Despite being told to expect the unexpected, I was still unprepared for the opening ceremony of this year’s 21st Maccabiah games.
I grew up in Teaneck, attended Rutgers University, and have been living in Jerusalem for 11 years. I am fortunate to belong to vibrant Jewish communities. Yet, last Thursday’s opening ceremony for the 21st Maccabiah Games was a groundbreaking Jewish experience I unknowingly needed.
As countries lined up to march into the opening ceremony, I fell out of my chair when Zimbabwe, the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas were called. They are not even a blip on my screen of international Jewish communities. Unsurprisingly, members of these delegations expressed how they had never been in a room with so many Jews and they have never felt a stronger connection to their Jewish identity.
Miriam Schwabe, a gymnast and the lone Cayman Islands delegate said, “Being able to not only represent the Island of Cayman but more specifically the Jewish community of Cayman is indescribable and something I never dreamed of.” Living on an island of 60,000 people, 500 of which are Jewish, she found the opening ceremony overwhelming. “I’m not used to being around such a large volume of people, even more so, having them all be Jewish. I walked onto that platform hearing people who don’t know me cheering for Cayman. But at the same time they do know me because I’m Jewish,” Schwabe said.
Athletes from countries with large Jewish communities had similar experiences. Coby Felbel, an Australian cricket player said, “It was really surprising to see so many Jewish athletes at the opening ceremony. Jews are really underrepresented in sport, especially in Australia. I didn’t even know so many Jewish athletes existed.”
While the U.S. delegation waited two hours to march, I felt an inexplicable level of excitement, pride and anticipation. The sea of red, white and blue was cheering “U-S-A,” waving flags and breaking out into song: “God Bless the USA,” “Born in the USA” and our national anthem.
Alex Loewenstein, from Chicago and a member of USA’s men’s open fastpitch softball team, decided to march with his team and the rest of the U.S. delegation while hobbling on crutches with a torn achilles tendon. “Playing softball was only part of why I came. To walk into that stadium with my teammates and represent the U.S. in Israel, two very important parts of my identity, was a dream come true and there was no way I was going to miss it,” Loewnstein said.
Blue and white have been the colors running through my veins since 2004 when I declared my aliyah plans. Living in Israel for the past 11 years, I proudly wore my colors while playing on Israel’s national softball team and constantly shared my Israel pride with family, friends, co-workers and students.
During the 23 years I lived in America, I celebrated July 4th, sang the national anthem at sporting events, and voted in every election—but never did I feel more proud to be an American as I did while marching into the opening ceremony. It was a new and unfamiliar feeling.
With “USA” flashing in bright lights overhead, I was greeted by 10,000 Jews from all over the world celebrating together. I had a smile plastered on my face the entire night. How could I not? It was like walking through the wardrobe into Narnia. Unreal, unexpected and astounding. It falls somewhere between being a celebrity walking the red carpet and attending the Super Bowl.
Within the 1,300 members of the U.S. delegation, I saw a Jewish community with a broad scope of observance levels, diversity of Jewish traditions, range of familiarity with Jewish history and various definitions of Zionism. And it hit me. The pride I was experiencing was not simply American pride. Rather, I was proud to be a Jewish American. I always considered myself a Jewish American but have no recollection of being proud to be one. Growing up, my Jewish identity and support for Israel were seldomly challenged. America afforded me experiences which have positively impacted my Jewish identity. Experiences that Jews in other countries are unlikely to have.
The ADL has reported that there was a 34% uptick in antisemetic attacks across America between 2020 and 2021. This surge likely makes many young Jewish Americans think twice before expressing their Jewish identity and support for Israel. The gathering of nations that takes place at Macabiah’s opening ceremonies reminds the Jewish community that a national and international support system exists.
I am attending the Maccabiah Games with Team USA as one of 38 educators. The week before the games, we paired with teams and traveled around Israel, hitting some of the most important Jewish and historical sites and discussing the connection between Zionism, Jewish identity, athlete identity and Israel. Following the opening ceremony, I became their cheerleader and continue to help them experience all Israel has to offer.
Living in America, our Jewish pride is roped together with our American identity. There is no need to pick one or the other. You can proudly be both. It took me 11 years of living in Israel and participating in the Maccabiah opening ceremony to realize I am very proud and thankful to be a Jewish American.
By Danielle Barta