Israel Part II-The Games

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It’s Friday July 15 and although I still have some COVID symptoms I’m being released to go to Jerusalem. I feel much better, a bit tired and still a bit stuffy, but I’m ready to join the team at the Dan Hotel in East Jerusalem.

Once in Jerusalem, I decided to rest, adjust to the hotel and attend Friday night Shabbat services. In Israel the Country begins to shut down on Friday afternoon when the weekend starts. (Similar to India and Nepal, the start of the work week for Israelis is Sunday.)

The Shabbat service at the hotel was run by Rabbi Joshua Halickman and his wife Sharona, very friendly Americans who made Aliyah a number of years ago. They are modern orthodox Jews and have three sons. I typically don’t attend or observe Shabbat but being in Israel I felt that it was appropriate to fully participate in every opportunity available to me. I’m so very glad that I did.

The Shabbat service took place on an outdoor patio of the Dan Hotel, Jerusalem in the background. We said some prayers, sang some songs; for me the perfect introduction to Jerusalem. We ate dinner together and I came to find out that Josh is also known as the Sports Rabbi through his podcast and website. Josh is a sports fanatic, having had season tickets to numerous professional sports teams when he lived in New York. In Israel he attends/covers many games, especially basketball.

I loved talking to Josh and Sharona (remember the song My Sharona by the Knack?) They are both extroverts full of information about Israel and life.  They took a great interest in our wheelchair basketball team and Josh and his sons covered our games, with Sharona reading her books. (I had asked Sharona how she deals with such a sports family and she said this gives her time to read.) I recorded a podcast with Josh and he also wrote an article which appeared on both his website and in the Jerusalem Post which he regularly writes for. Josh’s sons are also sports fanatics and take photos, conduct interviews and help with the Sport Rabbi business.

On Saturday morning I felt well enough to walk the 1.5 miles to the Old City. My feeling is that in order to really get an appreciation for a city, one must walk it. (I walked a lot in Jerusalem setting a new record for myself of over 20,000 steps or about nine miles in one day!) There was also a wonderful light rail close to the Hotel that went directly to the Damascus Gate of the Old City but being Shabbat, it wasn’t running. While walking, I saw many ultra-orthodox Jews, walking to services. One isn’t supposed to take photos, especially of these Jews on Shabbat. Never-the-less it felt good to be experiencing Jerusalem.

hen I saw the walls of the Old City and the Damascus Gate I was utterly in awe. I wondered and continue to imagine how construction took place. Moving massive blocks into place boggles my mind. As I entered the Old City from Damascus Gate I felt as if I was walking back in time. The cobble stone, narrow streets, the small businesses along the side of these streets, many selling fruit and spices, nuts, some selling plastic toys, brought me back to the walks that I used to take through Bhaktapur and the Durbar Square area in Kathmandu, Nepal.

As I walked the narrow path to the Western Wall, I took loads of pictures, of people, the buildings, the beauty that surrounded me transporting me back to another time. There was, of course security to get into the Wall and as I emerged from the tunnel I was overtaken by the Wall. I’ve seen pictures but being there is an entirely other worldly experience. There were signs posted and guards ensuring that since it was Shabbat pictures would not be taken.

I saw so many people praying at the Wall, men on one side and separated by a wall, women on the other. There were some plants growing in between the huge blocks that made up the wall. As I faced the Wall there was also an underground temple to the left where many men were praying. Seeing so many Orthodox Jews in one place, similar to the Amish when I worked in Lancaster, PA, gave me the feeling of being in a different world.

For the first time in my life, I was able to pray at and touch the Wall. I wanted to hug the massive structure, place my arms around the holiness that existed throughout this area. The history, knowing that so many Jewish and people of other religions have come to pray here for more than 2000 years sent shivers throughout my body. As I said my prayers, I said a special prayer for my mom shedding some tears. I saw the many notes placed in the cracks between the stones that made up the Wall. I would come back to the Wall four other times during my remaining time in Jerusalem, praying with the Tefellin two of those times, always saying some prayers but sometimes just sitting near, feeling the peace and seriousness which pervaded the area.

I continued my walking tour, seeing the Dome of the Rock from some distance, observing the diversity of souls also walking on this Shabbat, enjoying myself by meandering through the narrow streets. Many of the shops that I saw were selling products from India, e.g., wall and other hangings.

