Tripped Up by the Bottom Line, Maccabiah Athletes Struggle to Fund Their Trips

After training intensively for years, the real obstacle for many athletes who want to compete at the Maccabiah is money. With the cost reaching five figures (in dollars), aspiring participants are deploying their creative energy to raise the necessary funds on their own.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten
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Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Swimmer Helene Hirsch takes a deep breath and begins to calculate the cost of her trip to the 2013 Maccabiah Games: there was a $2,900 registration fee, plus $2,000 for roundtrip airfare and $4,000 for lodging in the athletes’ village, on top of $6,000 to sponsor another athlete.

Grand total: about $15,000.

“These are the Games for the rich and famous,” says Hirsch, a sixth-grade teacher from southern California who, at age 55, will be participating in her first international competition – if she can raise the funds. “Financially it makes absolutely no sense at all. I’m doing it purely on an emotional level.” (With help from teammates, she had raised about $5,000 by mid-June.)

Before even diving into the water or stepping onto the field, the athletes who are competing in this year’s Maccabiah will have overcome a major obstacle: the huge, some say exorbitant, cost of participation. This year, the price tag is the highest ever: an average of $10,000 for Australians, $8,100 for Canadians, $8,000 for Americans, $6,200 for Brits and $5,000 for South Africans, according to team officials.

While several teams offer financial assistance, most amateur athletes have to raise the money themselves or pay out of pocket. For some, especially those from families with modest means or with more than one eligible athlete, the cost can be prohibitive, coaches and managers say.

“They are outpricing people, and I just find it unacceptable,” says Jeff Krug, a karate coach in Australia. For the second straight Maccabiah, Krug says he was unable to bring a team because his members could not afford the trip. He says he appealed to Maccabi Australia for help, to no avail.

“It’s really sad because I believe that every Jewish athlete, if he or she can make a Maccabi team, should be able to go,” Krug says. “The price is just going up and up, and soon it’s going to be out of everybody’s reach.”

Harry Procel, head of the Australian delegation, wrote in an e-mail to Haaretz: “We assist many needy athletes with our Team Assistance Fund but keep the information confidential.”

Selwyn Postan, who served as manager of the Maccabi Canada karate team at the last two Games, calls the cost “ridiculous” and says that 80 percent of this year’s karate team could not meet their fundraising goals. After discussing the situation with Maccabi Canada, it was decided that none of the athletes would attend.

“It’s very disappointing for everybody,” says Postan, who competed for South Africa in the 11th Maccabiah in 1981. “They were looking forward to going to an international competition, and also to being in Israel and meeting new people.” Instead, the team will continue to train and compete locally this summer.

Tali Dubrovsky, the national executive director of Maccabi Canada, says the participation fees are subsidized – the actual cost to send a junior athlete is closer to $10,800, which includes a week-long tour of the country prior to the start of competition – and that the organization gives athletes a number of tools to fundraise.

Shaking the money tree

Oded and Alon Aminov, two young track stars from Vancouver, were devastated when their father told them in November that they could not afford the trip.

“They compete all the time, and every competition costs money,” says Alex Aminov, who grew up in Israel and relocated his family to Canada eight years ago. “The kids really wanted to go and compete in Israel, where they were born, but on the other hand it’s thousands of dollars that we didn’t budget and we still need to put food on the table.”

After informing Maccabi Canada of his decision, Aminov says the organization encouraged him to send at least one of the boys. He declined to do so “because I didn’t want to create tension between them.”

Several weeks later he saw the family’s physician, David Segal, and the subject of the Maccabiah came up. When Aminov told him that he had pulled Oded, 17, and Alon, 15, from the team, Segal says he asked Aminov to reconsider and promised to raise 70 percent of the cost if the family contributed 30 percent.

“They’re a reserved, proud family who might have just walked away from it because they didn’t know how to find the solution,” Segal says. “But I did, because I’m local and I know which tree to shake for the fruit to fall.”

Segal reached out to members of his golf club and of the Vancouver Jewish community, securing about $10,000 from 50 different people and ensuring that the Aminov brothers would be able to compete in the high jump, long jump and triple jump in Israel. (Segal also helped to organize a golf tournament that raised approximately $25,000 for Maccabi Canada.)

