Craig Hoffman is headed back to Israel because of some unfinished business.
The Berwyn resident served as head coach of the United States' rowing team at the 1997 World Maccabiah Games in Israel when tragedy struck. A pedestrian bridge over Tel Aviv's Yarkon River collapsed during the opening ceremonies, killing four Australian athletes.
Though the games went on and the team competed with gusto — Hoffman and his squad took home six gold medals and one bronze — he said that the tragedy colored the entire competition, and he never felt that he got what he calls "the full Maccabiah experience."
Next month, Hoffman will reprise his role as head coach for the USA rowing team in the 18th games, the quadrennial gathering often referred to as the Jewish Olympics. He'll be one of nearly 100 athletes, coaches and other professionals from the Philadelphia area gathering together in Israel.
"I'm really looking forward to seeing the athletes have a great experience and a great Maccabiah experience," said Hoffman, who coaches at Malvern Preparatory School and has overseen competitions all over the world, including in Croatia and England. "If they're successful, I know I'm going to be satisfied."
The games, scheduled to run from July 12 to July 23, are billed as the world's third-largest international sporting event. More than 8,000 Jewish athletes will come together from more than 60 countries, including nations from South America, Eastern Europe and Africa. More than 900 Americans made the cut from some 2,600 applicants to compete on 88 teams in more than 27 different sports.
Any Jewish athlete may apply for the games, although in many cases, tryouts are required.
Maccabiah athletes, as well as coaches, trainers, doctors and various other personnel, must pay their own way — and sometimes more — to participate, although the amount required (and what it covers) varies by division.
Athletes compete in specific age categories and must contribute a designated amount accordingly.
Juniors (generally age 14 to 18) must pay about $6,000; open competitors (age 18 to 35) must pay about $3,000; masters competitors (age 35 and up) must raise $6,000, in part to subsidize the younger athletes' costs, plus the cost of their trip and registration. Athletic trainers, physicians and other managers pay between $600 and $1,650, depending on the roles they fill at the games.
While some from Philly said they were able to simply write a check to cover the fee, others applied for financial aid from Maccabi USA; still others sold raffle tickets or resorted to even more creative measures.
Sara Brams-Miller will compete in open cycling, and the race will be her first international competition. In order to come up with the necessary funds, a few months ago she headed down the shore to Ocean City, N.J.
She and a friend set up her bike on a stand along the boardwalk, "and I rode for three or four hours, just haggling people, saying 'Support an American athlete trying to go to an international event.' "
The afternoon netted her about $150, she said, and with the help of some financial aid, she eventually amassed enough money.
Wishing Them Well
Athletes from every age division — from early teens to late 70s — came together last week for a send-off reception held on the 43rd floor of the Comcast Center in Center City. At eye level with Liberty One and the Pyramid Club, athletes, family members and Maccabi USA personnel schmoozed and got to know one another in an informal setting in advance of rejoining one another next month at the opening ceremony at Ramat Gan stadium.
For 14-year-old Elana Molotsky, just making the games and being among so many athletes was a victory itself. The pixieish gymnast from Mount Laurel, N.J., was all smiles at the send-off, but clearly with lots of energy to burn.
"If I go and I win, then hallelujah," said Molotsky, one of the area's youngest competitors. "If I don't, then I competed internationally — and how can you go wrong with that?"
Many of the athletes will be visiting the Jewish state for the first time, but not juniors table-tennis coach Jeffrey Fuchs of Richboro. He can't remember exactly how many times he's been, although though he guessed it was about 20.
Fuchs, 41, lived in Israel for a time and has traveled there often, either leading Birthright Israel trips or as director of the Israel program at Gratz Jewish Community High School. For the 2005 games, he coached the junior boys gymnastics team.
"Taking kids to Israel is what I do," said Fuchs. "Either I do it through educational purposes, or I do it through athletic events."
Hoffman, the rowing coach, pointed out that aside from the games, he's looking forward to the overwhelming emotional experience of being back in Israel.
"When I was over there — and I was only over there once — you really do feel what the country has gone through," said the coach. "There's such an identity and such a pride about their country, and you can see it when you speak with the Israelis — how proud they are of what they do and how their country has come about."