February 22, 2020

Local athletes return from Maccabiah Games with medals in hand

Aidan Blain left the 20th Maccabiah Games in Israel with more than just the bronze medal he earned as part of the U.S. junior track and field team. The 15-year-old also brought home a Venezuelan visor, Australian shorts, a Ukrainian jacket and Hong Kong and Hungarian polo shirts — all the result of swaps with other competitors.

The Santa Monica High School sophomore said he is returning to Los Angeles from the games, which concluded July 18, with an appreciation for the interconnectedness of the world.

“I took away so much from these games, but if I had to pick one thing over everything, I would say how everyone across the whole world is so similar. The slogan of the games, ‘80 Countries, One Heart,’ really stood out to me,” he said. “No matter what country we come from, we are all connected through our Jewish culture and we aren’t as different as we might think.”

Blain was one of more than 50 Southern Californian competitors in the annual games, also known as the Jewish Olympics, to return home this week with medals. Local winners excelled in golf, baseball, basketball, table tennis and other sports.

Golfer Marni Murez, 19, a sophomore at Santa Clara University, won bronze in the individual category and gold as a member of the United States team. She said she grew up visiting the Jewish Community Center in Redondo Beach and played golf from a young age. In Israel, it was her favorite club, the putter, that helped her to victory.

“If you can putt under pressure, it’s huge,” she said.

Murez was paired on the Caesarea Golf Club course with Hadas Libman, 21, a recent UCLA graduate who won gold in the individual category for Team Israel. Libman left Israel when she was young to improve her golf skills, then played at UCLA, where she earned a degree in psychology. She said she plans to pursue a career in professional golf and, in the process, change a perception in Israel that golf is for the wealthy.

“There’s a stereotype that needs to be broken that golf is for rich people only and you play on a golf cart and you smoke cigars and chase a white little ball,” Libman said. “That needs to be broken. The golf culture is very limited, generally speaking. The sport culture is not very developed — there has been a great improvement, but golf is trailing behind.”

She added, “One of my biggest motivations for doing this is representing Israel and the Jewish people, and I hope I can make people aware of this sport and put Israel on the map for something positive.”

Marni Murez, a golfer and a sophomore at Santa Clara University, won a bronze medal in the individual competition and a gold medal as a member of the U.S. team. Photo courtesy of Marni Murez

Nessia Hausman, 15, a junior at Fusion Academy in Los Angeles, won three medals in table tennis this year, including a gold in the team competition. She trains locally at the Gilbert Table Tennis Center at the Westside Jewish Community Center.

Her father, Jacob, exuded pride in her performance.

“As a parent, I am thrilled for her,” he said in an email. “Nessia worked and trained very hard, and to be rewarded for her efforts was a great sense of accomplishment.”

On the track, Blain competed in a 4×100-meter relay race against South Africa, Australia, Israel and Great Britain, running the first leg of the relay, which ultimately resulted in a bronze medal for the U.S. team.

“I felt really good about the race. It was one of the best starts I’ve had, one of the quickest I’ve ever run,” Blain said in a phone interview from Ben Gurion Airport, as he prepared to fly home.

Overall, he said he could not have been happier with the experience at the games.

“I thought it was one of the coolest experiences I could have, meeting all these people from Team USA and connecting to them through my sport,” Blain said.

From July 6-18, the Maccabiah Games drew 10,000 participants from 80 countries, who competed in 43 sports. Maccabi USA brought a team of more than 1,000 athletes.

Aidan Blain won a bronze medal in the 4×100-meter track relay for Team USA. Photo courtesy of Aidan Blain

The inaugural Maccabiah Games were held in 1932. They are contested every four years and divide participants into three age categories: junior (ages 15-17), open (ages 18-39) and masters (40 and older). The games are intended to build pride through sports as well as an appreciation for the State of Israel.

Jordan Cohen, 19, was one of the youngest players on the U.S. open basketball team, which brought home the gold. Visiting Israel from the United States was a perfect opportunity to experience the Jewish state, he said.

“I realize that I may never have come to Israel if not for these games,” said Cohen, who was raised in Los Angeles and attends Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. “I tried to take advantage of this opportunity and enjoy all Israel has to offer.”

Ralph Finerman, 81, a congregant of Sinai Temple, played on the grand masters tennis team. He was injured after three matches and did not win a medal, but the veteran of five Maccabiah Games said he appreciated the chance to visit Israel, speak with locals and bond with his teammates.

“It is exciting to be there, and it’s great to be in Israel, and it’s great to see how the country seems to be to thriving,” Finerman said. “I’ve been playing tennis almost all my life [and] I think there is a good deal of camaraderie. People support each other.”