Let the games begin: Bay Area well represented on U.S. roster for 19th Maccabiah

More than 60 Bay Area athletes are about to participate in the 19th World Maccabiah Games, a huge quadrennial event in Israel often described as the Jewish Olympics.

But for many of them, the event is more than just an athletic competition.

In 2009, swimmer Jason Lezak lights the torch to officially begin the 18th Maccabiah Games.

Just ask volleyball player Sarah Susson and rugby player Max Levine, both of San Francisco.

Not only did they compete in the games four years ago, but they also met in the airport en route to Israel — and have been together as boyfriend and girlfriend for more than three years.

Not that the relationship blossomed overnight.

“I claim I put my best foot forward for three weeks and got nothing out of him,” Susson, 27, said only half-jokingly.

Their friendship took root in Israel and budded into a romance just a few months later, and Susson is happy they’re returning again to Israel, this time together.

“It’ll be a whole-family affair this time,” she said, as both of their families are heading to Israel to watch them compete. “It’s really been a unique thing for this to happen in my life.”

The Maccabiah Games will run July 17 to 30, with the opening ceremonies set for July 18 at Teddy Kollek Stadium in Jerusalem. More than 32,000 people, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, are expected to attend the opening gala.

Team USA athletes Sarah Susson (volleyball) and Max Levine (rugby) of San Francisco at the 2009 games in Israel

More than 8,500 athletes, coaches and trainers from 82 nations will be at this year’s competition, which organizers claim is the third-largest international sporting event in the world, behind the Summer Olympics and the Pan Am Games. The 18th Maccabiah Games was the world’s largest sporting event of 2009, with approximately 8,000 athletes competing.

This year, Team USA will be suiting up more than 1,000 athletes from 37 states — reportedly the largest U.S. delegation ever to travel to an International Olympic Committee–sanctioned event. The largest numbers are from California (262) and New York (210), and all of them will march together into Teddy Kollek Stadium next week.

“Walking into the opening ceremonies is a feeling that is something you’ll never experience anywhere else,” Susson said. “Everyone is so proud to represent their country, but it’s a massive Jewish family, as well.”

She believes her volleyball team, which lost the bronze-medal match to Canada in 2009, can win it all this time around, even though the team members will have little time to practice together.

“It’s a little difficult to get to know people and their playing style, but we’re capable of winning this,” Susson said.

The athletes will be competing in 33 sports, a diverse list that includes squash, swimming, fencing, bowling, table tennis, taekwondo and softball. Equestrian is making its debut in this year’s games, and ice hockey is returning for the first time in 16 years.

Age categories begin as young as 15, and some athletes are in their 70s and beyond, such as 83-year-old Robert Sockolov of San Francisco, who will be competing in his fourth Maccabiah Games in tennis (in the grand master’s division).

Despite battling a staph infection since April, Sockolov said he expects to be ready to play. “We don’t quit,” he said of the older participants. “We keep plugging along.”

Woody Levin

Sockolov said the games mean the most for the young athletes because it helps connect them to their Judaism. “It’s really important for the young people because quite a few of them have very little Jewish identity,” he noted.

Meanwhile, 68-year-old Gary Shemano of San Francisco is returning for his fifth Maccabiah Games, having first competed in 1981. He’s won six medals in golf, including three golds.

At the other end of the age spectrum is Berkeley’s Josh Cohen, an avid baseball player who just turned 17. The graduate of Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, a pitcher and a middle infielder, is one of only 16 players from around the country selected for the U.S. junior boys baseball team.

In total, the United States is sending a record 1,200 athletes, coaches and support staff to the games this year. Some of the athletes have star power, such as Olympic gold medal gymnast Aly Raisman, as do some of the coaches: One of the U.S. basketball coaches is former NBA star Danny Schayes, and Canada’s hockey team is led by former NHL head coach Mike Keenan (who is not Jewish, but who raised his daughter Jewish and whose first wife is Jewish).

For the 2009 games, Olympic gold medalist Jason Lezak, then 33, not only bypassed the world championships in Rome to swim for Team USA, but also had the honor of lighting the torch at the opening ceremony.

For some of the Bay Area competitors, the games will be a family event.

