Tag Archives: sports

Going for Gold at the Jewish Olympics

by Gabi P. Remz

Since 1932, when a 50,000-resident town called Tel Aviv hosted the first Jewish equivalent of the Olympics, the Maccabiah Games have drawn the finest Jewish athletes to participate in a wide array of events. This year’s JCC Games, which began on Sunday, include the staples of sport, such as basketball and soccer, as well as more niche competitions, such as chess, bridge and squash. The event has grown so big that it is now one of the five largest sports gatherings in the world, causing the International Olympic Committee to officially recognize it as “regional games.”

And while these games offer nearly everyone a chance to play (the games have youth, open, and senior divisions allowing for almost all ages to participate) in a variety of settings—in addition to the Maccabiah of Israel, there are the European, Pan-American and North American JCC Games— the goal of the event is more than to simply provide Jews a forum in which to exhibit their athletic prowess.

In some cases, as with the European Games that were held in Vienna just a few weeks ago, it can be to show the endurance of the Jewish spirit.

This years European games in Vienna were the first in a German-speaking country since 1945, and overcoming the Holocaust was a constant theme of the games.

The opening ceremony took place at Vienna’s City Hall, several hundred yards away from where Hitler announced Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. The opening ceremony included footage of Hitler’s speech as well as pictures of the destruction he would go on to cause. However, the video then moved on to the Jewish recovery effort, as images of Jews rebuilding their communities in Europe and Israel flashed across the screen.

Speaker of the Israeli Knesset Reuven Rivlin focused on the spirit of endurance, saying, “We can’t forget the Vienna that was the city of Theodor Herzl, nor can we forget the Vienna of the Nazis…It’s a festival of the victory of the Jewish spirit over Nazi extermination.”

Two members of the American delegation in Vienna were, in fact, Austrian-born Jews, both of whom fled the country in 1938.

“I’m doing a symbolic swim,” one of those men, John Benfield, told the JTA. “I need to show the Nazis I’m still around.”

And Benfield, like many others, is there for something more than just athletic achievement.

Maccabi USA’s slogan is “building Jewish pride through sports.” The Maccabiah website describes the “principal mission” of the games as being not only “to facilitate a worldwide gathering of young Jewish athletes in Israel,” but also “strengthening their connection to the State of Israel and the Jewish People.”

The various versions of the Maccabi games do this by engaging host communities as well as including as many people as possible in delegations. The Maccabiah Games in Israel draw nearly 5,000 athletes, but the organization looks to include the “majority of Israeli citizens” in some capacity, whether as athletes, volunteers, or even just as spectators.

The JCC Games allow players from all over North America to connect with host families in the event’s host city, and the Games also provide social programming so that participants can develop relationships with Jewish athletes from all over. This year’s event will be held in Philadelphia and Springfield, Mass. three weeks from now.

Jonah Weisel, who represented the Greater Washington delegation in basketball from 2005 through 2008, says the connections he made at the games were strong and have been maintained over the years.

“I definitely made connections with many other kids at the Maccabi Games, to the point that I saw kids in Israel this year that I recognized from years past,” Weisel said. “I had conversations with other kids that started with, ‘Hey did you happen to play basketball in the Orange County Maccabi Games?’ I also keep in touch with my teammates and the families that hosted me.”

One issue many athletes voice about the games is the wildly expensive costs of participating. This years Pan-Am Games will cost nearly $5,000 a player, quite a price for a little more than a week of competition. Of course, many teams work hard to fundraise so that any qualified player can get a shot.

In the end, though, the mass gatherings of Jews that just occurred in Vienna, are currently happening in Israel, and will happen in a few weeks in Philadelphia and Springfield, are considered by many to exceed any price. It is a chance to show the Jews are as strong and proud as ever.

Play Hard, Pray Harder

By Gabriel Weinstein

Just two years after leaving the University of Florida facing charges of larceny and theft Auburn University quarterback Cameron Newton was full of gratitude winning the Heisman Trophy. Though Newton thanked his parents, coaches and teammates, he opened his speech thanking someone who has never helped him ice sore muscles or analyze a blitz–God.  He proclaimed: “First giving all the honor and glory to God, who is the head of my life. Without him we would not even be here right now. Thank you for that.”

The number of athletes publicly proclaiming their faith has ballooned over the past 50 years through the establishment of sports ministry organizations such as Athletes in Action and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. These ministry organizations have made religious expression more socially acceptable in the locker room and on the playing field. According to former San Francisco 49ers and San Francisco Giants team chaplain Pat Richie, sports ministry organizations encourage athletes to publicly proclaim their Christianity. Since sports ministries became a major force in collegiate and professional sports they’ve had mixed success in creating religious sentiment both tolerant and respectful of Christian and non-Christian individuals.

One notable example is Bill McCartney, who transformed the University of Colorado football team from a perennial cellar dweller to a vaunted national power between 1982 and 1994. Though McCartney guided the Buffaloes to a share of the 1990 national championship, his tenure was marred by scandals surrounding his evangelical Christian beliefs. Player complaints about McCartney coordinating religious activities forced administrators in 1985 to create a university policy outlawing coaches from organizing team prayers or Bible study sessions.  In 1990, McCartney filled the 50,000-seat football stadium with members of his all male Promise Keepers ministry. Critics accused Promise Keepers of promoting a misogynistic agenda. In 1992, McCartney labeled homosexuality an “abomination against almighty God” from a university podium (he’s since apologized for his comments).  When McCartney surfaced as a candidate for the position of Colorado’s head football coach a few weeks ago, professors sent protest letters to the university’s chancellor.

The Washington Nationals were thrust into the center of the faith and sports debate in 2005 when a Washington Post article described how team chaplain Jon Moeller, who gathered the teams for prayer and distributed religious pamphlet, told one player that all Jews go to hell.  Local rabbis seethed at Moeller’s statement and put pressure on team officials to discipline Moeller.

While the Nationals’ attempt to promote religious expression proved a blunder, the Colorado Rockies managed to create a religious environment comfortable for Christians and non-Christians alike during the 2007 season. The previous season the Rockies had gained a reputation as an organization with a strong Christian culture after USA Today published an article describing the religious zeal of players and club executives. About 10 players on the Rockies’ 25-man active roster that season regularly attended Sunday chapel. The evangelical presence on the 2007 Rockies did not stifle or alienate other players. Jason Hirsh, a Jewish pitcher who was with the Rockies that season, said in a New York Times article that the Rockies’ religious players didn’t “impress it upon anybody”.

Professional football players have faced similar problems in their relationship with Christianity and football.  Former NFL player Anthony Prior resents Christianity’s presence in professional football. According to Prior, Christianity is used as a vehicle to breed a culture of submission among players, particularly African-American players. Prior said that during training camp players in danger of getting cut carried around Bibles to impress management. Once players secured roster spots, they stopped carrying Bibles. Former tight end Esera Tuaolo said that during his season with the Jacksonville Jaguars there was a major rift between members of the Champions for Christ ministry and the rest of the team.

While Prior is skeptical about Christianity’s presence in professional sports, chaplains state their purpose is to help religious players achieve spiritual nirvana, not conduct outreach with non-Christian players. Ritchie said that the ultimate reason chaplains work with professional teams is because “Most teams want to have their players’ needs met.”

Though Christianity’s presence on the athletic field has been met with mixed reactions, it seems primed to remain a major factor in high profile athletics. The massive presence of ministerial organizations on campuses combined with the presence of several high profile Christian athletes will continue to make Christianity popular among elite athletes. But the greatest challenge for these divinely inspired athletes will be creating a tolerant environment for players of all religious practices and levels of faith.