October 22, 2019

In gear for Maccabiah Games

When Steve Pompan played on the U.S. tennis squad at the last Maccabiah Games in Israel, he was struck by the spectators’ tribal inclination to give advice to the players battling it out on the court.

“While I was playing, they kept telling me, ‘Hit the ball deeper,’ or ‘Use your backhand,’ ” recalled Pompan, a Los Angeles portfolio manager.

Pompan participated in the quadrennial Maccabiah Games, dubbed the “Jewish Olympics,” in 2009. He took along his wife and kids, and the sense of bonding in Israel with some 8,000 Jewish athletes from 60 countries blew him away.

“That was a life-enriching experience, a life-changing experience,” he enthused. “Definitely a bucket list type of deal.”

Pompan is now the volunteer West Coast director in charge of the regional tennis tryouts for the next Maccabiah Games, to be held July 16-30, 2013, in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. Recently, he was at the MountainGate Country Club, encouraging some 60 male and female hopefuls — and competing himself.

For these particular tryouts in the Master’s division, competitors ranged generally from 35 to 64, but there was one notable exception.

She was Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer, 77, who, besides running the New Mart Building showrooms and supporting a long list of philanthropies, works out every morning for three hours on a treadmill and other fitness equipment.

“I can hold my own,” she avowed, and proved it by teaming up with Hally Cohen, 36, to qualify for the women’s doubles competition.

One of her likely venues in Israel will be the Ben and Joyce Eisenberg Israel Tennis Center in Jerusalem, endowed by her and her late husband.

Another hopeful was Arnie Friedman, competing in the 60-plus age category, who fondly recalled the 2005 Maccabiah Games, when he and his partner won a bronze medal in the men’s doubles.

“We wore our Maccabiah ID tags, and on the streets people kept stopping us, saying, ‘Thank you for coming.’ That really got me.”

Friedman, a radiologist for the Veterans Administration in Fresno, also remembered the emotional wallop of the opening and closing ceremonies, when the thousands of athletes from 60 countries sang “Hatikvah” in their different accents. 

Rick Lieberman, an actor/director and Westwood resident, learned tennis in his native Brooklyn and on his cousin’s court on Long Island. He expressed his respect for his fellow competitors in the 60-plus age group, who indeed showed the skill and stamina a player half their age might envy. 

Steve Soboroff, another Angeleno, is also busy preparing for the 2013 Maccabiah Games, though he is better known for his financial and organizing acumen than for his athletic prowess.


Bernie Wesson in action. Photo by David Herman

Soboroff is a mega real estate developer, the driving force behind the creation of the Staples Center, and he was a member of the Los Angeles organizing committee for the 1984 Olympics, which turned an anticipated sea of red ink into an unprecedented $225 million surplus.

So it offended his entrepreneurial instincts when he realized in early 2008 that the 18th Maccabiah Games, the following year, would have little in the way of international television coverage or bill-paying sponsors. That meant that there wouldn’t be enough money left to pay for the participation of Jewish athletes from smaller communities or poorer countries.

His first step was to form a Committee of 18 (for the 18th “Chai” Maccabiah Games), consisting of top names in the entertainment industry, media, marketing and advertising, who, in addition to lending their expertise and attending meetings, had the privilege of each contributing $50,000.

Building on this base, the Committee of 18, retaining its original name, has expanded this time around to more than 40 members and will lead a VIP delegation of more than 200 to attend the Maccabiah Games, meet privately with the Israeli prime minister and enjoy other perks.

During a recent evening barbecue at a Bel Air mansion, Soboroff and Eyal Tiberger, executive director of the 2013 Maccabiah Games and the Maccabi World Union, gave a preview of next year’s events.

For the first time, opening ceremonies will be held in Jerusalem and closing ceremonies in Haifa, and an expected 9,000 athletes from a record 70 countries, including first-timer Cuba, are expected to participate. 

Most of the action will be beamed to millions of potential viewers around the world via the JLTV channel, and Soboroff’s committee expects to raise around $2.2 million, which will underwrite the participation of some 300 athletes from poorer communities. 

Added to the competitive sports this year will be equestrian events and ice hockey, on top of the last Maccabiah Games’ additions of lawn bowling, cricket, 10-pin bowling and futsal (indoor soccer), as well as bridge and chess.

Athletes must be fed, of course, and at the 2009 Maccabiah Games participants consumed 450,000 kosher meals, 200,000 meals-to-go and 1.5 million quarts of mineral water.

But more important than statistics, logistics and medals are the bonds forged between the world’s Jewish athletes and communities, Tiberger said.

“Between 70 to 80 percent of the athletes will be on their first trip to Israel,” he said. “All participants tour the country extensively and take part in a three-day orientation of Jewish heritage and Israel.”