Michele Kuvin Kupfer and her swim team won gold at the 1981 Maccabiah Games. Forty years later, she made a big splash, competing at this year’s 21st Maccabiah Games, and reuniting with members of the 1981 team to honor a teammate lost.
Kupfer, a documentary filmmaker, was inspired to create a film celebrating Maccabiah’s 100th anniversary by weaving together the history, importance and impact of the Maccabiah Games with personal and motivational stories of Maccabiah athletes, past and present.
Kupfer and her teammates on the Israeli Olympic swim team were itching to compete at the 1980 Olympics held in the Soviet Union. Because America boycotted the Olympics, Israel abstained as well. “We had a lot of really good swimmers and were a really strong team,” Kupfer said. “We might not have been on the podium, but we would’ve made an impact in the swimming world for Israel.” Although the team was deflated by their inability to compete at the Olympics, they shifted their focus to the 1981 Maccabiah Games where they competed with spectacular pride and passion, winning six individual medals and team gold.
Kupfer’s first motivating factor for the film “Parting the Waters: Path to the Maccabiah Games” was to honor her close friend and teammate, Lior Birkhahn, who died of cancer in 2020. The other reason was to spread the word about the Maccabiah games. As the world’s second-largest athletic competition, it is still relatively unknown.
The film will focus on four swimmers: Kupfer, Birkhahn, Ron Kehrmann and Nir Shamir. “We have such diverse and inspiring stories, 40 years in the making,” Kupfer said.
Kehrmann represented Israel and medaled in multiple Maccabiah Games and world championships. He lost his daughter, Tal, in a 2003 terrorist attack, and although he initially did not intend to swim, he decided to compete, and won eight medals in his daughter’s honor.
Shamir grew up on Kibbutz Givat Haim, whose goal was to raise competitive Israeli athletes. Shamir also represented Israel and medaled in multiple Maccabiah games and world championships but decided not to compete at the 21st Maccabiah Games. For the documentary, Shamir provides a unique dual perspective of being a Maccabiah Games athlete and observer.
The full-length documentary will include the history of the Maccabiah Games and athletes’ personal stories that make the film relatable to athletes and non-athletes alike. “This story is long overdue. Our goal is to give Jews and non-Jews a clear understanding of what the Maccabiah Games represent and why they are so important to the world and show how sports facilitate personal and spiritual growth.” Kupfer said.
In today’s world, one’s Jewish identity and Zionism are under constant scrutiny. Many are afraid to openly acknowledge their Jewish identity or voice their support of Israel. Introducing the Maccabiah Games to Jewish athletes around the world gives them the opportunity to meet Jewish peers who, through a high-level sporting event, can together strengthen their Jewish identity and their connection to Israel.
David Broza, the popular Israeli musician, is working with Kupfer on the music for the film. Broza enthusiastically signed on because his grandfather, Wellesley Aron, was a founding member of Maccabi England.
Kupfer grew up in America and in Israel. When given the opportunity to decide under which flag she wanted to swim, it wasn’t even a competition. Kupfer always felt she belonged in Israel and was honored to represent the country where she felt most at home. Although she was unable to compete in the 1980 Olympics, Kupfer traveled with Israel’s national swim team to many international competitions. Kupfer held Israel’s national records from 1978-1982 in the 200, 400 and 800-meter freestyle.
At 59 years old, Kupfer swims to stay in shape but had not competed in close to 40 years and knew she had to up her game before diving back into competition. Through all the aches and pains of training for competitive swimming, Kupfer surpassed her own expectations, winning eight medals—seven gold and one silver—and even set a new Israeli record for the 400-meter freestyle. “Once a competitor, always a competitor—at least in the pool. When I enter the water, I am there to win.” Kupfer said.
Looking back on her experience filming and competing at this year’s Maccabiah Games, Kupfer said, “I’m a well-known swimmer in Israel and had expectations to live up to while producing, making contacts and interviewing subjects. It wasn’t easy filming and swimming, but what we accomplished professionally and personally completely exceeded my expectations. We have a great documentary on our hands.”
“Parting the Waters: The Path to the Maccabiah Games” should be released at the end of 2023 and upon release will become a permanent exhibit in the new Maccabiah Museum at Kfar Maccabiah in Ramat Gan. Money is still being raised to complete the film. To find out more about the film and to make a donation, visit https://www.partingthewatersfilm.com.
By Danielle Barta