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A League of Their Own
Joshua Lamberg has been around the block once or twice when it comes to baseball; he's played for the University of Richmond and has suited up professionally as a member of minor league organizations.
But next week, Lamberg will have the opportunity to play with a whole different league, made up of mostly Jewish athletes.
Lamberg - who's been tossing around the ball since the age of 3, and can list minor league teams such as the Cincinnati Reds and the Camden River Sharks on his baseball résumé - will join dozens of others from the greater Philadelphia area in Israel from July 10 to July 21 as part of this year's 17th quadrennial Maccabiah Games. The athletes will have the chance to compete against thousands of other Jews from around the world, as well as tour various sites and learn about Israeli culture.
"There is no better, more heart-warming feeling than doing this and playing ball with 14 other Jewish guys," said Lamberg, 27, part of the U.S. fast-pitch softball team, where balls are thrown windmill-style at 70 to 80 mph. "My chest is booming. It really is an awesome feeling."
Lindsay Krasna, 19, who will be playing for the women's basketball team, agrees that though she has been playing the sport for nearly a decade, it's nice to feel a shared bond with team members.
"It's really neat because we have so much in common," said Krasna, who was in Boston for a few days to practice before departing. "It's very rare to find someone who is Jewish and plays basketball - and we all get along so well."
The World Maccabiah Games is an Olympic-style athletic contest played in Israel every four years. For two weeks, Jews of all ages and backgrounds compete against one another, each vying for the coveted gold medal in everything from squash to tennis, rowing to judo.
To make it even more of a golden opportunity for Lamberg, his younger brother, Michael, has also been chosen to be a part of the team, something the older sibling calls the "highlight of his career."
And the Lamberg boys aren't the only sibling pair from this area who will have the chance to travel to the Jewish state together and join in the world tournament.
Sister and brother Amy and Edward Gross from Bala Cynwyd will also go to the land of milk and honey as part of the USA squash team. Amy, 21, currently a member of Yale University's squash squad, was introduced to the sport at the age of 8 by her brother, nine years her senior.
"It's probably the most unbelievable thing that I am ever going to witness as a Mom," said their mother, Susan Gross, who will fly to Israel with her husband to watch their children compete.
The Maccabi movement, named for Judah the Maccabee, was initiated at the end of the 19th century, when the first all-Jewish gymnastics club was formed in Constantinople, Turkey. Within nearly 30 years, more than 100 Maccabi-style clubs existed throughout Europe. Some 23 countries and 500 athletes competed in the very first world tournament, held in Tel Aviv in 1932.
The games - called the Maccabiah Games since they came to Israel - have divisions for all age groups, and competitors are chosen after filling out an application and passing the tryouts. Some of the teams were formed as early as last July - like the men's softball team - and have had numerous opportunities over the years to meet with other team members from around the nation to play together, practice and work at perfecting their sport. Others, like the women's volleyball team, will meet for the first time at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York before they depart, and will have just a week in Israel to get to know their fellow teammates.
"As long as we communicate on the court, it won't be too much of a problem," said Isabel de Koninck, 22, a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote and a member of the volleyball team. "Most of our team plays club volleyball or plays for competitive universities. I have to believe that we've got the skills to play a good game."
While competing seems to be the highlight of the trip, the athletes are also looking forward to time in Israel and the ability to sightsee.
Rabbi Alan Iser of the Conservative Congregation Or Shalom in Berwyn, who will be running in the half-marathon - or 13.1 miles - is using the beginning of his trip to spend time at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, a place to study Jewish thought and education.
"I get to do my two favorite things while in Israel: studying Torah and running," he said.
Despite the mounting political uncertainty and tension in Israel that exist as part of the disengagement plan from the Gaza Strip and a handful of settlements in the northern West Bank, the athletes expressed little concern about safety.
Work Turned Mitzvah
"I'm nervous about competing, but not about going over there," said Adam Moyerman, 18, whose family is very involved with the games. (His sister will be competing with him in judo, his older brother is the junior team's coach, and his father is manager of the entire USA team.) "Security was fine four years ago, and it's supposed to be even better now."
Lamberg declared that his pride is just too overwhelming to be overshadowed by security concerns: "I've had a terrific baseball career, and I have the opportunity to turn that hard work into a mitzvah for my community.
"Any fear or nervousness? There just isn't room for it."