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Heading to Israel with medals in mind
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Heading to Israel with medals in mind

Local athletes participate in 20th Maccabiah games

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Max Kops of West Orange, 17, has dreams of becoming a professional soccer player and has learned to balance the sport with his observant lifestyle. Photo by Judah Ullman
Max Kops of West Orange, 17, has dreams of becoming a professional soccer player and has learned to balance the sport with his observant lifestyle. Photo by Judah Ullman

They are going to Israel for the sport of it. Approximately 70 athletes from the Garden State will be among the 10,000 participants from 80 countries at the 2017 World Maccabiah Games. They are teenagers and middle-aged grownups, able bodied with no impediments and those who play competitive wheelchair sports. Some are high school varsity players; others have Olympic dreams. They are fencers, gymnasts, and soccer stars; softballers, equestrians, and cyclers. All together, athletes will compete in 45 different sports at the 20th Maccabiah Games, scheduled to take place July 4 to 18. Participating in what is billed as the third-largest international sporting event — occurring every four years — requires tryouts, and making the team doesn’t come cheap: Each player must raise (or pay) $8,000 to cover costs.  

NJJN caught up with a few of the local athletes as they were preparing to depart this week for the games. They include Max Kops, soccer star from West Orange; Gayle and Allison Edelstein, sisters from Livingston who play volleyball; Matt Darlow of Tinton Falls, who holds down a Fortune 100 financial services job during the day and plays wheelchair basketball at night; and Nicole Arias, a Princeton University softball coach who has played in two Maccabiah games and returns this year as head coach.

The athletes will live in several Olympic Villages divided among four divisions:  junior, for athletes ages 15-18; open, for elite athletes; masters, for older athletes divided into different age categories; and Paralympic athletes. The games are organized by Maccabi World Union and take place in Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv.

Max Kops: Once I play, it’s all OK 

For Max Kops, 17, of West Orange, representing the United States is not only an “honor” but also a “huge opportunity” for exposure to international coaches. The rising senior at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston is a serious soccer player with professional aspirations. 

“I’d love to play soccer in Israel and start my career there,” he said. He’s already planning to try out in Barcelona before international coaches during the next academic year. 

Sitting in his family’s dining room at the end of June, with the detritus of packing siblings for Camp Lavi in piles around the table, Kops described how keeping Shabbat and kashrut can be complicated when playing at a national level, in his case for TSF Academy, headquartered in Lincoln Park. “I’ve had to make some sacrifices,” he said. Sometimes that means missing games or practice; more often, when the team travels for a weekend game, he finds his own lodging as close to the field as he can so he can bike or walk there on Shabbat. Still lodging can be six or seven miles away, and it is rarely where the rest of the team is staying. “Sometimes we stay at rugged places,” he said, describing “rundown motels” that don’t always have records of confirmed reservations, where he’s had to ignore “all-night parties” and people banging on his door. When he’s lucky, Kops said, there’s a Chabad nearby. But wherever he lands, it’s all for the love of the game. “Once I play, it’s all OK,” he said. 

“For me, soccer is fluid. It’s like a song. Everything flows and when it flows you pass here, you pass there, then there’s a goal and everything comes together, like a puzzle.”

He’s looking forward to playing in Israel — but he already knows that even there, he’ll be the only Orthodox player on his team. “It will be interesting,” he said. “I think everyone will be respectful, and I know the food will be kosher and Shabbos will not be a problem.” Max’s sole visit to Israel came when he was a toddler.

Matt Darlow: Embraces competitive, tear-your-arm-off sports

Matt Darlow, 51, of Tinton Falls has been playing wheelchair basketball since he was 12.  He loves basketball, but for him the sport is about more than just the game; it was a great equalizer. Darlow has been in a wheelchair since birth due to a condition known as spina bifida. “When my friends were on the travel baseball team, I could also have that experience. When they were in the paper, I was in the paper,” he said. It gave him the sense that he was as able bodied as the quarterback on the high school football team, whether it had to do with athletics or “getting the girls,” he said with a laugh over tea at Barnes and Noble in Clark on a recent Sunday morning following early-morning practice at a nearby gym. 

He plays about 10 hours a week in Hackensack as a member of the Bulova Brooklyn Nets, a team sponsored by the Wheelchair Sports Federation. Off the court, he works “robust” hours as vice president of digital adoption and client experience at a financial services company outside of Princeton. He also makes time to coach a junior wheelchair team “because of the people who did it for me when I was that age,” he said.

