Athletes who have participated in the Maccabi Games will invariably tell you that more important than the challenges faced on the fields and courts is the deep camaraderie that develops and remains among the players.
Samantha Berk discovered that special closeness when she was a member of the Open Women’s Field Hockey Team at the 13th Pan American Maccabi Games in Santiago, Chile, held December-January 2015-16.
Participating in the games was “incredible,” said Berk, a resident of Jersey City and a South Brunswick Township native. “The opportunity to play internationally was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced up to that point in my career. It was an amazing honor to play with likeminded individuals, forming a new bond with those who shared my passion for the sport of field hockey” — and for Judaism.
As a result, she did not hesitate when asked to return to the 14th Pan American Maccabi Games — a high-level competition for Jewish athletes from all over the world — this time as a coach.
Maccabi USA — whose subtitle is “Jewish Pride Through Sports” — is the official sponsor of the U.S. team to the games.
Since her experience in Chile, Berk has established her career both as an art educator and a coach. She teaches art at Orange Avenue School (grades 3-8) in Cranford and serves as head varsity field hockey and lacrosse coach at Cranford High School. (Her teams are “in the middle of the pack,” she said, “but we have a lot of good young players, so I’m really optimistic about the future.”)
In Santiago, said Tonja Magerman, field hockey chair for this summer’s games — taking place July 5-15 in Mexico City — she took note of Berk’s leadership qualities both on and off the field. Last February, she contacted Berk and asked her if she would be interested in being the head coach for the United States Junior Field Hockey team in Mexico.
Berk quickly accepted the offer. “I am excited to transition from player to coach in this competition and meet new people,” said Berk. “The players I will be coaching will be freshman and sophomore high school-age. As with my programs at Cranford, these are the players who are the future of any field hockey program.”
Magerman was delighted with Berk’s eagerness to participate. “It’s not easy to find coaches who fit,” Magerman said. “Samantha has shown the outstanding leadership qualities we require, along with her passion for Judaism. We’re quite pleased she agreed to coach.”
She said Maccabi USA subsidizes as much of the travel costs to the games as possible.
Academic, athletic, and Jewish passions were all nurtured when Berk was a student at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) in Ewing, where she studied art, was a member of Sharon Pfluger’s 2012 NCAA Division III national championship field hockey team, and was active at the Chabad Jewish Student Center.
Berk, who is also a certified CrossFit teacher, said she found it easy to mix studies, athletic demands, and her Jewish life at TCNJ, with a student body that is 10-15 percent Jewish.
“I really loved TCNJ,” said Berk. “It really prepared me to teach and coach. Our whole group seemed to get jobs right after graduation. I was lucky to get the opportunity I have at Cranford. With athletics, Sharon’s program taught me principles I use in coaching today.”
The campus Chabad offered her a place to enhance her Jewish life. (Rabbi Kivi Greenbaum, the Chabad director, said he remembers Berk as “very active, coming with her Jewish friends to a lot of our activities.”)
“Judaism always meant a lot to us at home when I was growing up,” said Berk, whose family are still members at the Conservative B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick.
Berk, who has never been to Mexico, said, “I’m really looking forward to it all.”