Greg Spector, a strapping, 6-foot-4-inch volleyball player from Los Angeles, tends to be philosophical when discussing why he decided to participate in this year’s Maccabiah Games.
"The Maccabiah makes a statement," said Spector, 31, sporting a yellow visor and green satin yarmulke for lunch at Jerusalem’s Haas Promenade. "It’s about representing a world of Jews and showing what it is to be Jewish."
During the quadrennial Maccabiah Games — known as the Jewish Olympics — there are usually 5,000 participants competing for 10 days.
But this year, because of ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence, only some 2,000 athletes from 40 countries are expected to attend the 16th Games, which have been shortened to seven days and officially begin July 16.
North America usually sends the largest contingent of competitors, with 600 of the continent’s best Jewish athletes taking part. This year, there will be about 380 athletes coming from North America.
A recent U.S.-mediated cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian Authority played a major role in getting the players here this year, said Bob Spivack, president of the Philadelphia-based Maccabi USA.
Most of the participants are not professional athletes. Some 75 members of the U.S. team are under 17 and play on their school varsity teams. The swimmers are mostly college-age, while the rugby players are generally in their late twenties, said Barbara Lissy, one of the Maccabiah coordinators.
Many of the players present said they had little hesitation when deciding whether to attend. In fact, Seth Baron, a swimming coach from Atlanta, found himself becoming a proponent for this year’s Games.
"I’ve been to the Games three times, so I didn’t have to come again," Baron pointed out. "I think some of my swimmers jumped on board because of that."
Now that they have arrived, the U.S. athletes are happy about being in Israel.
During yesterday’s 6:30 a.m. volleyball practice, one team member couldn’t stop grinning, said Spector, a graduate student in classroom education who is also co-coaching the women’s team.
Why the smile?
"I’m playing volleyball in Israel," said his teammate. "What could be better than that?"
Well, winning — although there may well be a slim chance of that happening.
The Israeli team has consistently won the gold medal in volleyball, as well as in swimming.
It’s the camaraderie that brings athletes back time after time, Spector said.
It’s also an opportunity to compete against and get to know other Jewish athletes from around the world, even when they have to use sign language to understand one another, he said.
"We had such a good time playing Turkey in volleyball last year, and then hanging out with them afterward in the lobby," he said.
"Or look at the rugby players. They go out and break noses, rip off ears, but then they go to the pub and hang out. It’s just a lot of fun."