Sunday, July 21, 2013

Let the Games Begin

After arriving at the hotel in the wee hours of the morning following the Opening Ceremonies, we had our official practice session (i.e. the one scheduled by the Israel Bowling Federation as part of the tournament schedule) and Technical Meeting, which is where we have a chance to review the rules governing the tournament and discuss any questions that arise. Thankfully, things did not get out of hand and any situations that needed to be addressed (and there were more than one) were done fairly and calmly. Kol HaKavod to us all for demonstrating good sportsmanship and good leadership!

Practice went off smoothly and our competition Opening Ceremonies featured some “entertainment.” – rhythmic gymnasts from Israel who gave a brief performance right on the approaches. Whenever there is a gathering, Israelis love to have a ceremony. It’s a thing here, we learn to live with it. Some people took video that we’ll post soon. Gentleman, be ready to cringe at some of the contortions they make with their body!

Shabbat at the Maccabiah is part always an interesting adventure. When you bring together so many Jews from around the world with varying practices and levels of observance, you never quite know what will happen but it’s not likely to be just as it is as home. Friday evening, my teammates and I enjoyed dinner together and sat around telling stories until the wait staff asked us to leave so they could prep for breakfast. It was great to have fun together; we even got to meet Uri’s son who lives nearby (and we met his wife earlier in the week, as well).

For me, I spent a good chuck of my Shabbat afternoon at the beach. It was quite relaxing, I got a little more sun, and I certainly understand why it’s a lifestyle people enjoy not only here but around the world. Dinner and relaxing back at the hotel and we were off to bed.

Finally, we began our competition today. Congrats to my teammates Marc Scherlis and Jim Lewis for taking silver and bronze, respectively, and to my friend Yahav Rabin from Israel for nabbing gold in the Singles Event.  All three bowled well while the rest of the field, by and large, struggled. Jared, Uri and I have some work to do but there is still lots of bowling to go. Marc and Jim will compete together in the Doubles Event while Jared and I will take the lanes together. We’re ready to give it our all!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Oh what a sight!

Going into these Games, we are told often that things will run pretty smoothly but there are some things that will just not happen as planned, especially in the first 24 hours. Case in point: we had arranged an unofficial practice at the tournament site, Bola Bowling in Holon. First it was at noon, then moved to 11 a.m. to give more prep time before the Opening Ceremonies. That necessitated a change in the bus schedule. So far, so good. Until the bus didn’t show up. We waited, and waited, and waited some more, finally deciding to ditch the idea entirely. A few of my teammates took a cab to the center (I wasn’t planning on bowling anyway and didn’t feel the need to see the facility at that point) … and apparently the bus showed up at 11:40 a.m.! Say it with me people …. Hurry Up and Wait!

So this really got some people all bent out of shape but, these things happen. In “retaliation,” some of the people from our hotel took their time getting onto the bus for various reasons. Scheduled to leave for Jerusalem, we pulled away from the hotel around 4:40 p.m. and got to Jerusalem after 6 p.m., which was helpful since it minimized the time we stood around the holding area before the Opening Ceremonies (which began nearly an hour late, but who is counting).

Like usual, the Opening Ceremonies didn’t disappoint. It’s mesmerizing to walk into the stadium – the newly-renovated Kollek Stadium in Jerusalem – and be part of that cacophony of life and celebration. As we marched around the field, waving and cheering with the people in the stands, you forget that there are challenges that face us every day – individually and collectively. You focus on the joy, on the excitement, on the intensity that is filling the stadium and you cannot help but get wrapped up in it. We get to walk in at the beginning of the procession (it goes in alphabetical order, according to the Hebrew alphabet) and then can cheer and watch as other countries walk in – some with only one or two delegates! In fact, this year, a special effort was made to reach out and build connections with “lost communities” in order to connect them to Israel and the Jewish people, lest we risk losing them forever. Check out this article from JTA.

Here are a few pictures from the inside:

What was a great evening soured a little at the end when the transportation back to the various accommodations was nothing short of a hot mess. We didn’t get back until nearly 2:30 a.m. and we heard reports that some didn’t make it home until after 5 a.m. While this was still an incredible night, these are the details that help accentuate the positives even more. When things run smoothly, all you can do is focus on the great things happening around you. When there are some bumps in the road that could have been smoothed out in some way, the comments will always be, “we had a great time but …” It’s time to get rid of the buts (and no, this is not an anti-smoking advertisement). Whatever we can do, we must do so that our athletes have the best time possible in their homeland. There is no but about that!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Let the Reunion Begin!

Our final day was a busy travel day. Mind you, we didn’t travel very far yet spent most of the day waiting (you remember, “hurry up and wait” … well, it strikes again).