The boys say they are thrilled and grateful for the opportunity. “It’s been something I’ve been looking forward to for over three years, and it’s awesome that I finally get to go compete for Canada,” 18-year-old Oded says, adding: “Dr. Segal’s a wonderful man for helping us out.”

Selling cookies and original art

Over the last several months, many athletes have approached the challenge of raising thousands of dollars with the same intensity that they bring to their training.

Tennis player Caroline Alpert was adamant about returning to the Maccabiah after competing for Canada four years ago in the junior division. “Ever since then I just wanted to go back,” she says, noting that she tried different tactics to raise money, including soliciting donations from friends on Facebook, holding a bake sale at her university and calling local businesses.

However, the 20-year-old kinesiology student and self-taught painter -- “I come from a very artsy family” -- says that she raised the most money by selling her original, Jewish-themed paintings of, among other scenes, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Torah scrolls, a menorah and a family celebrating Shabbat.

Nadia Benaim says she told her 15-year-old son, Max, that he would need to raise half of the 4,000 pounds, or about $6,000, necessary to claim his spot on the Maccabi Great Britain junior tennis team. “I didn’t want him to get something for nothing,” she says. “I wanted him to see that you’ve got to give if you want to receive.”

So Max started out by selling cakes and cookies at his high school in London. Then he restrung rackets and gave ball return lessons for 20 pounds an hour. And last month, he held a tournament at his local tennis club that raised 2,800 pounds. Nadia said he donated the extra 800 pounds to Maccabi GB Challenge Tour, which allows handicapped youth to visit Israel.

“I feel like I’ll enjoy my time in Israel more because I put some of my own money and heart and time into getting there,” Max says.

Rebecca Brown, a 26-year-old member of the Maccabi USA equestrian team, raised more than $10,000 at a party that featured a limbo contest involving the guests’ children. “We didn’t want to have a normal, boring party,” she says. “Everyone made bets on which of the children would win, and everyone who lost donated their money. The winner ended up donating, too.”

The money will cover all of her fees – she has to rent a horse in Israel, as it would cost an additional $10,000 to bring her own – and those of her mother, Becky, who is a coach. “We met our goal and now we’re just focusing on practicing and maintaining our abilities until we leave,” Brown says.

Leah Pearlman, another Texas native, held a “serve-a-thon” to raise money for her first trip to the Maccabiah. The 16-year-old volleyball player asked supporters to place bets on how many serves out of 100 she could put in play. She says she was disappointed she only landed 99 but is excited that she was able to raise $5,000; her parents will cover the remaining $3,500.

“It feels good knowing that there are a lot of people supporting you and rooting for you to succeed,” Pearlman says. “I have a lot of thank-you notes to write.”

Although Carol Abby Benjamin does not feel comfortable asking people for money – “I’m too shy to do that” – she is headed to the Games thanks to her daughter, Sarah, who organized several fundraisers on her behalf. It will be the second Maccabiah experience for the 67-year-old half-marathon runner; she won gold in fencing at the 1965 Games.

“It was such a wonderful experience,” says Benjamin, a native of Maryland. “I’ve been to other international competitions, but this one is special because it encompasses your culture, your faith and your ethnic history in an atmosphere where people are happy and encouraging.”

For those reasons and more, she says, “it’s worth every penny.”

Alon, left, and Oded Aminov, two young track stars from Vancouver, with the family’s physician, David Segal, who secured funding from the Vancouver Jewish community for their trip.Credit: Hadani Ditmars
Rebecca Brown, a member of the Maccabi USA equestrian team, raised over $10,000 at a party that featured a limbo contest involving the children of the guests.Credit: Courtesy
“This is the games for the rich and famous,” says swimmer Helene Hirsch, a sixth grade teacher from southern California who held a square dancing fundraiser in May.Credit: Ken Kemzura
Canadian tennis player Caroline Alpert raised money by selling her original, Jewish-themed paintings.Credit: Courtesy



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