Bridget Blum of San Francisco and her mother, Dana, are both competing in track and field  — the daughter in the 1,500 meters open division, and the mother in the master’s division half marathon. Not only that, but Bridget’s cousin, Eleanor, is competing as well, in golf’s junior division.

Bridget said she is thrilled about being in the same games as her mother and cousin.

“My mom urged me to get into running,” she said. “She was my middle-school cross country coach, and it’s really because of her that I’m running today.”

Dana Blum (left) and her daughter, Bridget, both are competing in running events at the Maccabiah Games this year.

A sophomore at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California, Bridget said that her dad and some of her cousins are heading to Israel to watch.

“It’ll be an even more meaningful experience having our whole family there,” she said. “It’s going to be a big family event.”

First held in 1932 in Tel Aviv, then a city of 50,000, the Maccabiah Games brings together Jews from around the world to compete as representatives of their countries. The first games — conceived of and organized by a 15-year-old Russian Jewish immigrant living in pre-state Israel, and promoted mainly by messengers on bicycle throughout Europe — included 390 athletes from 18 countries, including 69 from Egypt and Syria. The United States sent only 10 athletes, but still finished third in the medal count behind Poland and Austria.

In step with participation in the Maccabiah Games in general, the U.S. contingent has ballooned over the years, rising to a total of 900 for the 2009 event. Even at that, Team USA couldn’t match the 2,000 competitors from Israel, finishing a distant second to the Israelis in the medal count, 323-154. Russia placed third with 39.

Interestingly, the first athlete to win a medal in the 2009 games was not Jewish: It was swimmer Asala Halag, an Israeli Arab from the Galilee. Being Jewish is not a requirement for inclusion on the Israeli squad.

Medals are awarded in each age bracket, starting with the juniors and youth divisions, typically for 15- to 18-year-olds, to masters, which begins as young as 35. A grand master’s bracket for those 65 and older exists in certain sports.

The open division is generally for 18- to 35-year-olds, a level of competition that includes the best athletes — though not all of them are halachically Jewish.

For example, 25-year-old rugby player Willie Rudman of Team USA went to a Catholic high school in Sacramento and was raised by a Jewish father and Catholic mother.

“I liked to consider myself somewhat knowledgeable about the identity of being a Jewish American,” said the San Francisco resident, “but I’m not religious.”

The World Maccabiah Union allows countries to set their own requirements for who is Jewish. Maccabi Australia, for example, requires an athlete’s mother to be Jewish, while USA Maccabi requires at least one Jewish parent.

“I don’t plan on returning a converted person,” Rudman said, “but it’ll be nice to learn more about that side of myself. I think I’ll discover something about myself.”

Rudman, who played rugby at the club level while in college at UCLA, and his U.S. teammates will be competing in the open rugby competition at the games this year. Team USA earned a medal in 2009, defeating Israel in the bronze-medal match.

Max Levine (with ball) practices with his Maccabiah Games teammates in San Diego.

Alex Wasserstrom of San Mateo will be playing on Team USA’s open men’s ice hockey squad. The San Diego native said he was tired of playing baseball and soccer as a youth and gave hockey a try when he was about 10.  He played hockey at the University of Arizona and later played two seasons in a small professional league in the Great Lakes region.

“Growing up playing hockey, I was the only Jewish kid on the team,” he said. “To be on a team full of other Jews will make me feel more comfortable than I ever have been before.”

Two of Wasserstrom’s teammates are San Francisco residents: Ethan Oberman and Woody Levin.

A Chicago native who played hockey at the University of Wisconsin, Levin was a member of the U.S. team that won silver at the 1997 games when ice hockey made its debut (Canada won the gold, of course).

The hockey squad will play at Israel’s only Olympic-sized rink, located in Metula, a 120-mile drive north of Tel Aviv. It is one of only three ice rinks in Israel.

“It’s great to be together with other Jews and experience everything together, especially as Team USA,” Levin said. “It’s something you’ll talk about forever.”

While a U.S. ice hockey roster that includes three Bay Area athletes is somewhat eye-popping, it’s not surprising to see that seven local players will be playing basketball for Team USA this year.

One of them is Will Tashman, a 6-foot-8 Atherton native and 2013 MIT graduate. He started three years in college and will be playing power forward for the U.S. men’s open squad.