First, we waited at Kibbutz Shefayim to board buses to Kfar Maccabiah. Then we waited around the Kfar for lunch to begin but were rushed into our final team meeting (the big meeting where the banner and flag bearers are announced … it’s kinda a big deal!) Olympic swimmer Garrett Weber-Gale was named the flag bearer and he gave a few brief remarks about how meaningful the experience and the honor were to him. The Maccabiah really does make an indelible mark on so many people for some many reasons. Whether you are an Olympian or your sport has yet to make the Olympic program, these Games are truly life-defining moments.

Pretty much upon arrival, we were informed that we were no longer staying in Bat Yam but would be staying at Kfar Maccabiah during competition (which was changed within 24 hours to the Tal Hotel in Tel Aviv … I feared this would be an endless string of accommodation changes that, thankfully, didn’t materialize). But with this change, a bus was not arranged to take us from Kfar Maccabiah to the Tal Hotel (we are the only U.S. athletes staying there). So we waited, and spoke to a few accommodations managers and our team manager, who were all extremely apologetic and helpful. We spoke to a few Kfar staff members who did what they could to help. But at this point, arrangements were being coordinated through Maccabi World Union, not Maccabi USA, so it was in another set of hands. Though a bus finally did arrive and take us “home,” we did receive entertainment in the form of: 
  • 2 coaches having a verbal tiff in the parking lot – thankfully it didn’t come to fisticuffs but for a while, we weren’t sure how it would end. (True, the Games are about competition and friendship and connecting with Israel, but even sometimes the best of us lose our cool.)
  • A coach who had also been waiting with his team for a bus to arrive couldn’t account for all his athletes; he realized some of them were inside the lobby of Kfar Maccabiah when they should have been ready and waiting to get on the bus. When he spotted them, he yelled a few expletives through his teeth and they ran on-the-double to that bus. We’ve adopted that phrase as well, but mostly for a good laugh!

Finally, we get to the Tal Hotel, we see our fellow bowlers, and it’s as if we’ve never been apart. In most cases, years have gone by but the family is now together (most of us, along with some new additions … we are a loving bunch and graciously welcome newcomers to the group). A little dinner together and a stroll out to the Tel Aviv Port (which is fantastic any night of the week … if you are in Israel, definitely check it out), ending with a beer with friends at a beach-side bar. Not a bad way to end our first day back together.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Family -- what it's all about

Our final day of touring during Israel Connect brought us back to Jerusalem on Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av is truly the hardest day – it is a fast day, but you are still permitted to work. Who thought up this amazing combination, I do not know. I don’t usually fast on Tisha B’Av – between the heat and going to work, it takes me a few days to “reset” and get my body back to normal. Even under the best of circumstances, I usually just minimize my meals but don’t fast; in Israel, with competition looming, that was certainly my game plan!

Our trip back to Jerusalem included stops at Har Herzl (which is Israel’s national cemetery) and Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial. In the cemetery, there is a section for top dignitaries of the country but most of the space is used to give honor to Israel’s fallen soldiers. In the same area, you find soldiers of all ranks buried next to one another, recognizing that each life lost is a sacrifice.

Unfortunately, we had to move swiftly through Yad Vashem, but I always notice new things when I’m there. It’s the smaller points, the finer details; the exhibit, by and large, is the same, but they are always acquiring new material to educate and give honor (see, there is a theme here) to those who lost their lives but also those who made sacrifices to save the lives of countless Jews. I’m always moved, though, by the Children’s Memorial. It’s simple in concept – 5 candles and numerous mirrors designed to symbolize the children who perished and the descendants who never had the opportunity to experience life. I still remember walking through the first time, eyes closed, and then opening them inside to see this incredible sight and that moment comes rushing back to me each time I approach that memorial.

The day ended with a short reflection session and the Maccabi USA B’nai Mitzvah Ceremony at Kedma Gardens, followed by a seudah mitzvah (meal after a celebration). The ceremony was nice and meaningful to those who took part. To me, one of the great moments of the week took place during dinner (which, by the way, was in this fantastic banquet hall at the facility). A member of the Tae Kwon Do team had befriended two other athletes that hadn’t really found their place among their teammates, or any of the other athletes, for that matter. The details, notwithstanding, they looked for a table that all three could sit at but by the time we entered the banquet hall, the pickings were slim. Instead, we made room for them at our table, introduced ourselves, and had a very pleasant meal together. That is the Maccabi spirit – when we call ourselves a “family,” we really mean it.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Trifecta

Each Maccabiah, when we look at the schedule for Israel Connect (formerly known as “pre-camp”), the day that is always the longest is the Dead Sea-Masada Experience-Bedouin Hospitality Trifecta. Don’t get me wrong, each are enjoyable in their own way but when combined together, it makes for a very long day. Especially when there is practice at 7 a.m. and, as we’ve discussed, bowlers are not usually morning people.

