During the first week of August, more than 4,000 volunteers, host families, coaches and teen athletes will congregate at the Merage JCC in Irvine to again integrate athletics and arts with our Jewish history. David Ben-Gurion, first Prime Minister of the State of Israel, said of the original games, “Maccabi is, no doubt, a most important branch of the Zionist movement.”
The Maccabiah Games, also known as the “Jewish Olympics,” are held every four years in Israel. The Israel Maccabiah Games attract Jewish athletes from all over the globe. It is the third largest sporting event in world. Only the Olympic Games and Asian Games surpass it in size.
An innovative modern day addition to the world of Maccabi, the JCC Maccabi Games were created in 1982. Nicknamed the “Jewish Youth Olympics,” they are a permanent fixture in the annual calendars for Jewish communities across the US, Canada and worldwide.
The First Maccabi Games in 1932
Held in Tel Aviv, in Palestine, 390 athletes from 18 countries attended. To recruit for the first Maccabiah, emissaries rode out from Palestine to European cities on Harley Davidson motorbikes to recruit and spread the word. They covered 9,375 kilometers bringing the message of the Maccabiah Games which would take place in Eretz Yisrael.
The year 1965 saw the seventh Maccabi Games with 1,200 athletes from 25 countries. Fifteen-year-old American swimmer Mark Spitz won three gold medals in his first international competition.
Continuing to grow, the 2009 Maccabiah Games in Israel were host to 7,500 athletes from 50 countries, including Olympic champions Mark Spitz and Lenny Krayzelburg marching with Team USA. Seven-time U.S. Olympic medalist and OC sports hero, Jason Lezak, lit the torch.
Orange County Sends Athletes to the Maccabi Games
In 1986 Orange County teens competed for the first time, as part of the Los Angeles delegation, in the JCC Maccabi Games in Toronto, Canada. Barry Ackerman initiated and organized the OC program in partnership with LA Maccabi. Barry remains involved in the JCC Maccabi Games & ArtsFest to the present day.
The first official OC delegation participated in the 1990 JCC Maccabi Games in Detroit. OC Maccabi sent a young Jason Lezak, who won multiple medals in Under-14 swimming. Jason went on to compete in four Olympic Games, earning gold, silver and bronze medals. He is in the Orange County, Jewish and US Swimming Halls of Fame.
Modern Maccabi Alumni
Other notable Maccabi alumni include Ben Helfgott, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who was one of two Holocaust survivors to compete in the Olympic Games. He represented Great Britain at the Maccabiah Games in Israel.
Mark Spitz, American swimming phenom, Ethan Zohn, of the television show “Survivor” fame and Bret Loewenstern, an “American Idol” finalist, participated in the Maccabi Games and ArtFest respectively.
Maccabi and the Shoah
The rise of Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust took a terrible toll on Jewish lives. Many of the early Maccabi clubs in Europe were lost in the Shoah. Hundreds of thousands of Maccabi club members perished, and Maccabi clubs, like so many other Jewish institutions and organizations, were destroyed. Many Maccabi leaders played key roles in the resistance against the Nazis. At the end of the war, those who survived emigrated to the diaspora and Palestine and formed the backbone of what has today become a thriving World Maccabi community.
The story of Hakoah Vienna
Hakoah Vienna is arguably the most famous and successful of all the Maccabi clubs to have grown in Europe before the Shoah. Prior to World War II, it produced several Olympic athletes. Following the Nazi Anschluss of 1938, the club was disbanded and shut.
In 2006, the Jewish Community of Vienna rebuilt and reopened the Hakoah Vienna club, and in 2011 the Jewish Community of Vienna hosted the European Maccabi Games – the first Maccabi Games and the largest gathering of Jews to ever be held on former Nazi Occupied territory. More than 2,000 Jewish youth and adults came from across Europe, North and South America, Israel and Australia to compete.
Judith was a competitive swimmer at the legendary Hakoah Vienna Club, and chosen as the Outstanding Austrian Female Athlete of 1935. She broke 12 national records in that one year alone. She was selected to represent her country in the 1936 Summer Olympics. While participating for Maccabi Austria in the 2nd Maccabiah in Eretz Yisrael in 1935, she learned from her Maccabi Germany counterparts what was happening in Germany and decided not to be part of “Hitler’s Olympics” in Berlin. In her letter of resignation to the Austrian Olympic Committee, she wrote: “I protest…as a Jew, I cannot participate in the Berlin Olympic Games. My conscience does not allow me…”
The Austrian Olympic Committee’s answer was to ban her and strip her of her titles, expunging her name from the record books as if she had never existed. Judith and her family emigrated to Palestine where she soon became a national swimming champion and in 1939 represented Hebrew University in the International Student Games held in Monaco. She won a silver medal, one day before the outbreak of the Second World War. It is the only medal Judith kept.
In 1995 Maccabi World Union wrote a letter to Othmar Bricks, president of the Austrian Swimming League, explaining the injustice done to Deutsch. He replied “…I blushed with shame, humiliation and rage. I am deeply ashamed of the decision they made at that time.” He invited Judith to Austria to make amends, restore her titles and re-enter her name into the official book of swimming records. Deutsch refused to go to Austria, saying, “…they threw me out once. If they want to give me back my titles, they can give them to me in Israel.” And so at an emotional ceremony held at Kfar HaMaccabiah in June 1995, Austria’s Ambassador to Israel Dr. Herbert Karol read out an official letter of apology written by Austrian President Dr. Heinz Fischer. All sanctions against Deutsch were lifted, and all her medals and titles restored. Judith died in November 20, 2004, in the Jewish homeland – Israel.
Zionism and Maccabi: Intertwined Imagination
The Maccabi movement grew and evolved in parallel to the rise of Zionism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The dream and desire to build a Jewish state for a strong Jewish people was part and parcel of the ideals of the Maccabi movement. Even today Israel and Zionism are the focal point of the Maccabi World Movement – most especially highlighted by the World Maccabiah Games that take place in Israel every 4 years.
It is no coincidence that it was at a World Zionist Congress that the World Maccabi Organization was born in 1929 and endorsement and support for the Maccabi idea was adopted and enthused by key Zionist leaders. Early on, Maccabi became a most important branch of the Zionist movement and the quest to create a Jewish homeland.
The father of political Zionism made a call to action at the World Zionist Congress: “Friends and brothers – wake and arise!….Get organized! Establish local groups, branches of societies of all kinds, men’s associations alongside those of women, gymnastics associations, singing groups, all with the mark of Zion.” “Train not your spirit alone, but your muscles as well. Stand strong and upright and study diligently and enthusiastically. We will have need of your strength and your knowledge…” “’Young Jews’ was till now a derogatory nickname. Make it an honorable name.”
For additional info, visit www.jccoc.org.