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Let the games begin

Locals head to Israel for ‘Jewish Olympics’

Jeff Bukantz, a veteran of international competitions, will head TEAM USA at the 2013 Maccabiah Games.
Jeff Bukantz, a veteran of international competitions, will head TEAM USA at the 2013 Maccabiah Games.

This year, the largest delegation ever to travel from the United States to compete in an International Olympic Committee-sanctioned event will take part in the 19th Maccabiah Games in Israel, from July 17 to 30.

By that measure alone, Team USA’s victory is assured; after all, said Jeff Bukantz of Montville, general chair of Maccabiah USA’s organizing committee, their success is measured not by wins, but by “how many feet land in Israel.”

Often called “the Jewish Olympics,” the Maccabiah takes place every four years in Israel and is the largest event sponsored by the Maccabi World Union and the third-largest international sporting event in the world, after the Olympics and the World University Games.

Established in 1932, the Maccabiah Games are “dedicated to the values of fair play, mutual respect, victory of body, intellect, and the pursuit of excellence” and aim to “emphasize the centrality of the State of Israel in the life of the Jewish people.” While in Israel, the participating Jewish athletes, coaches, and support personnel have opportunities to tour the country, meet its people, and take part in cultural events.

This year, more than 1,100 American-Jewish athletes and coaches comprise Team USA. Overall, there will be nearly 8,000 participants from 80 countries, comprising 82 teams in six divisions competing in 31 different sports. The Maccabiah games are the third-largest multi-sport event, following the Olympics and the World University Games.

“It’s going to be nuts,” said Bukantz, 55, a veteran of more than 30 years in international competition, including previous Maccabiah Games and Olympics, in a phone interview with NJ Jewish News. “It’s been two years of nonstop travel and meetings, conference calls and e-mails, overcoming disasters…. It’s been an incredible challenge to try to make decisions.”

Bukantz has been a fencer his entire adult life. He participated in four Maccabiah Games beginning in 1981, following in the footsteps of his father, Dan Bukantz, who won a gold medal in the foil in 1950. The younger Bukantz earned a gold in the epee in 1985 but, he said, “it didn’t count because it wasn’t the medal my dad had won.” He achieved that goal with a gold in the 1989 Games. He has also served as captain for the U.S. fencing team in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. So he is in a unique position to compare the quadrennial events.

“When you walk into the opening ceremonies at the Olympics, you’re proud of yourself and your accomplishments,” he said. “When you walk into the Maccabiah Games, it’s a little bit different because how often are you going to be in a setting with anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 people, all of whom are on the same side?”

He has also seen a marked change in security since he was able to sneak into the Olympic Village as a 15-year-old at the 1972 Munich games, during which 11 Israeli athletes were massacred by Palestinian terrorists. “Security has always been strong in Israel, whether you see it or not,” he said.

Athletes are lodged by country at the Olympics but at the Maccabiah, it’s by sport. “You make life-long friends at Maccabiah,” said Bukantz. Nevertheless, they are still serious about why they’re in Israel. It is not “a Kumbaya experience,” Bukantz said. “It’s very competitive. The will to win is just the same as in the Olympics.”

Still, there is a sense of shared culture and history that differentiates these games. Bukantz praised the members of the masters division, who are required to sponsor an open athlete as part of their own participation. “It’s a sort of circle of life thing.”

Bukantz pointed out the U.S. delegation had increased by almost 200, from 930 in 2009 to 1,100 this year. At a recent send-off program, he was asked how many medals the team had won at the previous Games.

Every time that question comes up, he said, neither he nor Maccabi USA executive director Jed Margolis knows the answer. “Our success is not measured by how many medals we bring home, but rather by how many feet land in Israel.”

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