Voices from the field
Many of us are able to identify a moment in their childhood when they no longer felt like a child. A time in which the haze of youth was removed and the world came into greater focus as an often scarier place where terrible things can and do happen.
For me that moment was the summer of 1972. Fresh off my Bat Mitzvah, that event signifying a Jewish “coming of age,” I never imagined that my actual coming of age, was just around the corner.
For the first time that summer, I was not at camp but rather had entered the work force, babysitting and working at our family swim club. I eagerly anticipated the ‘72 Olympics, well aware of the Jewish swimming superstar who promised to be one of America’s greatest medal hopes. Mark Spitz was my hero (and my crush) and I was excited to see what he could do.
Mark Spitz did not disappoint, but the world did. I sat frozen in front of the TV watching what would ultimately become one of the first televised terrorist attacks unfold. I was devastated, terrified and so sad. For years I had heard whispered conversations of the world hating Jews but had only experienced the victory of the Six Day War and the respect Israel received on the world stage. Although the community I lived in was heavily non-Jewish, I felt accepted and not “too” other. That was all about to change.
I became obsessed with the news coverage and wanted desperately to talk about the events in Munich with my swimming friends. They were much more focused on Spitz’s seven gold medals than the murder of eleven Israeli athletes and coaches. I began to feel disconnected and at that moment knew that my priorities were beginning to reshape in a way that would be unfamiliar and odd to them.
I spent that summer growing up. I swam, I babysat, I worked, but I also began to see the world through eyes that were no longer rose-colored, but were blue and white. I solidified my relationship to Israel in a wholly powerful way and set my course to get there as soon as I could.
Munich was a tragedy beyond measure. For me it signaled that moment of emerging adulthood. I can trace so much of who I have become to that summer, to those horrific events, to those feelings of isolation among my peers.
Just a few years ago I had the opportunity to meet Mark Spitz and to hear him talk about that summer, his experience and how he has done so much good for Israel’s athletes and the sport he so loved. I smiled when I thought about the life size poster of him in his red, white and blue speedo and his seven gold medals hanging on the back of my door through high school. Both our lives changed forever that summer, but it never occurred to me that those horrific events would and could change us both for the better.