Maccabiah Games

By Oren Gotesman & Prescott Watson

“Hello, and prepare to be defeated,” Erez Shachar, Israel fellow to Santa Cruz Hillel, announced to visiting teams in Hebrew. Sporting an Israeli flag as a cape, he pointed to the Santa Cruz team. “Let’s get started, Jews!” he yelled in English. And so began the first Bay Area Maccabiah Games hosted by Santa Cruz Hillel. Modeled after the official Maccabiah Games held in Israel, the local version is an athletic and cultural celebration open to all Jews and Israelis. Often called the “Jewish Olympics,” the Games are held every four years in Tel Aviv and draw a worldwide audience.

Erez Shachar, Israel Fellow at Santa Cruz Hillel. Photo by Prescott Watson.

This year’s local games drew four other schools from the Central Coast, with San Francisco State and UC Santa Cruz bringing the largest teams. UC Berkeley and Davis were well represented, and Costanoa State traveled eight hours.

Both the local and official games aim to provide a sense of pride in the identities of Jewish and Israeli peoples. The games emphasize their athletic potential, counter the modern view of Jews as only “people of the book” and, locally, help to unite Jewish and Israeli peoples and organizations in the Bay Area.

The local games were the brainchild of David Silver, a sophomore from College Ten. He was inspired by a Maccabiah Games hosted by a summer camp he attended. The Bay Area Games, like the official Games, market a particular vision of Jews and promote pride and community awareness. “It’s not an event where someone has to be religious or in touch with their Jewish side,” Silver told us. “Yet there is still a definite connection to Judaism.” Silver worked with Erez Shachar, the local Israel fellow to Santa Cruz Hillel, to put the games together.

Though envisioned and executed by mainly students, the Bay Area Games had a strong sense of heritage and paid homage to the traditions of past.

The games opened with “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Ha Tikvah,” followed by a series of speakers who told personal histories of the games. Past competitors at the Maccabiah Games Ben Auerbach, Desmond B. Tuc, and Michael Leitner, as well as Murry Sheldon, whose father competed in the second Games, all spoke about their experiences. The youngest of the speakers, Ben Auerbach, won the gold medal in open track in 2009. Desmond B. Tuc was a competitor in the 1987 Games in karate, and Michael Leitner competed in tennis in 2001. Sheldon told the story of his father leaving Germany in order to compete in the 1938 games. As he was preparing to return home, his family contacted him, telling him the Nuremberg laws had come into effect and dissuaded him from returning. The Maccabiah games saved his life. Echos to recent Jewish history grounded the participants and offered the day historical context.

Many people imagined a worldwide Jewish sporting event, and, as such, Maccabiah has several beginnings. Max Nordau, co-founder of the World Zionist Organization, used the pulpit of the Second World Zionist Congress in 1898 to spread the idea of the “muscle Jew.” Describing men and women with clear heads, strong stomachs, and hard muscles, this vision of the Jewish person, he believed, was necessary for achieving the national goals of Zionism by countering the feeling of humiliation in European Jews. Earlier, in 1895, an all-Jewish Maccabi gymnastics club was founded, named for Judah Maccabee, the ancient Jewish warrior who lead a revolt against the Seleucid Dynasty around 160 BCE. By the end of the first World War there were over 100 Maccabi-style groups in Europe. Yosef Yekutieli, inspired by the Stockholm Olympics of 1912, independently began to develop and market the idea of a worldwide Jewish sporting championship in the 1920s. The first modern Maccabiah Games were held in 1932, on the anniversary of the Judah Maccabee’s Bar Kokhba revolt against the Roman Empire.


Yekutieli, in a show of dedication to his opus, joined a delegation of fundraisers in the early 1930s to trek across the Jewish communities of Europe and promote the games. Traveling by motorcycle through two routes they began to spread hype. One crossed the continent from Tel Aviv to Belgium, and the other traveled through northern Africa, Greece and into the UK. The first Games in 1932 saw 400 participants, many of them Britons who were using the Games to make Aliya and bypass laws against Jews. By the second Games, over a thousand athletes competed. The third Games, however, were postponed from 1938 until after the Second World War.

UC Santa Cruz students create a human pyramid for the first Bay Area Maccabiah Games. Photo by Prescott Watson.

Since their inception, the Maccabiah Games have brought Jewish athletes into the spotlight. Indeed, there is a significant overlap between Olympic and Maccabiah competitors. Issac Berger, an Olympic gold medalist, set the first world record in Israel by surpassing his weightlifting records in the fifth Maccabiah Games in 1957. Tal Brody, one of the most famous Jewish athletes in the United States, was a US delegate to the 1965 Games competing in basketball. Mark Spitz, who was only surpassed in Olympic swimming achievement by Michael Phelps in 2008, competed for the first time internationally at the age of 15 in the 1965 Maccabiah Games. He is still part of the US delegation to the Games.

Erez Shachar is confident in the local games’ momentum and continuation. Hillel and the San Francisco Israel Center are looking to have the games’ rotate between campuses in the Bay Area.

Special thanks to the Israel Center of San Francisco and Omri Dotan for co-organizing the Santa Cruz Maccabiah Games.

Published on page 29 of the Spring 2011 issue of Leviathan.

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