Alyssa Fagel, 21, of San Carlos played on the U.S. soccer team at the 2019 Maccabi Games in Hungary (Photo/Maccabi USA)
Alyssa Fagel, 21, of San Carlos played on the U.S. soccer team at the 2019 Maccabi Games in Hungary (Photo/Maccabi USA)

The Hungary Games: Northern California athletes win big in Budapest Maccabi Games

Michael Lipton of San Rafael was sitting in a hotel in downtown Budapest a few days before his fencing competition in the European Maccabi Games. The hotel was steps away from the Jewish quarter, where 70,000 Hungarian Jews were confined during World War II; 430,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Their fate was on Lipton’s mind as he prepared to compete in the all-Jewish, international sporting event held this summer in Budapest.

“It’s very different from just a vacation,” he said. “It’s very different from just a fencing tournament.”

Michael Lipton of San Rafael, épée fencing
Michael Lipton of San Rafael, épée fencing

Lipton was one of 18 athletes from Northern California on the 237-member U.S. team. They came from Stockton, Mill Valley, Palo Alto and other cities, and together helped the American contingent — one of 42 countries represented at the games — scoop up the highest number of medals over nine days.

For some of the participants, it was the first time they’d really been able to represent different parts of their identities at the same time — as athletes, as Americans playing for Team USA, and as Jews competing against fellow Jews.

Alyssa Fagel, 21, who played with the gold-medal women’s soccer team, said she is used to the paucity of Jews in her sport. Growing up in San Carlos, she said, her Judaism and her soccer were always separate. She remembered her bat mitzvah as being a revelation to her soccer friends, who had never been to one before.

“I was the only Jewish player on my club team growing up,” said Fagel, who plays soccer at Yale.

For Lipton, 58, and an épée competitor. it’s a different atmosphere from a regular fencing event.

“The sporting events have a lot more camaraderie than just an international competition, because we’re all Jews,” he said.

The European Maccabi Games are the smaller European counterpart to the Maccabiah, the Olympic-style competition for Jewish athletes held every four years in Israel.

Water polo player Miller Geschke of Palo Alto, a sophomore at MIT, said that while the Jewish element to the games definitely sets it apart from other international competitions, when he gets in the pool he forgets all of that.

“It’s the same game. You’re going to play with the same intensity.”

That intensity was good enough to earn the team a silver medal. Overall, the Americans looking for wins didn’t have much to complain about, topping the table with 155 medals: 75 gold, 43 silver and 37 bronze. Host country Hungary was second in the medal count.

Based on the Maccabi club movement promoting sports for Jewish men starting in 1895, the games were first held in Prague in 1929, followed by Antwerp in 1930. But there wasn’t another European Maccabi until Copenhagen in 1959. Then came another gap before Vienna in 2011, Berlin in 2015 and then Budapest.

Though the U.S. athletes, especially those who had never competed in a Maccabi event before, found meaning in an all-Jewish competition, there was the added significance of convening in Europe, where millions died during the Holocaust and where even today Jews are a target of attacks.

The two-member team from Poland at the opening ceremony was a sobering reminder of just how hostile history has been to the Jews of Europe.

An ad for the Maccabi Games in the Budapest metro (Photo/Maya Mirsky)
An ad for the Maccabi Games in the Budapest metro (Photo/Maya Mirsky)

“It makes you think a lot, especially when you’re in a city like Berlin or Budapest, where all these atrocities happened,” Lipton said. “It’s a stark reminder.”

The event organizers were clearly leaning hard on the message that Hungary supports its Jewish athletes and Jewish citizens, perhaps pushing back against the charge that the country’s influential prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has made anti-Semitic attacks on Hungarian American financier and liberal cause-backer George Soros.

At the opening ceremony in Budapest on July 30, the atmosphere was celebratory as each country’s team trouped in as part of the “parade of nations.” It was a diverse crowd. The North Macedonians were serious, the Belgians raucous, the Scots stylish in kilts. But no matter what their nationality, all of the athletes had Judaism in common.

The opening ceremony was held at the stadium of a Budapest soccer team known for its Jewish history, and the team’s Jewish president, politician Tamás Deutsch, chaired the board of the games. Deutsch is a longtime ally of Orbán, whose government spent around 9 million Euro (about $10 million) to host the games, according to local news reports. The event brought nearly 2,500 athletes plus coaches, volunteers and fans to the city.

“You Maccabim bring the light,” Motti Tichauer, chairman of the European Maccabi Confederation, said at the opening ceremony. “All of us together here are the proof of Jewish continuity here in Europe.”

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and the grandchild of a Hungarian Jew through his mother, Estée Lauder, also brought a hopeful message.

“To me this is not just another sporting event filled with athletes, not at all,” he said at the ceremony. “What I see is the future. The future of the Jewish people.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.