The Menlo High School star was the league MVP his senior year of high school and recently was named first team All-America by the Jewish Sports Review. He averaged 16.3 points and 10.8 rebounds per game as a senior, leading the Engineers into NCAA Division III playoffs, where they lost in the first round.

“I feel better prepared to see my career end at [the Maccabiah Games],” said Tashman, noting that the games in Israel likely will mark the end of his competitive basketball career.

Tashman said he hasn’t been to Israel before and wants to explore as much as he can. That includes a travel and cultural program for Maccabiah competitors called Israel Connect; from July 10 to 17, athletes can get to know their teammates better while exploring the country.

El Cerrito resident Barry Kleiman, the head coach of the Team USA junior boys basketball squad, said Israel Connect will help bond the team before they tip off on July 21 at the Wingate Institute in Netanya, a facility used by athletes that also serves as a military training base.

“I think our tour will be an amazing experience for the team and myself,” said Kleiman, 63, who has never been to Israel.

Kleiman previously has coached four teams in the Maccabi Games, the JCC-sponsored competitions for teens held at various locations around the country each summer. In 2008, he guided the now-defunct Contra Costa JCC to a gold medal.

Before leaving for the Holy Land, Kleiman said one thing he was really looking forward to was the opening ceremonies.

“It’s nearly impossible to articulate other than how surreal and special it is to have that opportunity to meet Jews from across the world,” Kleiman said.

He said he was also looking forward to one of his players, Spencer Friedman of Los Angeles, having a bar mitzvah in Israel the day after the games end.

Team USA marches into Ramat Gan Stadium in Tel Aviv in 2009.

“I’d love to come back with a gold medal wrapped around our necks, but even if we lose in a heartbreaker in overtime, it will be a special trip for everyone 20 years later,” Kleiman said.

David Aufhauser is aware of just how special. Although he hasn’t competed in a Maccabiah Games yet, the 6-foot-3 Burlingame resident did win a gold medal in basketball with Team USA in the Pan Am Maccabi Games in 2011; the regional competition for Jewish athletes took place in Brazil.

A one-time water polo player at Stanford University, Aufhauser, 42, now turns his athletic focus toward adult basketball and will play small forward for the 35-and-over  U.S. team.

Aufhauser said he was excited because the team is being coached by Schayes, who played in the NBA from 1981 to 1999, and won a gold medal himself in basketball at the Maccabiah Games in 1977.

Although it won’t be Aufhauser’s first trip to Israel, it will be his first time in the Maccabiah Games.

“It’s an exciting opportunity to represent your country on one hand, but still be with your people from all around the world,” Aufhauser said. “Just having the intersection of Judaism and athletics is unique.”

Aufhauser was able to practice with some of his teammates before traveling to Israel, including a few inspired sessions at the Phoenix Suns’ training facility last year.

“The friendships we’ve already built across the country have already been a unique experience,” he said, noting that the best is yet to come.

“How many times as a 40-year-old do you get to play competitive international athletics with a group of people,” he said, “and do it in Israel?”

Another local basketball player  suiting up for Team USA, in the women’s open division, is 18-year-old Drew Edelman of Sunnyvale, a soon-to-be freshman at USC following a stellar high school career at Menlo High School.

The 6-foot-4 center, named to numerous all-region teams and honored earlier this year by the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Northern California, was heavily recruited before choosing USC. Never having traveled outside of the United States, she wants to experience everything she can in Israel.

“I’m looking forward to the Dead Sea,” she said. “Most kids generally don’t get the opportunity to do something like this.”

That includes many older “kids,” as well, such as 30-year-old Nathan Engel, a graduate of St. Helena High School now based in Colorado Springs as a sergeant in the Army. He’s a 121-pounder on the U.S. wrestling squad.

A small-school All-American at Missouri Valley College, Engel has won multiple competitions in armed forces tournaments and said it was an honor to try out and be selected for the Maccabiah Games.

“It’s a big deal to my family and myself,” he said, noting his grandparents were Holocaust survivors. “My grandma wanted me to go to the games before she passed away last year.”

Jeff Bukantz, the general chairman of the Maccabiah USA organizing committee, said the emotions felt by athletes like Engel and others are what makes it all worthwhile.

“We take athletes that happen to be Jewish to compete in the Maccabiah Games,” he said. “But we return home with Jewish athletes who have a renewed sense of pride in their Judaism and increased support for the State of Israel.”