Israel Part 1 (Arrival and COVID)

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President Biden was at the Opening Ceremony of the Maccabi games on July 14 and the wheelchair basketball team was chosen, along with other teams, to take a photo with him. Seth and Moe talked with Biden and shook his hand.  How very cool! Unfortunately, I wasn’t there.

I had been quarantining at the Shefayim Kibbutz  for three days and was released on Friday July 15 to go to Jerusalem!

The trip to coach the US Maccabi Wheelchair Basketball Team has been years in the making.  The games were supposed to take place in July 2021 but due to COVID had to be put off.  When the 2022 dates were finally announced I started Zoom meetings with the potential team members which included five Americans (although one of the athletes is also Israeli by virtue of his parents and will soon be making Aliyah) and one British athlete who had played with the team in 2017.  I had found out about the opportunity in 2020 through the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) and knew that I wanted to take part.  As I had expected, I’m one of the few Jewish wheelchair basketball coaches in the US; outside of Israel probably one of the very few in the world.  This doesn’t necessarily qualify me to coach a national team, probably not, but I’ll take it given my past experience.

Both of my children, Dan and Sarah, had previously been to Israel through Birthright.  My parents and sister had also been to Israel.  But I had not.  Besides being able to get back in the wheelchair basketball coaching game this was also an opportunity for me to explore my Jewish roots. 

I tried to recruit Jewish athletes with disability—sent out numerous emails and social media posts—but wasn’t able to find anyone other than those who had previously participated in the Maccabi games.  Given that this was five years after the 2017 games when the athletes were much younger, we would have a very competitive team in 2022 including two athletes currently playing at the University of Alabama. 

Initially since these were my first games, I was to be the assistant coach.  But this changed when the person appointed to be the head coach had some medical issues.  Although there are many qualified wheelchair basketball coaches in the US it is mandatory that the coach have Jewish roots.

In terms of the athletes, Chad had to drop out because his mother was dealing with breast cancer.  Next the Berry Brothers dropped out.  Peter had just tried out for and made the US Men’s Team which would be playing in Brazil during the Maccabiah.  Both Peter and his brother Aaron would also be trying out for the Under-23 US team during July, another conflict.  Our team manager also had to drop out with some back issues.

Seth, our team captain, Moishe and Freya, although from Great Britain and who was the flag bearer for the GB team for the 2022 Maccabiah, were the athletes who ended up coming to Israel.  Ted, Seth’s father, became our team manager, which I am really thankful for as he has had to handle all tasks during my time in quarantine (5 days).   With the recruitment of three Israelis, one of whom is the captain of the Israeli National Team and who played collegiate ball at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater—one of the top collegiate wheelchair basketball programs in the US—we had a team of six.  There is no doubt that we will be competitive against the Israeli teams, although one of the teams in the round robin is the under 23 team who I’m told are extremely fast.  I was unable to attend the only practice that we were able to schedule with everyone except for Freya who arrived last Sunday.

One area that I would like to work on between 2022 and 2025 is to recruit more countries to send wheelchair basketball and other adapted sport teams.  (There is one other US adapted athlete here, an amputee, who will be swimming with everybody else.).  The 2022 games for para-sports are primarily Israeli athletes competing against one another.  (I’ll write more about this in Part II after the Games have been completed.)

Prior to this trip, I had been saying to friends that I hoped that I wouldn’t get COVID.  I knew that although I had my two vaccinations and two boosters and that I have been healthy, there was the possibility of contracting COVID, especially since I haven’t been in large groups of people for two years.  The only trip that I took during COVID had been in October 2021 to Seattle for a bar mitzvah.  I hadn’t traveled overseas since November 2019 when I went to Nepal.

To get to Los Angeles where my flight would leave from on July 5, I took a bus and wore a mask.  When I went from Los Angeles to Mission Viejo to visit my father, I wore a mask on the train.  When I took a train and bus to get to LAX on July 5th I wore a mask. However, not many others were wearing masks. 

The El Al flight was packed and I started out wearing my mask but then stopped, thinking nobody else has them on so why should I?  We always have moral choices to make: Is wearing or not wearing a mask one of them?  Living in society how much do we try to protect others?

We arrived on July 6 in the morning and I felt fine.  I was finally able to meet Seth, Moe, and Ted which was great.  As more and more people arrived at Kfar Hotel, nobody seemed to be wearing a mask. This was just one site for Israel Connect, a program designed to help us in making connections to Israel.  We would hold practices—although I only had two players to practice with at this time—in the morning, and then do some sightseeing in the afternoons.  (The Israelis all had jobs and couldn’t take the time to practice with us.)

As advised, I didn’t sleep during the day as I wanted to immediately get on Israeli time.  I did sleep a bit on the plane, watched one movie—Licorice Pizza which I really enjoyed; Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s son and Alana Haim are both superb, and also read.  I had tried this strategy before of staying awake in coming and going to/from India and Nepal and sometimes it worked.  But this time it really seemed to.

Thursday morning Moe, Seth, and I had an early practice and then we went to Caesarea and after on a hike, which didn’t turn out well.  Accessibility and sensitivity to accessibility has very different meanings depending upon what one can see and experience.  I’ve been very fortunate in having learned about accessibility when I lived in India and Nepal from 2009–16.  But then being able to pay more attention when I came back to the US has also enabled me to form my opinions and to see the possibilities.

It appeared to me that the proposed hike in the hills away from Caesarea was one of these contradiction or differences in perspective.  In my mind I thought there would be a fairly flat surface with the use of hiking chairs making it easy for enjoying an inclusive hike.  But this wasn’t the case. The “hiking chairs” were more like chariots that had to be pulled and carried and the trail had numerous rocks and was steep in some places.  We were fortunate in that we had some younger basketball players helping with the chariots (although I pulled a little bit too).  We only made it .3 miles on the trail when we decided to turn back.  (I intend on writing a separate article about disability in Israel.) 

