American participants in this year’s Maccabiah Games include rhythmic gymnast Madeline Aibel, left.

Embodying the ‘Spirit of the Jewish Athlete’ at Maccabiah Games


Samuel Telanoff is only 14 years old, but he already knows what it means to represent his country in international swimming competitions.

On July 6, he and his teammates marched behind the American flag at the opening ceremonies of the 20th Maccabiah Games in Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem.

The Maccabiah Games, an Olympic-style event held every four years during the year after the Summer Olympics, have connected Jewish communities from around the world since 1932, with athletes competing in four divisions: junior, open, masters and paralympics. Since the first gathering, more than 62,000 athletes have competed. This year’s events continue through July 18.

“There is no way to describe just how awe-inspiring it was to walk out with Team USA in front of thousands of cheering people,” said Telanoff, a sophomore at Santa Monica High School. “It was overwhelming, and I was grinning the whole time.”

Telanoff is one of 1,100 American athletes competing at the games, also known as the Jewish Olympics.

Nearly 10,000 athletes from 80 countries are participating in 47 events in such sports as basketball, fencing, archery and wheelchair tennis. 

Among the American athletes is Emily Surloff, a Los Angeles native who plays basketball for Columbia University. On July 9, Surloff helped her team, which competes in the open women’s basketball division, defeat Russia, 101-71. 

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience and opportunity to represent my country,” the 20-year-old said. “I am extremely excited to be connected to my faith and religion and meet other athletes like myself. We came here to win gold and that is our ultimate goal.”

Israel defeated the American team the next day, 68-62. The final game of the preliminary round was scheduled for July 12 against Australia.

Justin Greenberg, 49, the assistant coach and co-chair of the youth men’s soccer team, said he views participating in the games as a way to support Israel.   

“Many of our players had not been to Israel, and to witness their absorption and understanding of this country’s need for survival is compelling,” said Greenberg, who attends Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Greenberg grew up in Jerusalem and lived there during the Yom Kippur War. In 1972, his father was on a plane from Vienna to Tel Aviv when it was hijacked by a Palestinian terrorist group.

“Sharing some of my own story with them has been a treat,” said Greenberg, who moved to the United States in 1977. “Witnessing our young group of 20 men come together as a unit has been an absolute highlight. As a young boy knowing little English, soccer was my main form of communication. I run a soccer business now, and appreciate the connection between sport and spirit of the Jewish athlete.”

Chess player Iris Kokish spent nine months preparing for the games, which she said she finds meaningful in many ways.

“Chess is an important part of my identity, but so is my being Jewish,” the 27-year-old Angeleno said. “So when I learned that Maccabiah USA was seeking chess players, I knew I wanted to be a part.”

Kokish said the games gave her a chance to visit Israel for the first time and helped her “better understand my Jewish identity, my people and my role within my Jewish community.”   

On July 9, Telanoff won the bronze medal in the 200-meter breaststroke.

“I hoped for a medal, but did not expect one,” Telanoff said. “I swam faster than I ever swam before. I was so thrilled to have moved up to third place and win a medal.”

Telanoff said he enjoyed the games because they gave him an opportunity to compete against the best athletes in his category.

“I am a very competitive swimmer, and this represents an opportunity to compete at a high international level,” he said. “There is also something special about being able to learn more about my Jewish identity while pursuing my passion for competitive swimming.” 

For another Angeleno, Noah Rothstein, 34, who plays futsal, a variation of football, competing in the games means honoring his father’s memory. 

“Beyond how much I love these trips and being able to compete as a representative of the United States, the one thing my dad loved more than anything was watching me play,” he said. “I feel very much that going to the Maccabiah Games honors his memory.”

The experience enabled Rothstein to compete in the sport he admires and explore “the amazing country of Israel, and make friends and memories for the rest of my life.”

Many participants agree that, while winning medals is important, building friendship with fellow athletes is invaluable.

“The first goal has been achieved, with our group coming together as one,” said Greenberg, the soccer coach. “My hope is that the relationships created within our group and beyond, while here at the games, last a lifetime.”