While walking, it was very curious to me how the feeling of being in India and Nepal kept coming back to me. When I lived in both of these countries, I was surprised to see how many young Israelis I would see. When I went to the camel festival in Pushkar, Rajasthan I saw so many Jewish people, there were Hebrew signs throughout and falafel restaurants. In Kathmandu there was a Chabad that I would occasionally attend. I came to find out that it wasn’t unusual for Israelis to be traveling to these countries before/after their military service.

While walking I found a small shop, the Arab Blind Association. I walked in and saw numerous brooms and asked to be taken into the workshop to see how these were made. I met three people making the brooms. Their dexterity was remarkable as they put the brooms together.

I continued walking, finally making it back to the Hotel after being out the entire day. The evening consisted of a Havdalah service with Josh and Sharona!

Let the Games Begin

On Monday July 18th our first two games would be played. I didn’t expect much from our team of 1.5 Americans (the other half being Israeli), Seth and Moe, and one Brit, Freya, as this was the first time that we would all be playing together. (As mentioned in Part 1 I was very thankful that Ted Goldberg, Seth’s father was our manager.) I hadn’t met the Israelis who would be playing with us but felt fortunate that one of the athletes played at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, one of the top wheelchair collegiate teams in the US, and was the Israeli National Team Captain. Another athlete was the National Team Manager, while the third was a very quick athlete.

There were three other Israeli teams participating—the Israeli under-23 team had split in two and a team from Tel Aviv. The Israeli under-23 team had some outstanding athletes, one of whom had played at the University of Texas for one year and was now playing professionally in Germany. I asked him why he didn’t play for four years at Texas and like many young college basketball players he said, “One and done”.

Our first game was pretty ugly and we lost by 25 to one of the under-23 teams. The second game was a little bit better to the other under-23 teams but we still lost. My role as coach, learning about each player on the job, was to motivate the athletes and to not get down as these were only our first games. But the trend that I observed was that we were missing our layups.

On Monday night my 25-year-old cousin Josh Rosenkranz, who I just happened to meet on my very first day in Israel (I knew he would be participating in the Games, as he was staying at the same hotel in Tel Aviv), ran in the half marathon. His parents Jeff and Lisa came to Israel to watch and to also visit Jeff’s sister Lori, who made Aliyah some 30 years ago, and her family. I was too beat to get out on the course to watch. Josh is an incredible person, living and working on developing an autonomous plane, in San Francisco. He ran very well in this year’s Boston Marathon coming in 142nd (out of 25,000!) with a time of 2:30. In the Maccabi half-marathon Josh won the Silver Medal!

On Tuesday we would play two games against the team from Tel Aviv. We added two Israelis, a strong guy, Pelig, and one of the best Israeli wheelchair basketball players, Aseal Shabo, who at nine years old had survived a terrorist attack in which three of his brothers and his mother were killed in their home and in which he was wounded. But our missing both layups and easy shots continued. There is only so much a coach can do—the rest is up to the players.

In our first game we played very well. However, with about seven seconds left we were down 34-32 with the Israeli team on the free throw line. I indicated to the referee prior to the free throw that I wanted a time out after the attempt. The Israeli missed the free throw, Shabo rebounded and threw a pass to Alon, who launched a three pointer from half court which went in with no time left on the clock. Forget the timeout as this proved to be our only win and made ESPN Sports Center! Playing the same team again in the second game we lost by two.

In wheelchair basketball depending upon whether the competition is international or national one can only have a certain number of points on the court at one time. In order to level the playing field due to the variety of disabilities that can be seen on the court at any one time, there is a classification system based on range of motion, where an amputation has taken place, and other factors. (Usually athletes get classified during competitions by classifiers.) This varies from 1 to 4.5. The higher the classification the greater the range of motion. Able-bodied athletes are automatically a 4.5 no matter their skill level.

In international competition only 14 points can be on the floor at one time, however it was decided that for the Maccabi Games we would allow 16 points on the court. When women play with men automatically 1 point is deducted. Our one female player Freya is a 1.0 but with this competition she was 0, which meant we could have more higher point players on the floor at one time.