It's already difficult to remember everything, the days kind of melding together, but I think that we had a Druze meal in the evening.  We crowded into a small restaurant in a Druze community but I didn’t get any perspective on what it means to be Druze.  There was no talk.  The food didn’t seem that different than what we were already eating.   I’m very curious about everything here and want to learn but everything is primarily geared to the athletes who are younger.  This makes sense to me given Israel wanting more younger people to move here.  Combined with Birthright there is a real push to make this happen.  Any Jewish person can easily become an Israeli citizen.  Something to consider for the future.

Friday was a lovely day as we went into Tel Aviv, walked along the Mediterranean, and went to some wonderful markets.  The Carmel Market was pretty spectacular although overly crowded; we did get two wheelchairs through the pre-Shabbat traffic and I ate my first real falafel which was awesome.  In the evening I decided to attend an Orthodox Shabbat service.  It wasn’t much different from the Chabad services that I’ve attended in the US. The most impressive thing for me to observe were the number of younger people who seemed to know all of the prayers without looking at the prayer book. 

On Friday evening I started feeling a little scratchy throat and some sniffles; I took to wearing a mask, but really didn’t want to test for COVID because I knew that this would take me out of commission.  We had received an email on Thursday stating that some members of the delegation had contracted COVID but people still weren’t wearing masks. 

On Saturday I wore a mask and sat in the back of the bus as we headed to Masada and the Dead Sea.  I just did not want to miss this.  Selfish on my part but I really wanted to just push through.  I also wasn’t spending a lot of time in large groups as I took to reading in the evenings and also to have some quiet time which I generally need to balance my days given that I’m usually with others.

Masada was spectacular although instead of taking the cable car I would have liked to have hiked up to the top.  But during the summer the paths are closed due to the heat.  To me it really wasn’t that bad at 90.  But as with all of the trips that we are doing they are somewhat superficial given the large size of the group which really floods each of the destinations so I wouldn’t have had time to do the hike anyway.  My curiosity was piqued and I watched a number of documentaries about Masada.  There is the story of how the Jews committed suicide rather than be forced into slavery. But I’m not sure that the archeological facts and philosophy of the Jews, i.e., we don’t commit suicide, really supports this.  In the future I’ll read a book about the history.

The Dead Sea is a definite stop in order to go into the water and float.  But it is difficult to get into the water as it is quite muddy and there are multiple holes which you can’t see.  Some of the holes felt like quick sand.  The mud is supposed to have some restorative dimension to it so I slabbered some on.  My skin felt very smooth after coming out of the water due to the high salinity.  But in some sense it felt like a tourist trap to me.  The Sea is also receding.  The fun part for me was seeing Jordan on the other side.  I’d love to travel to other countries in the Middle East and talk to the residents to find out more about their thinking and to listen to their stories. 

Having lived in other countries digging deeper is more enriching to me than a one-hour trip with a few stories.  Something to look forward to if/when I ever retire.

On Saturday night after a Havdalah service, ending Shabbat and getting ready for the new week, I spoke with one of the delegation doctors. I told her my symptoms and she said it sounds like you have COVID but it is up to you to test.  She told me that between 10-20% of the delegates most likely were walking around with COVID.  I don’t think that anybody having traveled so far to get to the games wanted to be in quarantine.  Although this felt like a summer cold, for younger people the symptoms were probably even less.  For me this was a perfect storm of being thrust into huge gatherings of people, at the airport, in Israel, etc., when I had only been with relatively small gatherings in which people wore masks, previously not being exposed to many germs.  I hadn’t had a cold in a number of years.

On Sunday I decided to test because it wasn’t fair to my roommate who could only get a single room if I tested positive.  Ultimately, this didn’t make any difference as there were no other rooms available (he did end up switching with someone else).  The doctor who tested me curiously did not wear a mask and told me what the other doctor had said about the 10-20% of the delegates having COVID.

Thankfully I’ve finished my quarantine. I missed some things like a talk from a Holocaust survivor and our one and only partial team practice (the GB woman didn’t participate as she had just arrived but other things I will see once I get to Jerusalem).

On some level it has been a foreshadowing of my future—I’ve read five books: How to Win Friends and Influence People, To Kill a Mockingbird, Stranger in the Forest, A Farewell to Arms, and Brave New World. (One thing I noticed is how Atticus Finch really uses the principles in How to Win Friends to get along with his neighbors, nice connection for me.)  These were the only books that I brought but fortunately have found some other English books.  I’ve also watched a few movies: To Kill a Mockingbird which I love but which I now realize doesn’t really do the book justice, and the 1932 version of A Farewell to Arms which I stopped halfway through as they totally change the story. I kept up with exercise: walked in my room and did lots of walking prior to COVID at various sites. I’ve also seen lots of green parrots carrying nesting materials outside my window at Shefayim.

I realize that due to having lived overseas I have a certain comfort level with being in a new place.  I won’t necessarily take chances but I do have feelings of being very open eyed with a willingness to explore and learn, and a want/need to understand others. 

In Part II I hope to tell about some of the people that I’ve met, something I’ve missed in having to quarantine.  However, I did get to meet Amare Stoudemire who is coaching the under 18 basketball team.  As some of you know Amare was a rookie of the year in the NBA and a multiple time All-Star.

I really want to understand as much as possible given the shortness of this trip. 

I made it to Jerusalem and am enjoying myself.  More in Part II.







Position: Lover of Life-Change Agent

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