He bristles when anyone confuses wheelchair sports, also called Paralympics, with the Special Olympics, a competition parallel to the Olympics for people with developmental disabilities. In the Special Olympics, he said, “Everyone gets a hug and a medal.” By contrast, he said, Paralympics are “very competitive, tear-your-arm-off sports for people with permanent disabilities below the waist. It’s a big difference.”

He looks at Maccabiah as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. He has never been to Israel, and hasn’t had a chance to play on the international stage since he was a student athlete at University of Illinois in the 1980s.

“To wear the red white and blue, to see Jewish history, to meet all the people — I just thought it would be a fantastic experience,” he said. He’s especially looking forward to the opening ceremony and to being part of the Olympic Village. “To have that experience with 10,000 people, the competition part is gravy!” he said, referring to the number of expected athletes.  

While he thinks playing in Israel will be “special,” he won’t leave his competitive edge in New Jersey. “Once the ball goes up in the air, and we start playing, it’s play,” he said.

Gayle and Allison Edelstein: Sisters are ‘twins’ on volleyball court 

Gayle Edelstein, 17, of Livingston followed her sister Allison, 22, into competitive volleyball. “When I watch her play, it’s super weird — I see myself. She has some of the same tendencies I have,” said Allison. 

Both picked up the sport in middle school, and both play the same position: setter.  Adds Gayle, “I learned how to play watching my sister. We joke all the time looking at action shots: Is that Allison or Gayle? It’s like we’re twins!”

They’ve never played together and the Maccabiah games won’t change that since the young women are in separate age divisions. Gayle, who just graduated Livingston High School and will head to McDaniel College in the fall, is playing in the junior division, and Allison, who just graduated from Franklin & Marshall College and will head to graduate school for physical therapy, is in the open division. “It would have been fun and some healthy family competition to play together,” said Allison.

Sitting around their kitchen table, the sisters take turns explaining of how each member of the team is necessary in order to score. “Softball can have a star player. You can’t have that in volleyball,” said Gayle, who gave up softball for volleyball. 

Allison interjects, “Well, you can but you need everyone to get the ball to the star player.” The sisters have taken part in athletic activities their whole lives: gymnastics and soccer for Allison, dance and softball for Gayle.  

But when it comes to Israel, Gayle sets the pace. “I always begged my parents to go to Israel,” she said. As a Diller Teen Fellow, Gayle took part in a summer trip to Israel, which turned her spark for the Jewish state into a fire. She’s hoping her Israeli friends from that trip will watch her play. Either way, she can’t wait to return. “Having the chance to play internationally and in Israel, that’s mind blowing!” she said.

Allyson was more reluctant about trying out for the Maccabiah Games. “I knew it would be after my collegiate season. I wasn’t sure how I would feel.” But once she made the team, she started to look forward to the games. “It will benice to play one more time competitively,” she said. She’s also looking forward to what may be the first time she’s every played without being the only Jew on the court, let alone playing on and against teams comprised entirely of Jews. But asked about preparation, she laughed. “I’m winging it a little,” she said. “I‘ve got a little senioritis.” 

Gayle, on the other hand, said she is focused and views the games as part of her pre-season workout, as she is entering college athletics rather than getting ready to hang up her jersey. She’s also coming out of  surgery in the winter for a labral tear in her shoulder; although she timed it to enable her to finish her high school season and tryout for the Maccabiah Games, she missed her club season and is anxious to get back into play.

Their parents, Phil and Theresa Edelstein, will join them in Israel. Both kids called it “typical Edelstein to go to Israel as a family for the first time for a sports event.” Their father agreed. “We would have gotten there as a family at some point. That volleyball got us there as the impetus is classic,” he said.

Nicole Arias: “Grandma” never really hung up her cleats

After helping her team win gold in the World Maccabiah Games in women’s softball in 2013, Nicole Arias of Princeton Junction recalled in an email to NJJN, “I placed my cleats and glove on home plate and left them in Israel, a sign that a player has retired.” At the age of 30, she had already played in two World Maccabiah Games in addition to the Pan American Maccabi Games in Argentina in 2007 and had earned the nickname “Grandma.” 

But the West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South and William Paterson University alumna who coaches softball at Princeton University can’t stay away from the plate. She acknowledged that from the beginning, “I was hooked on playing and competing with Maccabi USA,” the name for the American team. This year, she’s back as head coach of the women’s softball team, which she calls an “extra special” honor. “My goal is to not only have my team leave Israel as a gold medalist, but more importantly, to leave the Maccabiah with the lifelong friendships,” she wrote. “I hope this is an experience that these women will never forget.”

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