The 15th European Maccabi Games, which some have likened to the Jewish Olympics, concluded on Aug. 7 in Budapest, Hungary, with team USA taking home a total of 155 medals, more than any other country.
American athletes claimed 75 gold, 43 silver and 37 bronze medals in categories including basketball, fencing and soccer. The Games took place from July 29 through Aug. 7, with more than 2,000 Jewish athletes from 42 countries competing in sports such as water polo, futsal, boxing, tennis, swimming and chess.
“With world-class competition across multiple sports and lasting bonds formed among Jewish athletes from around the world, the European Maccabi Games were a wonderful example of the power of the Maccabi movement,” Maccabi USA CEO Marshall Einhorn told JNS.
“Maccabi USA’s success on the field was certainly gratifying to everyone in our delegation,” he said, “and a testament to the talent and hard work of our players and coaches. However, win or lose, the deep connections formed by our athletes with other Jews, both from the U.S. and around the world, represent the most important takeaway from these Games.”
Melissa Perlman, 37, took home the gold medal for the half-marathon masters, meaning athletes 35 years old and over, and finished second overall for women in the half-marathon. This is her fifth time competing in the Games; in the past, she’s won gold, silver and bronze medals.
Her father competed in the Maccabi Games back in 1973.
The Florida-based runner told JNS ahead of the Games’ closing ceremony on Tuesday that she cherished the moments she spent getting to know fellow athletes from around America and the connections she made with half-marathoners from other countries, including Romania, Switzerland and France. Perlman, who recently ran the full-length Boston Marathon in April, also explained that the competition was an emotional experience for her.
“Half-marathons have a funny way of bringing out a lot of emotion and joy,” she said. “I got to run the race with one of my teammates who I know from back home in Florida who I coach—actually, I was his high school coach—and he was on the team this year. We ran the first 10 miles together. That was pretty special, going through it together. And my other teammate, who won the overall and coaches me back home in the states, it was really nice to see her at the end waiting for me. A lot of emotion comes out of the races.”
Feelings of camaraderie, shared background
The gold medalist, whose great-grandparents on both sides of her family are Holocaust survivors, is very involved in the Jewish community in South Florida, where she lives. In Boca Raton in June, she helped assemble a Maccabi “Fun Run” 5K marathon to raise money to send athletes to the Maccabi Games and educate people about the global competition.
Her Jewish heritage is a “strong, spiritual” part of who is she and as a runner, she said. “It’s so nice to be able to represent as a Jewish athlete when I compete and to break the mold a little bit from back in the day when people assumed that Jews weren’t athlete. I feel like I’m always representing myself, my religion and my family and the Maccabi Games.”
To get a taste of Jewish life in Hungary, the Jewish athletes gathered on Friday night at the biggest synagogue in Europe, the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest, and sang Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah.” The synagogue was the site where hundreds of Jews went to seek shelter in 1944 when it was part of the Budapest ghetto.
“It was a really special feeling in there,” said Team USA member Arly Golombek, 35, who won the silver medal for the individual in the overall show-jumping with her horse, Vanilla, and the bronze medal with her equestrian team. “Going there, people were kind of tired, including myself, because we do our sport all day and then we go to a medal ceremony or a team dinner, and there’s stress for the next day’s competition the preparations and stuff, but coming back from there, everyone was pretty much feeling alive. It was very special.”
The experience was moving for many, and gave some of the athletes a chance to reconnect to their Jewish roots.
Fencer Mason Moskowitz, 17, from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said about the visit to the synagogue: “It was really incredible to be at such a holy site for Jews because I usually just see churches and cathedrals.” He talked to JNS about the Maccabi Games bringing him back to his Jewish heritage in a way that his busy schedule back home doesn’t allow.
The teenager, who won two bronze medals in the team fencing division and one individual gold, grew up attending synagogue for Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, though his grueling fencing schedule has kept him from continuing to attend services. He said that “fencing has taken up a whole part of my life, so I can’t do Jewish things, but when I found out about the Maccabi Games and that I can do both at the same time, it was like a done deal. It was great.”
Moskowitz won his first international medals in his first year at the Games. He spoke about the camaraderie among the fencing team and said competing made him feel “unified as a Jewish person,” going up against representatives of Jewish communities all around the world.
Golombek also talked about the support that athletes, even rivals, gave each other at the Maccabi Games.
“Here we are, a humongous group of athletes all with something in common, being Jewish, being in sports … whether we’re professionals or not, that’s two very strong points,” she said. “Also the majority of us are somewhere we’ve never been before, so that’s something that definitely congealed us all. … It’s that feeling that hey, we’re competitive against each other, but we’re also very much together.”