Singer dribbling past Oregon players
Sam Singer (no. 2) of UC Berkeley basketball will compete this year in his first Maccabiah Games. (Courtesy/Mara Rudolph)

From 16 years old to 60, Bay Area athletes head to Israel for Maccabiah Games

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David Wolf was 12 years old and in Israel for a wedding in 2013 when he and his father happened upon the Maccabiah Games. They were lucky enough to see the U.S. win gold in basketball and his dad mentioned that the next time, it could be David on that court.

Four years later, the Albany High School guard has made his dad’s offhand comment a reality as he prepares to return to Israel, this time as a member of the USA junior boys basketball team.

Wolf is among dozens of Bay Area residents, from preteens to 60-year-old Daniel Weiner of Berkeley, traveling to Israel for the July 4-18 event. The competition, known as the Jewish Olympics, is expected to draw a record 10,000 athletes from 80 countries who will participate in 47 sports.

Held every four years, the Maccabiah Games attract the third-largest number of athletes of any sporting competition, trailing only the Olympics and the Pan American Games. In addition to the competition, the games offer athletes a chance to tour Israel and participate in Jewish events ranging from Shabbat dinners to communal bar and bat mitzvahs.

More than 1,100 athletes and coaches will be on the U.S. team at the 20th edition of the Maccabiah Games, which were first held in Tel Aviv in 1932 — 16 years before Israel became a state.

The American delegation at the opening ceremonies of the 2013 Maccabiah Games (Courtesy/Maccabiah Games)
The American delegation at the opening ceremonies of the 2013 Maccabiah Games (Courtesy/Maccabiah Games)

Wolf, 16, who played in the 2016 JCC Maccabi Games in Connecticut, said he’s looking forward to meeting Jewish kids from throughout the U.S and the world and learning about different styles of play in other countries. But the high school junior-to-be said meeting his father’s challenge is the biggest thrill about the Maccabiah Games.

“My dad told me as kind of a joke that when I was 16 this could be me, so to be going over there now is fulfilling this goal that I’ve been looking forward to for four years,” he said.

The Bay Area athletes heading to Israel for the Games are motivated by different interests and goals.

Some, like Wolf and 16-year-old water polo player Rebekah Reynolds of Concord — who has always wanted to march in an opening ceremony — are satisfying a long-held desire simply by participating. Others are focused on the competition, such as Burlingame’s Leah Goldman, who will be trying to improve on the three silver and two bronze medals she won in swimming at the 2013 Maccabiah Games.

Reynolds leaps up to throw the ball
Rebekah Reynolds (no. 14) will compete for the US water polo team in the 2017 Maccabiah Games (Courtesy/Jacob Reynolds)

Sam Singer, who has spent the past four years as a point guard for UC Berkeley and had to skip the 2013 Maccabiah Games because of his college basketball commitments, hopes the exposure of playing in Israel in July will help earn him a spot on an international club team.

And the Bell sisters of Lafayette are excited to be making their first trip to Israel, as well as combining two loves — sports and Judaism.

Samantha Bell, who will be a freshman this fall at the University of Texas-Dallas, will play with the U.S. women’s soccer team at the Games. She also was part of the American team at the regional Maccabiah Games in Chile a year and a half ago. Sydney Bell, who will be a junior at Acalanes High School, will compete on the junior girls’ tennis squad. Both have competed in JCC Maccabi Games twice.

samantha jostles for the ball with a brazilian player
Samantha Bell (no. 11), of the University of Texas-Dallas soccer team, plays against Brazil in 2015 Pan-American Games. (Courtesy/Julie Bell)

Neither Bell sister was able to attend Jewish summer camp as a teenager because of sports commitments. Samantha is looking forward to a reunion in Israel this summer with one of her teammates from the U.S. squad in Chile.

“I think going to Chile was an important Jewish experience for me because we can’t go to summer camp,” she said. “It wasn’t just about the sports, it was about meeting new friends from around the U.S. and all over the world who are Jewish.”

