Vivian Ovrootsky, 17, of San Jose just completed her freshman season playing tennis at the University of Texas — and now she's headed for the Maccabiah Games in Israel next month.
(Photo/Courtesy University of Texas, Austin)
Vivian Ovrootsky, 17, of San Jose just completed her freshman season playing tennis at the University of Texas — and now she's headed for the Maccabiah Games in Israel next month. (Photo/Courtesy University of Texas, Austin)

From basketball to gymnastics to squash, Bay Area athletes join Team USA at the Maccabiah Games this summer in Israel

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We already brought you the story of Jacob Bockelmann, the Santa Rosa tech worker heading to the 21st Maccabiah Games this summer as a weightlifter. But the games — sometimes called the Jewish Olympics — will see nearly 70 other Northern California Jewish athletes compete with other Jewish athletes from around the world in a range of sports, including everything from basketball to squash. Here are a few more locals who will represent the United States at the games, which will be held in Israel, July 12-26.

Jessie Arons, ice hockey

Jessie Arons, 20, may have grown up in sunny Palo Alto, but she loves the snow — and ice. A rising junior at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin (“it was really fun being here for the winter”), Arons started ice skating at age 4, and by 5 she had picked up a hockey stick. Her mother, Lisa Stifelman, who played on a club ice hockey team while attending graduate school at MIT, introduced her to the sport.

Honing her skills for more than 13 years with the San Jose Jr. Sharks program, Arons played forward on Lawrence’s inaugural women’s hockey team this academic year. And in July, she will be competing in the women’s open hockey competition at the Maccabiah along with her friend and former Jr. Sharks teammate Isabella Gershtein of Redwood City.

Jessie Arons
Jessie Arons

“The only place out of the country I’ve been is Canada for tournaments when I was younger, so this is going to be really exciting to see Israel and experience the culture,” Arons said.

As a student at Palo Alto High School, Arons played field hockey because the state’s athletic governing board does not recognize ice hockey as an official sport. She tore her ACL as a junior but had successful surgery and was back on the field (and ice) the following year.

At Lawrence, Arons is majoring in film, with a minor in studio art. She is a big fan of the Marvel movies — her favorite character is Spiderman — and she is considering a career as a film editor. She is fluent in American Sign Language, which she took up because she had a deaf friend in elementary school.

Although her Lawrence team went 0-23 and was outscored 157-17 in its first season, she said she enjoyed bonding with the other players. “I love being part of a team,” she said. “Every team I’ve played on, I’ve had a second family and I just grow so close with them.” Andrew Esensten

RELATED: Santa Rosa weightlifter Jacob Bockelmann headed for 2022 Maccabiah games

Neil Solomon, squash

Neil Solomon of San Francisco admits the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t great for his training.

“Squash is a terrible pandemic sport,” he said. “Huffing and puffing in a small room next to another person is not a good thing.”

Neil Solomon outside the Tel Aviv Hilton during the 2017 Maccabiah Games.
Neil Solomon outside the Tel Aviv Hilton during the 2017 Maccabiah Games.

But the 60-year-old doctor, who is making his second trip to the Maccabiah Games, won’t let that stop him. A former tennis player who picked up squash after 30 years, Solomon will compete in the masters division and is a co-chair of the team.

“I’m training right now,” he said. “I have both a conditioning coach and a squash coach to up my game.”

He said that while some may think a Jewish-only sporting event would be less than top level, it’s not the case. Maccabiah Games competitors have gone on to medal at the Olympics.

“It’s a high level of competition,” he said. “There have been some stellar athletes.”

Thinking back to the games in 2017, he said it was meaningful to be together with Jewish athletes from all over the world who still felt like “cousins, our brothers and sisters” even if many spoke different languages.

“We all came from the same stock!” he said. “Our forefathers got on different boats.” Maya Mirsky

Vivian Ovrootsky, tennis

When Vivian Ovrootsky, 17, of San Jose, won her first tournament at age 7, it wasn’t just a trophy that motivated her. “I’d been pestering my dad for a phone,” she recalled. He told her “You know what, OK, how about this? If you win this tournament, I’ll buy you a phone,’” Ovrootsky said. “He didn’t realize who he pitched that deal to.”

Since then, she’s had a superb career, winning two prestigious tournaments: the 2019 Easter Bowl (singles) in Indian Wells, California, and the 2019 Eddie Herr International (doubles) at the IMG Academy–Bollettieri tennis complex in Florida, both in the 16-and-under division.

She’ll compete in the youth category in the Maccabiah Games.

Members of Team USA at the opening ceremony of the 2017 Maccabiah Games. (Photo/Lior Mizrahi)
Members of Team USA at the opening ceremony of the 2017 Maccabiah Games. (Photo/Lior Mizrahi)

Ovrootsky just finished her freshman year playing tennis for the University of Texas; she went 12-7 in singles and 10-8 in doubles. Her coach in Austin, Howard Joffe, won a gold medal at the 1989 Maccabiah, so when Ovrootsky was offered a spot this summer, Joffe encouraged her to take it.

In the lead-up to the games, Ovrootsky didn’t have to change her practice routine much. In late May, the Longhorns competed in the NCAA Championships, where they captured their second straight team title (and her teammate, Peyton Stearns, won the singles title).

