The nine Team USA athletes who were either raised in Northern California or play college sports in the area returned home last week from the European Maccabi Games in Berlin with a good medal haul: five golds, five silvers and three bronzes.
But these Maccabi games, the first ever held in Germany, were about so much more than who ended up on the victory stand.
“Regardless of the outcome, it was an unreal experience — the best trip of my life,” said Noah Springwater, a 22-year-old San Franciscan who started for the Team USA open men’s basketball squad.
With a handful of players with NCAA Division I experience, Team USA steamrolled through round-robin play with a 4-0 record, outscoring its opponents 383-260. But in the title game on Aug. 3, the Americans suffered a 98-87 loss to Russia and settled for the silver medal.
Afterward, the sentiment among the players, including 6-foot-10 center Jeremiah Kreisberg, 22, of Berkeley, was that while they would have liked to have left Berlin with the gold, being involved in such a unique event and sharing the experience with their teammates was something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.
“You go into Berlin feeling that there’s so much history there of persecution of Jews, you kind of expect to experience a little of that,” Springwater said. “But you immediately get the sense — with all the [Jewish-oriented] museums and memorials, and with the friendliness of the people — that everyone is very well-educated about World War II and German history and [the Holocaust]. And there’s this feeling of reparation that people are striving to have. There’s this renewal of appreciation of Jews, and you can really feel that people are accepting of Jews and others who were wronged. You get the sense that no one is proud of the past; rather, they are ashamed of it, and people want to counter that.”
Not only did the athletes have time to visit different areas of Berlin — now a multi-layered, cosmopolitan city but once the Nazi capital — and get to rub shoulders with German athletes and everyday citizens, but they also got to march in the opening ceremony, attend an emotional memorial service and compete in sporting events on the grounds of the humongous Olympic Park built for Hitler and the 1936 “Nazi Olympics.”
More than 2,100 Jewish athletes from 36 countries, and hundreds of other Jews (spectators, family members, coaches and Maccabi staff) found themselves on the same grounds where many Jews were not allowed to compete in 1936, and where the Olympics were used for propaganda purposes in Germany and abroad even as the Nazi persecution of Jews had already begun.
When Germany offered to host the 2015 games in Berlin, a number of senior Maccabi officials were dead-set against it, including Stuart Greenberg, former president of Maccabi Great Britain.
“The general consensus was that people of my age wouldn’t want to come,” Greenberg, 69, said a few days before the games concluded. “And certain people didn’t.”
In fact, after Maccabi officials in Europe reached a consensus and said yes to Berlin, Greenberg decided not to attend — a big decision for someone who had been to nine of 14 European Maccabi Games as both an athlete and delegation official.
Then, about three weeks before the games, he reconsidered. “I thought maybe I should at least come and decide,” he said. “And it’s the best thing I ever did. I’ve had a complete about-face. It’s very clear to me that Germany as a country has seen the error of its ways … You can feel it in the people … you can see it in the monuments. Germans are genuinely apologetic for what has happened.”
The 14th European Maccabi Games ended Aug. 4 after 10 days of events. Most of the athletes were in the 15-to-25 age range and a majority were from Europe, but seven countries from outside Europe participated, including Israel, the United States, Canada and Mexico.
As for the level of play, while some competitors were merely good high school athletes, others went into the games with NCAA experience, such as U.S. women’s soccer team players Sienna Drizin, 21, of U.C. Davis, Sydnie Telson, 21, of the University of San Francisco and Abbie Faingold, 18, who grew up in Lincoln (near Sacramento) and plays for Portland State.
All three helped carry the U.S to the gold medal, especially Drizin, a “force to be reckoned with” according to a Maccabi USA director.
Hannah Edwards, a 16-year-old swimmer from Napa, won two gold medals and a bronze. Afterward, she said her favorite memory was “marching in during the opening ceremonies representing the United States.”
Fencer Nathan Milgram, 15, of San Jose came home with two silver medals and a bronze, and fellow fencer Jason Lipton, 19, of San Rafael earned a silver.
Ethan Glasman, 18, of Pacifica didn’t earn a medal with the youth boys’ soccer team, but in a 1-0 victory over eventual champion Germany in round-robin play, he scored the lone goal — a dramatic strike in the final minute of the game.
The U.S. men’s water polo team, coached by U.C. Davis coach Dan Leyson, beat Germany 16-3 to win bronze after going 2-2 in round-robin play.
Overall, Germany finished atop the medals table with 144 medals (including 50 gold), though the hosts had nearly two times as many athletes as Team USA; the Americans were second with 103 medals (38 gold). Israel finished sixth.
While the games were on, there were a few incidents: A group of six men associated with Maccabi (athletes and/or others) were taunted by two youths near the main team hotel, an area populated by Muslims; a man of Arab heritage was arrested after yelling anti-Semitic insults at guards outside that hotel; and a mural of an Israeli flag (painted on a remnant of the Berlin Wall) was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti, but speculation that it was related to the Maccabi Games was somewhat rebutted by the artist, who said it has been defaced 51 times since he created it in 1988.
After the incidents, the Jerusalem Post’s online headline was “Euro Maccabi games marred by anti-Semitism in Berlin” and an IsraelNationalNews.com op-ed was titled “Jewish athletes under siege in Germany.” Also, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Europe sent a letter to German justice officials protesting the “Jew-baiting” of athletes and calling for the arrest of “those who would return us to 1936.”
But Maccabi officials characterized such verbiage as severe overreaction, and the incidents weren’t even blips on the athletes’ radar — not even the taunting incident, which included an object being thrown.
“I didn’t hear about it until I came home,” Edwards said.
“I wasn’t aware of the incident at all, and to the best of my knowledge, the security team did a perfect job of keeping us safe from any anti-Semitic harm,” Glasman said, adding, “I thought Berlin was an incredible city and I am very impressed with the German efforts to repent and attempt to repair what they did less than a century ago.”
Along with excursions to Holocaust sites, the Jewish Museum Berlin and other landmarks in Berlin, another lasting memory for the athletes occurred on July 31. That evening, 2,322 people gathered to set a Guinness World Record for the largest Shabbat dinner. It took place at the main team hotel, and a Guinness adjudicator was on hand to verify the attendance, which broke the previous record, set last year in Tel Aviv, by 96.