Students embrace Jewish heritage, showcase athletic ability in Maccabiah Games


Harper Rosenberg, Staff Writer

“Going to the Maccabiah Games was an eye-opening experience that allowed me to connect with my Jewish heritage through competition,” Hannah Bodner (10) said. Bodner was one of many of the school’s athletes who competed at the Maccabiah Games this summer in Haifa, Israel. The games are the world’s largest Jewish only athletic competition, taking place every four years with 60 countries and 10,000 athletes competing in 2022.

Bodner’s team won gold for U16 women’s soccer and Michelle Orloff’s (11) team won gold in U16 women’s volleyball. Max Meyer (12) placed fourth in U18 tennis boys doubles and made it to the quarterfinals in U18 boys singles.

In order to participate in the games, athletes must have at least one Jewish parent and play their sport at a high level, Orloff said.

Orloff plays volleyball on the school team and on a travel team during off seasons. Before the Maccabiah, she went through months of conditioning, training, and mental preparation — the team filled out workout logs three times a week from October to July, she said.

Meyer prepared for boy’s U18 tennis by playing with the school’s varsity team last spring, he said. The US team used the Universal Tennis Rating system, which is based on a player’s match results, to determine the roster.

Upon arrival in Israel, Orloff’s teammates met one another for the first time and had ten days before the first game to train together. During those ten days, they bonded through traveling with a program called Israel Connect. The team had a lot of fun as they visited famous religious and tourist sites in Israel including Tel Aviv, Akko, the Dead Sea, Masada, and Jerusalem, she said.

Bodner’s team came to Israel a week and a half before the Maccabiah started for training camps, she said. “We would wake up at 5:30 a.m. for morning practice and have evening practice at 6 p.m.,” she said. In addition to touring the country, Bodner’s team worked at a senior center with Holocaust survivors, she said.

Meyer’s team woke up at 5 a.m. to practice before a long day of touring the country, he said. They volunteered at a center with disabled Israeli children to play tennis and other activities, and visited places like the Western Wall. “We took in the religious significance of a location which, for many, is extraordinarily holy,” he said. 

Competing in another country with such talented competitors was intimidating, but also exciting and memorable, Orloff said. “It was fascinating to meet people from other countries and backgrounds.” 

At first, Orloff was stressed about playing with a group of teammates she had never met before, she said. It was difficult for the team to communicate with one another on the court, but after they worked hard and adjusted to one another, they played well together, she said.

Although Meyer was competing with a group of new teammates, he knew Bradley Bennet ’21 from their experiences on the school’s tennis team. Playing internationally brought out a sense of patriotism born out of camaraderie, said Meyer. “When HM plays Riverdale, there is a fierce yet friendly rivalry with trash talk — competing for your nation against others evoked a similar sentiment,” he said. “The soil was foreign but the court was the same, and at the end of the day, everyone was there as a Jewish athlete participating in an incredible experience.”

“I was very proud of myself to be part of a community where [the level of] competition was so high, yet we were all linked by our religion,” Bodner said. “It was a challenge to adjust to everyone’s different style of play, but we all took our strengths and used them to create a winning team.” Her team had three rules, she said: “respect towards teammates, communication, and improvement as a player.” 

Participating in the opening ceremony was a memory Orloff will always cherish, she said. “It was such an amazing feeling to walk on stage with over 40,000 people watching you.”

“[There was] a lot of energy and positivity because it was such a large gathering of Jewish people from all over the world,” Ariela Weber (11) said, who watched the games in Israel but did not compete.

Weber went to the games with her program, the Alexander Muss High School in Israel. After all the persecution that Jews have faced, the Maccabiah is a great way to come together and celebrate their culture, Weber said. “The crowd had such an amazing energy because it was the first Maccabiah Games since the COVID-19 outbreak, and it was such an amazing reunion.”

After the opening ceremony, Bodner met Israeli soccer legend Mordechai “Motaleh” Spiegler, she said. “He spoke to all the soccer players, reminding us to play for our teammates and build chemistry.” 

Social events at the Maccabiah games brought together athletes from each of the participating nations, Meyer said. “Perhaps my favorite experience from the Games was when I was hanging out with the French tennis and golf players — I held a 90 minute conversation with them in French, utilizing the skills I had learned in my three years of study at HM.”

Playing against other countries allowed athletes to connect across national lines, Bodner said. “I remember playing against the Netherlands, and hearing the Brazilian team cheering for USA on the sidelines.”

The soccer team woke up at 8:30 a.m. ate breakfast, met with trainers if needed, and filled up their water bottles, Bodner said. Then, they met in their uniforms with their equipment and traveled to the ‘hub,’ the recreational space where athletes interacted with one another. The building included a pool, small soccer fields, a youth bar, a game room, and a shop for Maccabiah merch. At the hub, the team hung out with players from other countries, relaxed, and watched other games until they had to warm up for their match.

For the volleyball team, practices took place everyday at seven a.m., Orloff said. Afterwards, they rested and explored the city of Haifa. In the afternoons and evenings, they either had a game or spent time together as a team, she said. “It was an emotional rollercoaster, but so worth it.”

Bodner’s experience was unforgettable because she was able to share her heritage and religion with the people around her, she said. “I am not only proud of myself, but I am also proud of playing against such talented competition from other countries.”