The Maccabiah will make for Ovrootsky’s first trip to Israel, and she’s excited. “I just really want to see what the experience is like,” she said. “I think it’s just going to be amazing to get to go there, go to Israel, play some tennis.” Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Katie Lowenstein, volleyball

Katie Lowenstein, 15, of Marin, is one of the youngest Bay Area athletes heading to the Maccabiah Games this year. She’s competing in juniors volleyball in the under-16 division, and most of her teammates are older than her.

Katie Lowenstein
Katie Lowenstein

It will be Lowenstein’s first visit to Israel, and she’s making the journey solo. “I’m excited,” she said. “If that’s how I’m going to see Israel for the first time, then that’s such a cool way to see it.”

At 5-foot-7, she is not tall for her sport, but she has one skill that sets her apart. “I’m just fast,” she said. “It’s not really a volleyball-related skill, but I’ve just been told I’m very quick.”

Lowenstein just finished her freshman year of high school at the Branson School in Ross, where she played for the girls varsity volleyball team. She also plays for the Absolute Volleyball Club in San Rafael and practices three days a week.

“It’s something I like to do like when I’m stressed with school, or just anything going on,” she said. “Volleyball practice is a way I can just take my mind off of it.”

Lowenstein, who attended Brandeis Marin in San Rafael, began playing volleyball at age 11 and learned about the Maccabiah Games at the K-8 school. She also learned a lot about Israel.

“I’m just really excited to see all of these places,” Lowenstein said, noting that the beaches and Israeli food will be at the top of her list while she’s there. Emma Goss

Hana Strause, gymnastics

Hana Strause, 17, has been doing gymnastics since she was 4. “I’ve been doing it for so long,” she said. “I don’t know what I’d do without it.”

Now the recent high school graduate from Foster City will be joining teammates from California and across the country for the Maccabiah in Israel, competing in the open gymnastics category.

Strause competes at Level 10, the highest level of USA Gymnastics Junior Olympics Program, which puts her at the level of most college gymnasts. She practices about 20 hours per week.

Hana Strause competing at the NorCal State Championship, at which she won the All Around, March 17, 2018. (Photo/Courtesy Chip Strause)
Hana Strause competing at the NorCal State Championship, at which she won the All Around, March 17, 2018. (Photo/Courtesy Chip Strause)

“I’m probably best at beam and floor,” she said.

Once the Maccabiah is over, Strause already knows her next step: She’s committed to Yale University for gymnastics, and is considering studying economics.

Strause also competed for Team USA at the Maccabiah Games in Israel in 2017. But she said it didn’t go well, for a couple of reasons —  she was only 12 years old back then, plus she had been sick and didn’t have good results.

Now, though, she is looking forward to showing her best self. She also said it will be interesting competing with a group, as she usually competes locally in meets as an individual. But the Maccabiah will be different, as all competitors are part of Team USA for their sport, even if they compete on their own in any given event.

“I have a team, a bunch of people for the team, instead of just myself,” Strause said. Maya Mirsky

Josh Anish, basketball

Josh Anish of Berkeley knew he wanted to represent the USA at the Maccabiah Games this summer. But first, he said, he needed to lose some weight.

Now in his mid-40s, Anish was a 6-foot-7 center who played four years of college basketball at Amherst College. Last summer, when a friend pointed out that tryouts for the Maccabiah masters division (45 and older) were coming up, Anish stepped on the scale: 265 pounds.

“I was fat and out of shape during Covid just like everybody else,” he joked.

But Anish was familiar with the opportunity in front of him. At 16, he competed in the junior division at the 1993 Maccabiah Games. His team won gold — an unforgettable experience that led to lasting friendships.

When his team landed in Israel back then, “all of sudden the entire American delegation started dancing,” he said. “I was like, what is this? What cult am I in?”

These games will mark his first return to Israel after 29 years.

From last summer to the tryouts in October, Anish worked hard to get into fighting shape. And because the 2021 Maccabiah had been postponed by a year due to the pandemic, Anish had time to turn 45, just eligible for the masters division.

Josh Anish (center, blue shorts with red stripe) plays defense during training camp. (Photo/Mackenzie Mager)
Josh Anish (center, blue shorts with red stripe) plays defense during training camp. (Photo/Mackenzie Mager)

“I lost weight. Dieted. Went to the gym. I was doing everything,” he said, eventually reaching a svelte 225 pounds. “When I went to the tryout in Philly, it was clear I should make the team.”

On the court, Anish is not a highflier. Though he’s as tall as Julius “Dr. J” Erving was in his playing days, he’s not a dunker. He’s a good passer and an efficient scorer — and he’s surprised himself with how the game has come back to him after many years.

“I’m actually fairly athletic,” he said. “Which is crazy.”

Anish had a formidable career at Amherst, a competitive Division III school where he was team captain in his senior year. Still, “my two basketball peaks were Maccabiah when I was 16, and hopefully, Maccabiah when I’m 45,” he said. “Who knows what happened in the middle?”

In the middle, Anish started a career in tech, got married, and had three kids — who will join him at the games. For the first time ever, they will get to see their dad play competitive basketball. His 14-year-old son Nate will also celebrate his bar mitzvah.

The USA master’s team will be competing against Israel, Argentina, Australia and Brazil. Anish said Israel is the favorite, but Team USA has a very strong squad, including guys who played Division I decades ago at good basketball schools like Miami and Washington. Anish said he idolized those players in Israel when he was 16, when they played in the highly competitive open division.

“They’re great. They’re kind of legends,” he said. “But they’re 52. It’s good to have some younger blood in there.” Gabe Stutman