Maccabi Magic In Mexico

The Pan Am Maccabi Games are a 12-day Olympic-style athletic and cultural festival for Jewish athletes from around the world. The Ninth Annual games, held earlier this month in Mexico City, featured more that 2,500 athletes from 15 countries including the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Panama, Costa Rica, Israel, Australia, Great Britain, Uruguay, Chile, Guatemala, Venezuela, Colombia, and the host country, Mexico. The games-held quadrenially — two years after the World Maccabiah Games take place in Israel– were held from July 11-19, with 325 members of the USA contingent arriving early for training, touring and time to adjust to the 7,000 feet elevation. During the closing ceremonies, it was announced that the 2003 Pan Am Maccabi Games will be held in Caracas, Venezuela.

As perhaps the highest profile athlete in the USA delegation, and a player on the gold-medal-winning open basketball team, Tustin’s Doug Gottlieb said the games reinforced his feelings about being a Jewish athlete.

“Although this wasn’t Israel… seeing all these Jewish people from Latin American makes you realize there are Jews everywhere, and that’s a great feeling,” said Gottlieb, 23, a senior at Oklahoma State University. “When the players on our team realized that we all have that unique bond in common, we became closer in two weeks than many teams I’ve been on have in a whole year.”

Gottlieb, the starting point guard and a player on the 1997 Maccabiah team in Israel, was recently named by ESPN “the best quote in college basketball.” He was at center stage all week whether on the bus, the basketball court or in the hotel lobby.

“It’s no secret that I love to talk and I have a lot to say,” laughed Gottlieb, who added that he hopes to play in the NBA, or at least professionally in Israel, after he graduates.

Fifteen-year-old Garrett Leight, of Cheviot Hills, a member of the USA junior tennis team and winner of a bronze medal in doubles, also shared in the camaraderie. “This was my first Maccabi experience and it was much more than I expected… I was oblivious to the fact there are so many Spanish Jews, and I expected the competition to be less than it was,” said Leight. “Seeing that so many different people from around the world are dedicated to sports and religion [made] me even more interested in the Jewish faith and feel more Jewish than ever.”

The games were held at the Centro Desporto Israelita or CDI (Center for Jewish Sports), a huge all-inclusive athletic complex featuring everything from an Olympic-size swimming pool, water polo and diving facility, 13 red clay tennis courts, two basketball/volleyball/indoor soccer gyms, outdoor soccer fields, a softball stadium, restaurants, and much more. There was competition in 14 sports.

The USA delegation spent their first Shabbat evening in Mexico at the Bet El Synagogue and were treated to a beautiful service, that except for the non-Hebrew parts being spoken in Spanish, could have been in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles or anywhere Jews in America pray. The athletes then shared Shabbat dinner in the home of a Mexican Jewish family. A week later, some athletes went to an Orthodox Shabbat service at another beautiful local synagogue, Ramat Shalom.