Soccer, Judaism forge spirits at Maccabi Games

Sports may be a pastime for some, but for me, it’s much more. I have played soccer and baseball year round since I was 5 years old. I cannot get enough of the adrenaline and thrills that come with playing and following sports. So it was very natural for me to jump at the idea of playing in the Maccabi Games, where I could blend my love of soccer with my Jewish identity.

The Maccabi Games are referred to as the “Jewish Olympics,” where Jewish teens from 13 to 16 represent their Jewish Community Center through sports, competing against other Jews from around the world. For me, it’s been an opportunity to enrich my Jewish identity by connecting with Jews from many countries through soccer. The games allowed me to witness how a diverse group of teens can come together around a common goal and passion.

In my four years at the Maccabi Games, I have created many new friendships. Before my first time at the games, I found out that I would be playing soccer with the San Diego delegation since my San Jose delegation wasn’t sending a full team. I spent an entire week in San Diego bonding and practicing with that team in preparation for the games, creating deep friendships and great memories.

My next year at the games, I played with teens from Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland. As diverse as we were, we came together and unified as a team to make it all the way to the medal match, ending up in fourth place.

Last year, my team was made up of players from Canada, Israel, San Jose, San Diego, New Orleans, Colorado and Chicago — by far the most unique and mismatched team I have been a part of. However, it was also one of the most enjoyable and entertaining. Despite hailing from three countries and five states, we were able to come together and earn fifth place, a tremendous accomplishment considering that we were competing against teams that had been playing together for years.

This past summer I played with teens from Las Vegas, Atlanta and Israel. These games were very special to me and my close friends on the San Jose delegation because it was our final year. After rooming and hanging out with each other for four straight years, we knew that this was our last chance to enjoy the great sports, parties and Jewish rituals that are such a part of the games. My soccer team this year bonded instantly on the field; we became like a big family. This camaraderie helped us to win third place — a bronze medal in my final Maccabi Games. It was the first time I or anyone on my team had won a medal, making the experience all the more enriching. As a special honor, the Las Vegas delegation awarded me its Midot Medal, given to an individual who has made significant contributions. It was a big honor for me to end my Maccabi experience with both these medals.

Playing with teens from so many backgrounds and experiencing so many different playing styles has made me a much better soccer player. It also deepened my relationship with Judaism. The Maccabi Games showed me that soccer and other sports have the power to unite a people.

Since my four years of playing in the games have come to an end, I can look back at my experiences and see the impact these games have had on my Jewish identity. My bond with Judaism was strengthened by meeting other teens from around the world that shared the same passions for soccer, sports, and Judaism. I now have a very diverse base of Jewish friends for life.

Zachary Stubbs lives in Pleasanton and is a junior at Amador Valley High School. He plays soccer for the school and writes for the school newspaper.