Jul 25, 2022 San Diego Jewish World

By Liora Berkstein

SAN DIEGO—My experience at the Maccabiah Games was unforgettable. I had the extraordinary opportunity to be a part of the iCenter’s Educational Cohort’s “Israel Connect Week,” which took place July 5-12, 2022, the week before the opening ceremonies of the Maccabiah games in Israel held July 12-26.

The iCenter focuses on enhancing Israel education in different environments. It partnered with Maccabi USA to bring 37 educators from all over the U.S. to participate in a fellowship where we led reflective conversations as the 1,300 Team USA athletes toured Israel. I had the pleasure of serving as an educator for the junior track and field team, a group of 23 athletes aged 14-16.

Witnessing athletes visit Israel for the first time and finding their connections to the land, and meeting Jewish people from the Diaspora worldwide as we aggregated to celebrate and be celebrated, was a life-changing experience for me.

Through my work at StandWithUs I’ve been able to connect with many students from different backgrounds and connections to Israel. It is always my goal to support them in their growth and to help them find their “Israel story” by exploring different avenues. Towards that end, I need to introduce myself to various avenues of Israel education, and “sports” was new on the list.

Summer 2022, I took on the challenge of finding how Israel’s history could be made relevant to athletes, and presented in a relatable way so the participants will take it back to their everyday lives.

As I watched the radiant smiles of the athletes at our first Shabbat together as a delegation, I regaled that Jews from all over the world were here to say L’Chaim—L’Chaim that we are accepted as Jews and for who we are, instead of being treated as oppressed second class citizens in the Diaspora as we were throughout history.

Marching together with the other delegations in the opening ceremony on July 14 carrying our lit torch, we were so proud to see the ignited ceremonial cauldron, whose flame represents our legacy in the Jewish State for generations to come.

During Israel Connect Week, I explored many topics with my junior track and field team.

One day, I shared insights into an aspect of Israel that not only affects its citizens but the international community: innovations in technology, medicine, agriculture, etc. Israel is so successful in this sector, but we pondered why does it need to be so innovative? The answer is that in order to survive as an independent strong nation, it has to overcome obstacles such as its desert climate and unfriendly neighbors. We equated that to times in athletes’ lives where they may face the unexpected such as an injury or relocation.  We took inspiration from Israel’s accomplishments to personalize and reflect on how as athletes, they successfully have used creative means to deal with these challenges.

I shared one of my favorite stories. After suffering too many injuries, professional basketball player Tamir Goodman became unable to play. What to do? He contributed something to the world of basketball that allowed play to continue during the times of COVID. He created an antibacterial basketball hoop! It is this kind of heroism and original thinking that I hope the athletes can learn from and emulate.

Wandering the streets of Tel Aviv, we saw many streets that are named after important figures. We used it as an opportunity to explore and reflect on individuals who have made a lasting impact on our lives.

One of the most powerful experiences I had was joining the athletes as they walked from Yad Vashem straight to the Kotel for the very first time. After learning about the atrocities of the Holocaust, they approached the holiest site for Jews.  I reflected on the millions of people murdered who would never see the miracle of Israel and I thought about all those who longed to but never thought Israel’s rebirth would happen and that this day would ever come.

Athletes are no strangers to antisemitism. Before Maccabiah was born, Jewish athletes were barred from joining athletic clubs or taking part in competitions all over the world. It was inspiring to witness a group of 1,300 athletes walking through the streets of the old city in the Jewish state, something that may have seemed unimaginable to the the individuals whose lives were tragically lost in the atrocities of the Holocaust.

It was an absolute honor to walk alongside these athletes as they embarked on a life-changing journey.  As I stepped into the stadium of thousands during the opening ceremony alongside the delegation, I was so grateful and inspired to be a part of something so special, and, to be a part of history.

Maccabiah games may have started as a result of Jews experiencing hatred and being excluded and treated differently, but it has ultimately grown into a phenomenon where Jews can be celebrated and reunited as a people doing what they love in a state where they are welcomed, embraced, included, and appreciated.

Liora Berkstein is the StandWithUs Southern California High School Regional Manager. She graduated San Diego State University in 2020 with a major in child and family development.