Local coaches ready for Maccabiah Games in Israel

For the three Bay Area coaches heading to the 18th World Maccabiah Games, a quadrennial event set to play out July 13 to 23 in Israel, there’s a lot more to think about than just planning practice and hauling equipment.

They, along with a sizeable contingent of Bay Area athletes, will be among more than 9,000 Jewish athletes representing six continents and roughly 60 countries in what Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel deems “the third largest international athletic competition in the world.” More than just a celebration of sportsmanship, it’s also a celebration of Jewish identity.

Adam Cooper

Emily Feldman, 21, has been waiting for her chance to return to the place where, four years ago, she won a gold medal as a member of the junior women’s basketball team.

“It was incredible, the best experience of my life,” said Feldman, of San Ramon. “I didn’t play in college and I’m graduating this year. So any way that I could get to the games, I was going to try.”

Feldman, who attends the University of Washington, will be the assistant coach of the open women’s team.

Though training camp is still a few months away, Feldman anticipates she’ll be working with the guards, imparting the skills and strategy she honed as a four-year varsity player at San Ramon Valley High School.

Ben Quittner

“I’ve been playing basketball all my life,” Feldman said. “I watch it year-round. I have a pretty good knowledge of the game and a lot of coaching experience. And you’ve got to have that coach’s attitude.”

From 2006 to 2008, Feldman was the assistant coach for the JCCSF girls’ basketball delegation. That was after she played on the team for four years. She’s also represented the United States at the Maccabi Games in Australia and won gold — again. (Games outside Israel are called Maccabi; inside Israel, they are the Maccabiah Games.)

For Feldman, competing at the Maccabiah Games will be a chance to strengthen her Jewish identity. It’s an aspect of her life she said got pushed aside following her bat mitzvah.

“Between basketball and school, I never had time to pursue a religious side,” Feldman said. “Maccabi has been my one connection to Judaism. I’ve made tons of friends, and it’s a great way to see Israel.”

Unlike Feldman, Ben Quittner has never been to Israel. The upcoming games will be an opportunity to combine a new experience with coaching, a role that’s anything but new to him. 

“I’ve been involved in water polo all my life,” said Quittner, of Palo Alto. “I always cared about the Maccabiah Games and coaching will give me good international exposure. Plus, I really like the guys.”

The “guys” are the returning players from the open men’s water polo team that competed at the 2007 Pan American Maccabi Games in Argentina. Though Quittner, 51, wasn’t their coach, he still knows most of them. It’s a testament to how “tight” the water polo community is, he said.

Quittner and his team will convene in Palo Alto for training camp in June and leave for Israel on July 2. In addition to coaching, Quittner, who previously coached at the Pan American Maccabi Games in Santiago, Chile, is looking forward to sightseeing, among other activities.

“I want to explore Jerusalem and Tel Aviv,” he said. “I’m looking forward to learning a lot about the history of Israel and seeing all these people come together in the name of sports to practice the Jewish religion.” 

Emily Feldman (right) won a gold medal in the 2005 Maccabiah Games as a member of the junior women’s basketball team, coached by Dave Stein (left).

A former member of the Hungarian national water polo team, Quittner once competed with players who went on to represent Hungary in the Olympics and national competitions. Hungarians, Quittner said, enjoy water polo like Americans enjoy the NFL or NBA.

He arrived in the United States in 1980, and took a coaching job with the men’s water polo team at University of Michigan in 1986. Four years later, Quittner landed an assistant coaching position at Stanford University, helping lead the Cardinal to three NCAA championships during his 13-year tenure. He also served as head coach of the Standford women’s team for two years.

“The game of water polo is pretty universal,” Quittner said. “Even though it’s really competitive, everybody who loves the game comes together. I’m sure that after the Maccabiah Games, the guys will meet, talk about their experiences and practice their Jewish faith.”

For Adam Cooper, coaching the junior men’s soccer team at the Maccabiah Games will be fairly similar to his day job.

He’s the head coach of the men’s soccer team at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, but this summer, he’ll leave the college scene behind in hopes of returning with gold. 

“I’m very competitive,” said the 31-year-old Southern California native. “So my expectations are to go to Israel, represent the U.S. well and win. I also want to make sure I give the kids everything they deserve from the whole experience.”

Cooper is no stranger to coaching Maccabi-style. He took a group of 14- and 15-year-olds to the Pan American Maccabi Games in Argentina two years ago, and led the boy’s soccer delegation from Los Angeles to six straight gold medals in the 1990s.

A four-year letter-winner at UCLA, Cooper helped the Bruins to the NCAA championship in 1997 and a Final Four appearance two years later. His playing experience also includes one year of professional soccer with the Orange County Waves, a team in what is now the United Soccer Leagues First Division (USL-1).

As for his Maccabiah cohort, Cooper and his players will be reunited during training camp in Israel just before the games begin. The last time he saw them was in December during tryouts in Florida.

“I hope it’s enough time to prepare,” Cooper said. “We’re going to work hard and get as organized as we can.”