September 16, 2019

Maccabiah B’nai Mitzvah Large Draw for Team USA

When Jessica Zutz was training with the U.S. women’s open field hockey team, she hadn’t given much thought to participating in Team USA’s b’nai mitzvah, an event scheduled before the start of the 18th Maccabiah Games in July.

But once Zutz, 24, arrived in Israel, the Marina del Rey resident knew she wanted to make that part of her Maccabiah experience.

“I felt like it was the right thing to do,” she said.

More than 100 participants from Southern California had arrived in Israel for the Maccabiah Games, and many took part in Team USA’s massive b’nai mitzvah on July 5, a service that drew hundreds of American athletes to Hebrew University’s outdoor amphitheatre to become sons and daughters of the Torah. Situated on top of Mount Scopus, with a view of the Judean Desert, the attendees took in a sunset that eventually gave way to a full moon.

The group b’nai mitzvah is a tradition for the American delegation at the Maccabiah Games, the world’s third-largest athletic competition, which take place in Israel every four years and draw roughly 7,000 athletes from dozens of countries. B’nai mitzvah events during the 2001 and 2005 games attracted 100 and 120 American participants respectively.

Jed Margolis, executive director of Team USA, said he anticipated a larger turnout this year and purchased 200 commemorative necklaces to pass out to participating athletes.

“We have this dynamic rabbi, and we said, ‘Well, let’s shoot for 200. That should be enough,’” Margolis said. “We were overwhelmed when more than 600 showed up and we didn’t have enough necklaces for them.”

Margolis attributed the great turnout, in part, to Rabbi Erwin Kula, president of CLAL, a Jewish think tank and center for leadership training, who performed the ceremony, conducting it in English and Hebrew. “He made it very open and user friendly,” Margolis said.

Zutz agreed, describing the rabbi as a good motivator. “He always had us singing,” she said, “which is no easy feat when you have that many athletes.”

During the ceremony, athletes dressed casually but in all white, linked arms and sang songs, accompanied by a guitar.

Blessings and the Torah portion were sent out in advance to the athletes, but enthusiasm, rather than memorized liturgy, took precedence.

“We try to make it as engaging as possible,” Margolis said.

If an athlete had already had a bar or bat mitzvah, he or she was still encouraged to participate.

Michael Coakley, 29, a men’s open futsal player (a 5-on-5 form of soccer generally played indoors), was one such person. He described the event as a singular opportunity.

“It was just an amazing experience,” said Coakley, whose sister, Raleigh, was a member of the women’s open soccer team that defeated Israel in the finals. “To be there with my sister, since she had never had a bat mitzvah, that was really special.”

He added, “Our parents were shocked and extremely proud.”

In addition to athletes, other Team USA personnel participated in the b’nai mitzvah service as well.

Summer Bloom, a 28-year-old athletic trainer from Santa Monica, had already had a bat mitzvah, but she decided to take part because of “the idea of being bat mitzvahed in the State of Israel. It was a beautiful site, overlooking all of Jerusalem. I wanted to jump on that opportunity.”

But not everything went smoothly. Zutz said her group arrived late for the event after a trip to Theodore Herzl’s grave. Despite being dirty from a day of sightseeing, the athletes had to rush to put on their white clothes.

And Coakley joked that his team almost missed being recognized: “They forgot to call us and then at the last minute, ‘Oh yeah, men’s futsal, come up on stage.’ It was funny,” he said.

A celebration with food, music and dancing followed the ceremony.

“It was a perfect desert night scene. You had 900 of your newest closest friends surrounding you,” Zutz said, referring to the coaches, trainers and other Team USA members in addition to the athletes.

The b’nai mitzvah service is one part of Team USA’s “pre-camp,” a program for junior and open athletes that takes place before the games. Pre-camp includes six days of touring, lectures and other activities designed to foster unity and establish connections with the land of Israel. This year, about 750 athletes out of 900 with Team USA participated.

Margolis said that no other teams offer an experience like Team USA’s pre-camp, including the b’nai mitzvah.

“We’re committed to the whole cultural and educational piece of being in Israel and being part of the Maccabiah,” he said.

Despite the pre-camp’s $1 million cost to his organization, Margolis said that they are determined to continue it, citing the large turnout of the b’nai mitzvah event as representative of its success. “It’s a vital part of what we do,” he said.

Rating his experience at Maccabiah, Coakley called it “a 10 for sure.” Besides feeling proud of his sister’s bat mitzvah and gold medal, he enjoyed meeting Jews from all over the world.

“Not only are you Jews,” Coakley said, “but you’re also world-class athletes. What else could you want? Plus you’re in Israel. You’re in the homeland.”