and practices with the team, does homework and relaxes before calling it a night. Friday night through Saturday at dusk is, of course, a rest day, and then Sunday is filled with golf. “It’s a struggle at times but we have been committed to observing the 3,500-year-old tradition of Judaism. On Shabbat we shut down and obviously on Jewish holidays, golf is not an issue,” says Lille’s affable and supportive father, Dr. Sean Lille.
Lille’s teammates do not have to wake up early or take full days off, but he does not believe this to be an issue. “I put more effort into the days I do have and Shabbat provides me with rest for the week. It’s not a disadvantage at all.”
Eagerly anticipating his arrival in Israel, Lille says “it’s a great honor to represent my country and make my country proud through my performance and my character. Playing in the holiest place on Earth is a tremendous honor.” His main message to the other athletes, many of whom won’t be observant, is to “make it a holy experience. It’s unique because it’s not just a competitive environment, but a holy one too.”
Sean Lille goes even further, explaining that his son “has the opportunity to interact with Jews who may have a tenuous connection to God and be a positive influence on them … A gold medal is just transitory, but if you are able to make a difference for the people around you, that’s long-lasting in this life and into the next world.”
Serving a dream
Eight years ago, a young girl sat in Ramat Gan and was overcome by emotion as she watched her uncle march in the opening ceremonies of the Maccabiah Games. Yael Levi remembers promising herself then that “one day I’ll be there.” Now she will fulfill that dream as she competes in the Juniors Tennis tournament, representing the United States.
Being a high school student is stressful enough for most teens, who have to balance school with a social life, sports, work and a plethora of other interests. For Levi, now 16, it was twice as hard. She studies at Torah High School, an all-girls Orthodox school in San Diego, and she wanted to play tennis. Since her school did not offer athletics, a creative solution was necessary. Her father, Sean, found it: he was able to place Yael on the local public school team with the help of Torah’s dean, Rabbi Michoel Peikes.
Levi had to attend classes at Torah while completing online courses at a charter school in order to qualify for the team. She would leave Torah early to make it to matches, making up the class time during lunch or gym. “My rabbi was willing to help out and the teachers were very supportive,” she says. The result? The team took the California high school championship.
“Honestly, it just makes me a prouder Jew. I feel like I’m doing the right thing and it’s never crossed my mind as a disadvantage. It worked out and it was great,” Levi says. Overall, she feels her experience was extremely positive, allowing her to compete against quality opponents and gain valuable experience that will help her this summer in Israel.
Her goals are simple enough: to meet people, to compete with athletes from around the world and to play as hard as she can. “I want to win gold,” Levi states, adding that “the Maccabiah is going to teach me a lot in terms of tennis and life.” She already understands that the effort she has put in has paid off, even if it wasn’t always easy. “I’m very thankful to Hashem [God] and my parents for making it possible for me to do this.”