Local Maccabiah athletes immersed in sports, Israel

Local Maccabiah athletes immersed in sports, Israel

Common Jewish identity unites fierce competitors

Nicole Arias, right, softball head coach at the Maccabiah Games, with her former pitcher from Princeton University, Claire Klausner. Photo by Rebecca Arias
Nicole Arias, right, softball head coach at the Maccabiah Games, with her former pitcher from Princeton University, Claire Klausner. Photo by Rebecca Arias

Judaism, Israel, and sports came together for participants in the 2017 Maccabiah Games, the international athletic event held every four years in Israel. 

The 20th “Jewish Olympics,” held July 4 to 17, drew 12,000 competitors, making it the third-largest such event in the world.

Among the members of the Maccabi-USA teams were athletes from central Jersey and Princeton University. Those who spoke to NJJN reported that while they were immersed in the hard work and emotional highs of competition, their experiences at the games evoked strong feelings regarding their Jewishness, feelings that often surprised the athletes and in some cases motivated them to investigate further both Israel and their own Jewish identity. The athletes (and two coaches) ranged over softball, tennis, squash, field hockey, wrestling, and soccer; some players brought home gold and silver medals.

“You don’t come across that many people all at once who are Jewish and playing a sport they are really passionate about,” said Sivan Krems, a tennis player and recent Princeton graduate. “You get to meet people from all over the world once the games start.”

Nicole D. Arias, assistant softball coach at Princeton University and previously a coach at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School-South, moved to West Windsor in the early 1990s when she was 7 or 8 and is still a member of the town’s Congregation Beth Chaim, where she was active as a youngster.

Arias played varsity softball in high school and was starting third baseman at William Paterson University in Wayne for four years and captain for three. Her college coach, Hallie Cohen, was named the co-head coach of the Israeli national softball team in 2006 and encouraged Arias to join the roster. She did, later returning to the United States. 

When Arias heard from a fellow team member about an all-Jewish Maccabi-USA national team that would be competing in the Pan American Games in Buenos Aires, she tried out and made the team, playing in 2006-07. “That was my introduction to the Maccabi sports world,” she said. 

In the 2009 and 2013 Maccabiah Games, she played and was an assistant coach, and her team won gold medals in both years. This year she was head coach, and her team again earned the gold.

Arias described the awe she felt during the opening ceremonies as she joined in “12,000 athletes, from 80 different countries, singing ‘Hatikvah’ together, in one place, in one language.” 

She told NJJN she was struck by “being in Israel, where everyone is thinking about competing as Jewish athletes, yet there is a sense of togetherness.” While the competitors were all striving to “win the gold medal, in the end it’s about meeting other Jews from around the world and unifying together.” 

West Windsor resident Yael Yonah, daughter of Andrea and Yigal, an Israeli, started playing field hockey under Arias as a freshman at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School-South. She is a rising freshman at Montclair State University. 

A family friend who had served as a Maccabiah doctor encouraged her to try out, and she made the American team. 

“I think it was one of the best experiences I have had in my life; it was a crazy experience to be able to play — and also play in Israel,” Yonah said. What stood out most regarding her fellow team members was that “we were all Jewish and all played field hockey; I hadn’t met more than one person in my life who was Jewish and played hockey.”

Player finds ‘deeper connection’ with Judaism

Squash player Brynn Bank, who just graduated from the Hun School of Princeton and will attend Dartmouth University in the fall, grew up in Princeton in a mixed family; her father, Scott, is Jewish, and her mother, Kathy, is Christian. For Bank, playing in Israel pushed her to think more deeply about her Jewishness. As a Maccabiah player, she said, “I felt a much deeper connection with my Jewish faith. Just the fact that everyone was there for the same reason — they were all Jewish, all athletes, and all young. It was cool for me to see all these people I had so much in common with.” 

Bank, whose father was a tennis competitor in Maccabiah, played Princeton Junior Squash at Princeton University, with a university coach, and also played at the Lawrenceville School; the Hun School, from which she graduated, only started a squash team her senior year. This year she took a break from spending weekends at U.S. Squash Association tournaments all over the country and joined the Maccabi-USA open squash team, which won a silver medal; individually she won a gold.

Looking back on the experience, Bank said, “I don’t really know where it is going to take me, but it definitely had a big impact. I want to explore more about Judaism and the Jewish faith.” She plans to join the campus Hillel at Dartmouth this fall.

Lehigh University rising junior Gordon Wolf, who grew up in Lawrenceville and had his bar mitzvah at Har Sinai Temple in Pennington, got into wrestling at age 7, when the manager of the local wrestling club saw him climbing a flagpole on a baseball field and told Wolf’s mother, “He has a lot of energy; you should put him into wrestling.” By his sophomore year, Wolf decided he wanted to drop lacrosse, not take soccer seriously, and continue wrestling in college.

His mother told him about the late April Maccabiah qualifier, and even though he had a Birthright trip planned to begin in late July, he applied to the team. At the games, he earned a silver medal in freestyle. 

Wolf said he liked so much about Israel — the weather, the people, the food, and the beach. From the Jewish perspective, he particularly “enjoyed everyone being together for Friday night services and us singing and being happy together.” 

Princeton University represents 

Four Princeton University students were involved in the Maccabiah Games: Sivan Krems, a 2017 sociology graduate, co-captain of the university tennis team her senior year, and now working for BlackRock in Princeton, won silver medals in singles’ and doubles’ tennis at the Maccabiah. 

Joshua Haberman, a 2017 public policy graduate of Princeton University and newly minted management consulting analyst at Accenture in Washington, DC, was part of the Maccabi-USA soccer team, which won a gold medal. 

Princeton junior Benjamin Issroff, and David Goldstein, 2017 graduate and assistant coach, also were part of the Maccabi-USA soccer team in the Maccabiah.

Although Krems had played in the Maccabiah Games four years ago, she said the experience in July “exceeded even the high expectations I had.” Not having spent as much time in Jerusalem on previous trips, she said, “Being in that city and having the opportunity to play tennis there and meet new people and be immersed in the cultural experience was extremely special.” Plus being in Israel “never gets old,” she said. 

Haberman described himself as a “cultural and a Reform Jew” who finds it “really important to share holidays and traditions with my family.” He also shared that his grandmother escaped Europe on Kristallnacht, the Nov. 9-10, 1938, night of pogroms in Germany and Austria that is generally regarded as the start of the Holocaust.

Haberman’s coach from a regional Maccabi-USA soccer tournament in Philadelphia invited him to try out for the Maccabiah team. 

He liked Israel Connect, the tour preceding the games, which he described as “pretty much Birthright condensed into four days.”

“The first time seeing all that makes you proud to be a Jew, proud to have a homeland you can always go to and be proud of,” he said.

“I want to go back to Israel soon, and make sure my family one day comes with me,” Haberman said. “I want to make sure the pride I have not just with Israel but with the Jewish people stays. I loved it and I want to go back.”

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