Last summer in Jerusalem, the Blechers of Princeton attended every single men’s basketball game in the Maccabiah, the world’s largest Jewish athletic competition, which takes place in Israel every four years. They were duly impressed with the athleticism and camaraderie.
“We thought, ‘We are looking at these guys who are pretty much the best Jewish college basketball players in their countries, coming together with people from all over the world to play together in Israel,’” Edan, 16, told NJJN in August via Skype from Herzliya Pituach.
At the games they learned that the first International Maccabi Youth Games would take place in 2018.
“I thought it was really awesome and told my mom there were youth games this year, and I really wanted to play,” said Max, 13.
The Blecher brothers were among 20 N.J. athletes on Team USA at this summer’s first International Maccabi Youth Games. The July 22-Aug. 2 event featured 1,200 athletes from 12 countries, who played for four days and then toured for the rest of the 10-day trip.
To qualify for one of the three basketball teams from the U.S. they sent a highlight video to Maccabi USA and were interviewed by the coach about their offensive and defensive strategies, strengths and weaknesses, and goals for the trip.
Edan and Max were selected for the same team; they came in sixth place out of eight teams from countries including the U.S., Argentina, Israel, and Great Britain. “I was pretty disappointed because we had some nice talent, but we had no time to practice” as a team, Max said.
Nonetheless, he added, “it was an amazing experience playing with good players so much older than me.”
The boys said they were most excited about representing the U.S. in their beloved homeland. “Playing for the United States and wearing its colors was an honor,” said Edan, who realized that the games were about more than sports. “It was actually really cool to see people who had never come to Israel before in this program.”
Max started basketball at age 5 or 6 at the Princeton YMCA, with his dad as coach. Next, he played at Kamau Bailey’s Basketball Academy in Princeton, and in third grade sometimes practiced with Edan’s sixth-grade team.
He continued playing basketball when his family spent his fifth-grade year in Israel, adding volleyball and judo to his interests. Last winter he played basketball for John Witherspoon Middle School and also ran cross-country and played lacrosse. But, he said, “I think basketball will be my main sport always.” He is a rising eighth grader.
Edan said that last fall he played basketball on the junior varsity team at Princeton High School and in the spring did crew with Mercer Rowing. Although both sports demanded two hours of daily practice, Edan said he likes the discipline. “I feel more dedicated to both school and athletics when I have an extra push to be productive and not waste time,” he said. In addition to improving his time-management skills, Edan said that sports give his mind a break from school and are a “good way to meet other people while playing a sport I love.”
Edan, a rising 10th grader at The Lawrenceville School, hopes to play house football as well as play on his school’s basketball team and row for the crew team this year.
While the boys love basketball and other sports, some of their fondest memories are of surfing. Their dad, Haim, from Bat Yam in Israel, surfed in the Mediterranean until his family moved to the U.S. when Haim was 15. He and his children, Edan, Max, and Rachel, 9, surf year-round in Elberon and Deal.
The Blechers have spent nearly every summer in Israel, where they have family all over the country. Their mother, Shari, is an environmental lawyer and partner in Lieberman & Blecher. Haim is a retired spine surgeon who now runs an angel investment fund called Gal Ventures (Gal means wave in Hebrew), that invests mainly in Israeli and U.S. startups.
This summer, in addition to playing basketball, Edan attended Chetz V’Keshet, a four-week traveling camp for children from abroad and Israelis in the scouts. “It’s not only a touring program but you are really thrown into Israeli culture,” he said. Instead of camel rides, hats, and flags, “you’re really just experiencing Israel for what it is,” he said, citing hanging out in Haifa and having free time in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market.
They also did a week of Gadna, basic army training. “All the Israelis do it, and it’s cool for Americans to see how life is here,” said Edan. “It’s another way to throw themselves into Israeli culture — into the army, which everyone needs to do here.”
Looking at American teens in his program with something of a binational eye, Edan observed their different approach to religion: “In America the push is to keep religion strong because it is not a Jewish place. Here [in Israel] it is much more of a cultural thing than a religious thing. It is eye opening to imagine this is the home of the Jews. I go to the Western Wall and historic places and think, ‘This is where it happened!’”
Before the Maccabi games, Max attended Tamir Goodman’s Basketball Camp, where of course they played basketball, but they also toured, packed food for poor children, and participated in a program at Shalva, an organization for children with special needs.
From his experiences living in Israel, Edan was particularly impressed with how Israelis relate to one another. “Israel is one big family. It has a lot of conflicts and sad times; but overall people here are close with one another.”
Max noted the country’s diversity — of religious observance, visitors from different countries, ethnic communities within Israel, and of course, the food.
Max recalled an “amazing experience” while at camp this summer, which captured both Edan’s perception of the closeness among Israelis and his own of Israel’s diversity: “We went to the Western Wall for Shabbat. You see a huge crowd of people singing Shabbat songs together, and everyone was having an amazing time praying together.”