The Bell sisters won’t be traveling together to Israel and might not see each other at all there — Samantha will be staying in Jerusalem and Sydney will be in Haifa.

Their mom, Julie Bell, who also will be making her first trip to Israel, plans to commute between the two locations. A vice president at Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah, she said the girls’ participation — which will cost about $8,000 for each of her daughters — is a “cool opportunity.”

“It’s a very expensive opportunity, we’ll probably pay more than if we went on a family trip,” she said. “But it’s important to have a Jewish component to the trip, too. I think it’s amazing more kids don’t do it. I do think this experience is going to be worth every cent of it.”

She can’t wait to watch her daughters compete in Israel. “I’m super proud — what Jewish mother wouldn’t be,” she said. “Mostly I’m excited for them to have the experience through a different lens than if they went on Birthright or a family trip.”

Wolf evades LA players on the court
David Wolf (no. 2) at the 2016 JCC Maccabi Games in Hartford, Connecticut. (Courtesy/Kim Wolf)

Singer, 22, who graduated from UC Berkeley this spring with a degree in business administration after appearing in 133 games as a point guard for the Bears and being selected three times for the Pac-12 conference all-academic squad, will be in Israel for the first time. Though he’s looking into business internships, Singer has hired a sports agent and is keeping his options open as far as continuing his playing career overseas.

Sydney smiling on the court, holding a racket
Sydney Bell will head to Israel with the USA tennis team this year. (Courtesy/Julie Bell)

“To represent my country and play in Israel is great, and being able to tour Israel for the first time,” he said. “Also, being able to play on a world stage now after graduating and having a chance to play in front of scouts. If I play well, hopefully I’ll have some options to play somewhere overseas.”

For Reynolds, who just completed her junior year at Clayton Valley Charter High School, the trip will mark her first outside the U.S.

“It means the world to me. I’m going to be playing a sport I love in Israel with other Jewish people and I’m excited to learn more about my heritage,” the water polo player said. “I’m excited to be seeing places I’ve learned about in Hebrew school — Masada, the Dead Sea and the Western Wall.

“When I was watching people march in the opening ceremony of the Olympics, I never thought I was going to have that experience. I’m really looking forward to meeting all the new people and experiencing all the new cultures,” Reynolds said. “Although we’re from different countries all around the world, we have this one thing in common, that we’re all Jewish.”

Leah Goldman (third from left) at 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel (Photo/Courtesy Greg Goldman)
Leah Goldman at the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel (Courtesy/Greg Goldman)

Goldman was one of the younger swimmers on the U.S. squad at the 2013 Maccabiah Games and said she learned a lot from teammates such as Garrett Weber-Gale, a two-time Olympic relay gold medalist, and Andi Murez, an Israeli American who swam for Stanford and represented Israel at the 2016 Olympics.

The experience helped prepare Goldman for competing at Duke University, where she has made three straight NCAA Championships appearances and earned a top-20 finish nationally this spring in the 100-meter butterfly. A psychology major who’s about to enter her senior year, she’s now among the older USA swim team members heading to Israel and looks forward to mentoring younger squad mates.

Goldman, 21, who attended Burlingame High School and is a member of Peninsula Temple Sholom, said the 2013 trip to the Maccabiah Games “was sort of a dream.”

“It was a very important part of my life, just being able to represent the United States, but also being affiliated with Judaism and meeting people from all over the United States and the world who were Jewish athletes,” she said. “I got to combine my passion for swimming with my religion.”

The U.S. team rabbi for the 2013 Maccabiah Games was Daniel Greyber of Beth El Synagogue in Durham, North Carolina, just down the road from Duke, and Goldman has reconnected with him while at college. He’ll also be the team rabbi this summer.

“You get the best of both worlds, that’s what I find spectacular about the Games,” Goldman said. “They combine the love of your sport and your faith and bring them together.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.