For our second game on Tuesday, we were playing to either be in the gold or bronze medal game. I was told by my players after our loss that the other team had 18 points on the floor. I decided to protest the game for the athletes were very upset. I wrote to the person administering the wheelchair basketball portion of the Games and gave him a few alternatives: 1) we could replay the game; or 2) the other team could be disqualified and we would play for the gold medal. Fortunately, David who is a great mediator and who played on our team and is the Israeli National Team Manager, came up with a solution. We would play for the bronze medal against one of the under-23 teams which we lost to but would also join the team who had had 18 points on the floor, for the gold medal game. The athletes on our team were initially, somewhat ambivalent but were excited of having the opportunity to play for two medals, although we had won one game and lost three. If we had made our shots, I feel that we would have been 3-1.

For the gold medal game, the two under-23 teams joined back together and we combined with the other Israeli team. The other Israeli team’s athletes weren’t overly happy as they said that we interrupted their chemistry, which we did. But in the end, we were given the silver medal, although one of our athletes traded for a gold!

In all of this we also had another Israeli who joined our team, although I never played him (#23 (center) in the photo on the previous page, remember the movie Zelig?). It seemed he really wanted to have an American uniform and yes, he received a silver medal. To me this was a funny situation.

This was a lot of fun for me. As a coach one has to balance out winning with everybody playing, especially the athletes who came from the US. In the end I feel that I did a fairly good job given the experience of never really having practiced together. However, to some extent the skills of the athletes overcame this, although in the end we missed too many easy shots. It takes time to build chemistry!

The experience made me want to coach again in 2025 but ultimately needing to recruit more US Jewish athletes with disability, encourage more countries to participate and develop more adapted sports. One American para swimmer also came to the Games and he participated with both able-bodied and para swimmers from Israel, winning six medals. Building the Paralympic side of the Maccabi Games is important for expanding the reach of the Games and making them more inclusive.

Other Experiences and Site Seeing

I really enjoyed the history, the ancientness of the spaces that had been inhabited by so many people prior to me being able to visit Israel. The Israeli Museum was spectacular especially the full displays of synagogues. I went to Machaneh Yehudah Market two times, one time on a Friday to feel the crowds and eat a Lebanese pizza and falafel at a restaurant off of one of the main paths in the Market. By far one of the best markets that I’ve experienced in the world.  

I went to Rosh HaNikra on the Lebanese border with amazing grottos, then explored Akko/Acre Fortress, the Knight’s Hall, where I experienced an entire castle that had been buried, then took a boat to the city of Haifa. One of my last trips was to the ancient City of Dan and then floating down the Jordan River, watching people picnicking on the banks.

On one of my last days I walked through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City where I was able to get a closer view of the Dome of the Rock, and also went through the Armenian and Christian Quarters. I walked a bit underground in some of the tunnels near the Old City and walked through the Jewish Quarter.

I was able to spend a lovely Friday evening with my cousin Lori, her husband Danny, my cousin Josh and Lori’s daughter Livia and her fiancée Catriel and their dog Beethoven. We walked on a path above Jerusalem where we were able to see the Old City and the proximity of the West Bank, the separation that is Israel, but is really part of every country in terms of people living with those they are comfortable with. The question of how we create a truly inclusive society is so very difficult given the thousands of years of tribalism that is part of how we live our lives.

I met lots of people and interacted as much as possible. From taxi drivers to Israelis connected with the Games to athletes from other countries. I was able to go to the final men’s hockey game between the USA and Canada. I am really in awe of hockey athletes, maybe more so than basketball players. Having to skate at amazing speeds, coming in and out of the rink, really flying through the game. Thanks to Mo and Seth, we were stationed between the two benches!

This was an incredible experience for me on multiple levels. As noted in Part 1 I hadn’t been out of the country since November 2019 when I coached wheelchair basketball in Nepal with my friend and Canadian Coach Paul Bowes. Being in a foreign country whetted my appetite for again wanting to be out in the world. I thoroughly enjoy what I’m doing with adapted sports in the US but have a deep feeling that ultimately, I will again live in other countries during my lifetime, mixing with different cultures and people.

This experience has given me another reason to build something which is what I have a passion for. The Paralympic part of the Maccabi Games will hopefully be larger in 2025 which I want to be part of.

Position: Lover of Life-Change Agent

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