For two weeks this month, 33 Westchesterites will join thousands of athletes from around the world for a celebration of competition and culture in the one place that feels like home to them all: Israel. They’ll compete in the 19th Maccabiah Games, which will take place from July 17 to July 30 and bring together more than 8,500 Jewish athletes from 70 countries. The games are held every four years and are the third largest international sporting event in the world, behind the Summer Olympics and the Pan Am Games, according to Maccabi USA, the volunteer organization that sponsors the United States team in the games.
The event features 31 sports, ranging from traditional team and individual sports like basketball and track to more unusual ones like futsal, an indoor version of soccer.
Among the thousands of participants will be 33 athletes ranging in age from 14 to 79, representing 18 towns in Westchester and competing in 16 sports. We caught up with six local athletes as they practiced and prepared for the international competition.
One of the youngest Westchester athletes competing in the Maccabiah Games is Tara Berger. The 16-year-old Purchase resident made the Juniors Girls’ basketball team, which includes players born between 1995 and 1998. Tara just completed her sophomore year at Rye Country Day School, where she has played varsity basketball since 8th grade. A post player who helped lead the Wildcats to a Fairchester Athletic Association championship this past winter, Tara is joined on the Juniors squad by Rye Brook residents Jackie Lavitt and Ally Silfen, both of whom just graduated from Blind Brook High School and who play for the same Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) program as Tara, the Lady Knicks. “It’s an awesome experience,” says Tara, who plans to play basketball in college. “I’ve never been to Israel before, so this is a great first chance, just being able to represent my country and Jewish faith.”
The oldest Westchester athlete heading to Israel is 79-year-old Daniel Burack from Harrison. Burack will play on the Grand Masters tennis team, which includes players 65 and older. He became interested in the games a couple years ago after playing tennis against a guy wearing a Maccabiah Games T-shirt. Burack asked what the games were all about and instantly knew he wanted to get involved. A Brooklyn native, Burack says he picked up the sport after college. “I never took a tennis lesson,” he says. “I learned how to play on concrete courts.” Aside from competing, Burack is looking forward to enjoying the whole experience in Israel. “When does a guy 79 years old get the chance to go to a venue like that and meet all the kids who are coming from all over the world?” he says. “It’s very exciting. I can’t wait to go.”
A cyclist by nature, Bradley Scher, 52, is taking multiple talents to Israel to compete in the triathlon. The New Rochelle resident will compete in the Masters division, which includes athletes 35 and older. The triathlon consists of a 1500-meter (0.93-mile) swim, 43-kilometer (26.8-mile) bike ride, and 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) run. Most triathletes enter the sport with a running background, Scher notes, but his true passion is cycling. “I’ve been riding most of my life,” he says. “I started doing triathlons after I turned 50. I kind of got hooked.” To prepare for the hot Israel summer, he’s been training for about two hours a day, six days a week, though he travels to Israel frequently and has ridden there before. “It’s pretty neat to go there,” he says. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Playing on the Open Women’s field hockey team has several benefits for Emily Knapp. The Scarsdale resident, who turns 20 the day before the games’ opening ceremonies, is a goalie for Middlebury College’s field hockey squad. And while playing in Israel will help Knapp hone her skills before heading back to Middlebury, it’s also a chance to share a unique experience with fellow competitors. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to go back to Israel and to play and have fun and meet a lot of new people,” she says. “I think it’s a great opportunity to be able to train and be somewhere where the level of competition is going to be pretty high.”
Alexander and Benjamin Roberts
Participating in the games is a unique experience for anyone, but even more so for father-son duo Alexander and Benjamin Roberts. Tarrytown natives, Alexander, 63, is on the Masters tennis team, while Benjamin, 25, will compete in Open Taekwondo. Benjamin, who moved to Florida this past winter, has been practicing Taekwondo since he was about 8 years old. It was Benjamin’s idea to enter the Games, says Alexander, who figured that if his son was going, he might as well join him. “Probably the most fun I’ve had as a father was taking my son to tournaments all over the country when he was competing in Taekwondo,” says Alexander, who has been playing tennis since he was 4 years old. “It’s a great bonding experience. I’m going to be cheering him on again and I’m looking forward to that.”
Matt Spillane is the editor of the Lewisboro Ledger and a resident of Yorktown Heights.