The Philadelphia area will be well represented at this year's Games, to be held in Berlin.
Next week, thousands of Jewish athletes from around the world will converge in a country some may never have thought of traveling to before: Germany.
The 2015 European Maccabi Games will be hosted in Berlin for the first time in the competition’s history from July 27 to Aug. 5. The games will be hosted in Olympiapark Berlin, the same stadium in which Jewish athletes were barred from competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
The 10-day competition will kick off with Opening Ceremonies on July 28 in Olympiapark, which will feature a variety of acts including American singer Matisyahu, Israeli singer Gali Atari, German actress Palina Rojinski and Berlin-based band Jewdyssee, among others. Athletes from all over the world will be competing in 19 sports — from badminton to soccer to water polo — in age groups ranging from Juniors (15 to 17) to Masters (ages 40 and up).
The historical significance of the games being hosted in Berlin is a key part of what many involved are looking forward to exploring.
Maccabi USA team manager Daniel Kurtz said that even though he has traveled to Israel for the Maccabiah Games, which occurs every four years as a kind of Jewish Olympiad, this is the first time he has been motivated to attend the European Maccabi Games in his 15 years with the team.
“The European Games never had much draw to me. It’s never been something that really spoke to me as something I really wanted to do,” said Kurtz, whose day job is serving as principal of Gen. Philip Kearny Elementary School at Sixth and Fairmount streets in Northern Liberties. He added that when Maccabi USA executive director Jed Margolis and EMG chairman of USA Organizing Committee Tonja Magerman “offered me the opportunity to go to Berlin, it was completely different.”
The spectacle and statement of having so many Jews — some 2,000 athletes from 36 countries — so publicly present in Berlin held such power for him that he wanted to be a part of it, he said.
“To be part of Americans and Jews in Berlin, marching in the shadows of the Nazis and saying, ‘We’re still here and you’re not’ ” compelled him, he said, especially the idea of competing in this particular stadium.
Kurtz has been involved with Maccabi in various capacities, from coaching and managing to even participating as an athlete in judo competitions. He was trick-or-treating with his family on Halloween last year when he got the call from Margolis and Magerman inviting him to be team manager for the United States.
He will be overseeing the 210 American athletes, coaches, family members and trainers heading to Berlin, as well as acting as liaison between the U.S. and the other countries once they land in the city.
The athletes, who each had to raise $5,800 in order to go, are looking forward to the opportunity as well.
Jason Paul, 15, from Lafayette Hill was surprised when he learned about six months ago that he was picked to play basketball for the Junior Boys team.
“I didn’t even know about it. I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ ” he recalled. He was selected by Brian Schiff, the head coach of the Junior Boys Basketball team. Schiff coached him last year on the Philadelphia team in the JCC Maccabi games.
The Plymouth Whitemarsh High School student said he is excited to meet all the players from different countries — even though he’ll be competing against them.
“I was chosen out of a whole bunch of people; it means a lot. It was pretty rare to be picked,” he said.
Schiff held a mini training camp with the team to make sure the players, who are from all over the country, could bond before the competition, even if they come from different backgrounds. Some kids may be the only Jewish student at their school while others come from a larger Jewish population, he said.
“That’s to me the most gratifying — exposing kids to something Jewish and exposing them to something maybe they didn’t even know was out there,” he said.
Schiff, a producer for Comcast SportsNet in Philadelphia, got into coaching in an unorthodox way; he was a sportswriter for the now defunct Philadelphia Jewish Times when he was assigned a story on tryouts for the Philadelphia team for what is now known as the JCC Maccabi Games. He was familiar with the coaching staff and, after remarking that the process “looked like fun,” wound up joining the team’s coaching staff.
After that summer, Schiff got a call from the then head coach at Abington Friends School Steve Chadwin who asked him to come on as an assistant coach for the school’s boys’ varsity basketball team.
“I said, you might as well be asking me to remove your kidney,” he recalled. Despite a sports background that didn’t really extend beyond the realm of baseball, he eventually took the coaching job.
Since he began coaching the JCC Philadelphia team in 1992, and the Maccabi USA team in 1999, Schiff has compiled an unblemished 37-0 record and six gold medals from international competitions.
These games are different from those of the JCC Maccabi games because there were no tryouts, he said. He relied on recommendations from the players’ coaches when crafting his 12-person team to take to Berlin. But he is confident in their abilities.
The teammates met for the first time six weeks ago in Philly and played double scrimmages and got to know each other. It was a fun opportunity for the players, but Schiff emphasized during the games in Berlin, “we’re all business.”
Leading up to their departure this weekend, all 12 of the participating athletes have arrived in Philadelphia and will have practices throughout the remainder of the week at the Kaiserman JCC in Wynnewood.
Similar to Kurtz, Schiff never really had much interest in visiting Germany. He did stay overnight at the Frankfurt airport once during a long layover, but that doesn’t count, he joked. He is cognizant of the significance and symbolism of a large group of Jews converging in this locale.
“Obviously the sense that it’s in Germany, and the Jewish people are returning in force as a factor in the world, is a huge thing,” Schiff said, adding that it will be “extremely emotional and meaningful” for everyone involved.
It was important to Kurtz and his colleagues to impress upon their charges the significance of being in Berlin — and not just focusing on beating their competition.
“My management team is in part responsible for ensuring that we find the right balance so that the events are scheduled and that the trips and tours that are being put together giving people the full experience of understanding what it means to be an American Jew in Berlin in 2015, in the Olympic stadium, walking past the observation [deck] where Hitler stood to watch the Nazis compete, and what all that really means,” he said.
He and his team are using their time in Berlin to take the athletes a bit away from the stadium and into history. They are taking the junior athletes to Sachsenhausen concentration camp as well as to a memorial service on Tisha B’Av at Track 17 at Grunewald Station, where many Jews in Berlin were deported to ghettos and the camps. They will use that time to honor the Olympians killed in the Holocaust and the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Munich games.
Building Jewish pride through sports is one of the main missions of Maccabi USA, said Jed Margolis, who has been with the organization for 40 years. But this opportunity provides so much more than that.
“This has been the largest gathering of Jews for a sporting activity since World War II, which is a testament to the strength and vitality of the Jewish community,” he said.
The memorial service and excursions are a way to ensure the athletes “get the sense of what it’s really about,” he added. “I’m hoping that they’re going to be further connected to the Jewish community through this experience and their lives will be enriched.”
The organization is bringing two special guests with them: two descendants of Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, the American Jewish sprinters who were benched during the 1936 Summer Games. Nancy Glickman and Steven Stoller will be marching and carrying a banner to honor the athletes and ensure their memories live on.
Kurtz is particularly looking forward to the opening ceremonies and connecting with the other countries attending, but not for the entertainment factor.
“I would say for me the one thing I’m really looking forward to is the opening ceremony because I really want to be a part of that powerful message that we’re still here and we’re strong and we’re unified. The Jewish people are better than ever,” he said.
“The opportunity to do that in such a public way is something I’m really proud to be a part of and looking forward to.”
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