Past participants head to Berlin games
When the European Maccabi Games get underway in Berlin on July 27, some of its proudest participants will be veterans of the JCC Maccabi Games™.
“I can’t wait for the experience,” says Adam Chaskin, executive director of Sidney Albert Albany JCC in upstate New York who will be coaching the youth men’s basketball team. As well, he chairs MaccabiUSA basketball for European Maccabi.
“I know it will be overwhelming,” he says.
The reason behind the buzz is that it is the first time the games are being held in Berlin, the capital of the former German Reich. Jewish athletes will be participating in Berlin’s Olympic Park, built for the 1936 Olympiad, from which Hitler had banned Jewish participation.
“I went to the games in Austria, which opened in the square where Hitler spoke,” says Chaskin, who says the historic significance is a huge part of the Berlin games’ appeal.
Chaskin has been participating in the JCC Maccabi Games since 1988, when he was the assistant basketball coach for the JCC of Greater Washington. He has been participating in Maccabi USA events since 1997, as well as a variety of other international Jewish sports events, including the Pan American Maccabi Games and Israel’s Maccabiah.
The European Maccabi Games, which were first held in 1929, run every four years on the second year between the hosting of the Maccabiah held in Israel. The Berlin games are taking place 70 years after the Shoah, and 50 years after Israel and Germany established diplomatic ties.
“Hitler said that Jews would never compete here,” says Dena Sokol, JCC Association’s associate program manager for JCC Maccabi™. “And now there will be a stadium filled with Jews.”
One of them will be Samantha Cohen, who began participating in the JCC Maccabi Games 15 years ago, playing tennis for Maccabi Great Britain. Today she the program director, of the Merage JCC in Orange County, California, but she’ll be representing her home country in Berlin. JCC Maccabi was “a great way to experience my Jewish identity,” says Cohen, who describes the Games as nothing short of “transformative.” She also participated in the European Games in Vienna and is looking forward to that spine-tingling moment again, knowing Jews are standing together in a place once so closely identified with Nazis.
“When I found out the games were going to be in Berlin, I just knew I had to be there,” says Cohen. “It’s going to be epic. I had to be a part of it. This is going to be history, the Jewish people, the Maccabi movement, we are going to return to Berlin, to Germany, where Hitler tried to exterminate us, and stand in the Olympic Park that he built.
“And on that night, July 27, at the opening ceremony, we are going to turn the yellow star to blue.”
Ellie Gottdenker is a JCC Maccabi alumna from the greater Washington area, and she’ll be swimming in Berlin for the United States. “I’m really excited because I think it will be an amazing opportunity, not only to meet Jewish teens from all over the world, really, but to compete in my sport and build long-lasting friendships.”
As for finding similarities between Berlin and her Games experience, she thinks they’ll have a lot in common, although she notes this will be grander in scope.”
“I think it’s really meaningful in terms of the Jewish aspect,” she says. “To get people all over the world together to experience our cultural heritage together.”