Home > Blog > Brotherhood > Glory Days—You’re Never Too Old for Maccabi
“You’re Jewish aren’t you?”
While that is certainly an odd way to start a conversation, little did I know how much those four words would change my life. As a kid, I dreamed of being a professional athlete, but a lack of size (and talent) quashed that quickly. Today, I stay active with weekly adult soccer games, pickleball, and Peloton, but all on a strictly recreational level. So when that soccer teammate asked the question above, I didn’t know where he was going with it.
It turned out, he asked if I’d ever thought about trying out for the U.S. team going to the Maccabiah in Israel, the quadrennial competition sometimes called “the Jewish Olympics,” one of the largest sporting events in the world. I’ve always been an athlete, but far from elite — heck, I played JV soccer for my entire high school career—and the Maccabiah has featured folks like swimmers Mark Spitz and Jason Lezak, gymnasts Mitch Gaylord and Kerri Strug, and tennis’ Brad Gilbert. I politely declined, but then he said the magic words, “I’m talking about Masters soccer – for over 45-year-olds.” Now that was an offer I couldn’t refuse, and a few months later, after some serious training and a pair of tryouts, I found myself appointed to Team USA for the 2015 Maccabi Pan-Am Games in Santiago, Chile.
I was never particularly active in the Jewish community growing up. I went to religious school, had a bar mitzvah, celebrated the holidays, but I didn’t have a close group of Jewish friends from summer camp or a fraternity. After 10 days in South America, however, I had a whole new community to be part of—guys who were just as obsessed with soccer as I was, from all over the world.
This brings me to last week when I once again found myself lacing up my cleats, and pulling on the Team USA jersey, at the Florida Classic tournament in Orlando. Playing with a group of over-50s it was a chance to make some new connections to new communities. We have plenty of players from traditional hubs New York, New Jersey, and Chicago, but for this tourney, we reached out to the Miami Jewish community and added a pair of Argentinians who’ve been in the U.S. for over 20 years. As we all chatted over beers and steaks in our Airbnb, we remarked on how different our backgrounds were, learning about differences in Jewish culture in South America, but understanding that wherever we’re from, being Jews gives us a shared experience.
Mitch Berliner standing poolside at the Maccabi Pan Am Games. Credit Mitch Berliner
Fellow WHC member Mitch Berliner has a similar story of his entry to the Maccabi family. As he tells it, “In 2015, I called up and asked what the slowest time was I could swim the 50-meter freestyle to qualify for the team?” “How old are you?” they replied. “I’ll be 67.” “You’re on the team!” This reveals one of the secrets of masters sports—as you get older, the competition pool gets smaller
“This is one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever done,” Mitch adds. “Being part of the opening ceremonies, singing ‘Hatikva’ with athletes from all over the world is very moving, and connects you to the entire Jewish community.”
Of course, Maccabi isn’t only for aging weekend warriors reliving their glory days. Teens 16-and-up can get international competition on their resume, and for those elite athletes, the open divisions are fierce. With 42 sports on the program in everything from archery to wheelchair tennis, there are opportunities for anyone looking for something new. “I’ve been to Israel eight times but participating in the Games was a unique experience,” said Berliner.
As he headed off for a training swim, Mitch added, “The joke is, Jews don’t play ball. We’re not dominant, and most mothers would rather see their kids be a doctor, but we’re out there!“
For those interested in participating, spots are still available in a number of events from archery to weightlifting, bridge to tennis. If you’re interested in participating, donating to scholarships, or learning more, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit maccabiusa.com.
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