I have spent the past two years of my professional life preparing to send 1150 athletes and staff and over 300 supporters to Israel for the 19th World Maccabiah Games with Maccabi USA. It may be the hardest I have every worked in my life. I certainly never would have guessed two years ago that a job with the title "Administrative Assistant" would require 20 hour days halfway around the world helping to "Build Jewish Pride through Sports." But our small office staff of eight people and our amazing volunteer staff did manage to make a positive impact on our athletes. I heard stories from athletes and parents about the impact of the Wall, singing Hatikva at the Opening Ceremony with 9000 Jews from around the world, or their gold medal games. Everyone walks away from the Maccabiah with a story. I even managed to carve out time (on Shabbat, within official work functions, or in the dead of the night) for a personal life of sorts, for my own development. Here are some of my highlights.
I was there for five days in the middle of my trip. I barely slept or ate in the days leading up to the Maccabiah Opening Ceremony and I forgot my phone one night when I went out (a friend went back to get it for me). Still, Jerusalem feels like home. It is instantly familiar, even though I was only there for a few days on Birthright in January. Somehow, despite being completely directionally challenged everywhere (even places I have known my whole life), I always know where I am and how to get home in Jerusalem. I didn't even pay attention to how we got anywhere, but I could always find my way back. It must have been a miracle.
The Western Wall
I think that I could go to the Western Wall a million times and have a million different experiences. My first time at the Wall was on Shabbat with Birthright. My second time was the following Sunday afternoon. This time, just six months later, with the Maccabiah was entirely different. This time, I visited the Wall with a large group of athlete's parents and supporters on our Mission program. We went on Friday afternoon before Shabbat began, held our own service, got through the small early crowd to touch the Wall, and walked back against the flood of foot traffic. I was struck this time, as I was last time, by the enormity of the Wall. It is huge. Each individual brick is massive. Standing at its base, I was simultaneously tiny and a part of something strong and powerful.
Home Hospitality Shabbat
Our Mission program offers a Friday night Shabbat dinner with an Israeli host family. The dinner required advanced sign up, so that each American family could be paired with an Israeli family in Karme Yosef, a town between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, who would take them into their home for dinner. The night began in embarrassment as half of our families dropped out at the last minute or just didn't show up for the bus, leaving their Israeli host families with no guests and more food than they needed. A woman named Michal took me home with her in place of one of my no-show families. Her son was home from the army for Shabbat and her mother and four-year-old niece were home finishing up dinner when we arrived. Not long after, Michal's husband, younger son, and nephews came home. He announced that they had not gotten to synagogue on time, so they would welcome Shabbat in the living room, where Michal and I were sitting. I expected to join them in their Kabbalat Shabbat, but the women moved to the dining room while the men sang Lecha Dodi and prayed. Michal's sisters and their children arrived and joined us in the dining room. I was suddenly concerned that I was in a home that excluded women from the prayers that I have come to know and love, but I was worried over nothing. We came together ten minutes later to bless the wine and challah and then we ate too much food. The conversation around me was an excited mix of Hebrew and a bit of English as people talked over each other. Every few minutes, Michal said, "Inglit" to remind her family to include me, but I was happy to try to catch familiar Hebrew words out of their conversations.
After dinner, the women left the table, but I was deep in conversation with Michal's husband and one of her nephews about Judaism in the US. They wanted to know how Israel was portrayed in the news and about the different branches of Judaism that we have and how they function as Jewish communities. I think I had the most fun answering the question, "How do you marry a Jew when you have so many other options in America?" I actively decided not to try explaining that I had converted and instead spoke from what I know of my husband's upbringing and the importance that I will someday stress to my children about dating or marrying someone Jewish. I have through before about the Diaspora and Jewish continuity, about interfaith dating, love and marriage, but it had never occurred to me that it might be a novel or even alien concept in Israel. How do we instill the importance of Jewish family in children? I have friends who are mostly secular, but who still would never think of dating someone who wasn't Jewish. That is something you have to actively decide and work for in Diaspora, but not something they really deal with in Israel. It was a really great conversation and a fantastic way to start my last Shabbat of the Maccabiah.
Late Night Theology
Toward the end of my trip, I gave up on sleep so that I might have a semi-social life. One night, a volunteer manager and our Team acupuncturist came to visit our hotel in Tel Aviv and the three of us talked about religion, life, and the universe until 3:00 AM. It was exactly the kind of conversation I always want to have, but have trouble finding someone willing to openly discuss their beliefs. We talked about Judaism, Christianity, conversion, the meaning of religion for each of us personally, and our souls/selves in relation to our physical bodies. It was a great discussion to have on very little sleep while in Israel overlooking the Mediterranean.
19th Maccabiah Closing Celebration