Our first stop was the Dead Sea. Understandably, it was very hot and we had time to go in the water and relax with the rest of the delegation. I’m not a huge fan of the Dead Sea. In fact, I find it pretty gross – not because of the salt content (the fact that you can float at will is pretty amazing) but the water has a greasy, grimy feel to it. As per Meryl’s request, I dipped my toes in (actually, I walked in to about my calves, true story) and then decided I had my fill of greasy, salty water and worked on my tan. I call that a pretty good afternoon.

We then ascended Masada. Fortunately, we had a great tour guide (if anyone needs a guide, let me know; I’m happy to make a recommendation), who gave us great insight into the various rooms and spaces of King Herod’s fortress atop the mountain. One of the team photographers was with our group and took a photo of me and Jared in this long room that had been used for storage but could easily have been a bowling lane. So we threw a few metaphorical shots down the lane; now I’m just waiting for the photos to get posted (they looked really great … I’ll include a link as soon as I see it).

Finally, we made our way down the mountain and headed to dinner at the Bedouin experience. At this point, we’d sweated gallons in the heat at both the Dead Sea and Masada; we were tired, our clothes were sticking to our backs, and we probably didn’t smell too fresh. And on top of that, the heat tires you out. We were just happy to sit and have a fairly relaxing dinner (and very tasty too) with some of the people from our bus. Incidentally, not only did we have a great tour guide but our bus-mates were wonderful as well. Hats off to the Open Karate and Open Tae Kwon Do teams – we had some great times.

Leading up to the games, a big question was what to do in observance of Tisha B’Av, when we mark various tragedies that have happened in Jewish history (the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, the Crusades, etc.). Sometimes the Jewish calendar doesn’t always fall out in the most ideal way, and all you can do is make the best of the options available. Sadly, some did not get to participate at the Bedouin tent because they headed back north for a more traditional pre-fast seudah (meal) and the reading of Eicha, the Book of Lamentations. I hope each group had a chance to spend a little time discussing Tisha B’Av, especially as we went through Jerusalem and walked through the Temple excavations.

It’s late, we’ve had a long yet eventful day. And it all happens again tomorrow. Laila Tov!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

If I Ever Forget Thee ... Jerusalem

Shavua Tov. We had a nice Shabbat at the base. My teammates went to practice and touring yesterday; I took the concept of Shabbat being a "Day of Rest" literally, by catching up on some much needed sleep. I had a chance to relax on the base with some others who had stayed back. As Shabbat came to a close, we recited Havdalah with the rabbis at the Kibbutz and then had some pizza, rather than trekking to Kfar Maccabiah for a BBQ with the rest of the delegation. Apparently, when the group from Shefayim made their way to the Kfar for the BBQ at the last Games Motzei Shabbat, they only spent about 20 minutes at the BBQ when you factor in the end time of Shabbat and traffic. I was just as happy leisurely relaxing and having a few slices of pizza.

Today was our third practice session. We continued our individual competition on "freshly oiled lanes," at least according to the head mechanic at the bowl. We all bowled within 20 pins of one another, so bonus pins today were critical. Marc still holds a small lead on me, though Uri picked up a little ground while Jared continues to stay close, as well.

Our sightseeing today is in the Old City of Jerusalem. The largest city in Israel with a diverse population of 800,000 people, Jerusalem is a holy place to many and has some of the most breathtaking views you can find. We began at the Haas Promenade, a common spot for groups to begin their time in Jerusalem. After taking in the view, we recited the Shehecheyanu to mark this occasion and received a quick overview of what makes up the city.

We then walked through the Old City, absorbing more than 2,000 years of history in our few hours. Out guide also took us through King David's Palace and to Robinson's Arch, as we looked at how it was constructed and how it was destroyed.

Finally, we approached the Western Wall.  We had a chance to we view it from an overlook point earlier in the day and it didn't disappoint. But there is nothing like came to the Wall, holding your breath as you approach, taking in this site that we face each time we come together in prayer. I felt my heart beat louder and louder as I walked down the ramp to recite Mincha, the Afternoon Prayers. As usual, I was overcome with emotion, soaking in as much as I could, not knowing when I'll return (but I will return, that is a guarantee). BTW, I kissed the Wall for you, Meryl.

Tonight is a quiet night at the base. I have to turn in our passports lest we don't get our Games credentials. I'll also probably get a few things for work out of the way before relaxing with everyone and enjoying another Israeli evening. Laila Tov.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Connecting with Israel

Part of the Maccabiah experience for Maccabi Team USA is the Israel Connect program, which is the educational and cultural component of our time in Israel. Our itinerary includes time in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as well as a journey to Masada, the Dead Sea, and Bedouin hospitality. We pack a lot into just a few days; it's a great opportunity for first-timers in Israel to get a snapshot of the land and for those returning to reconnect with the key places in the State of Israel.

We began with a day In the greater Tel Aviv area. The City of Tel Aviv is a great epicenter of so many historical and revolutionary moments in Israel. It is the place where the declaration for Israel was made by David Ben Gurion, home to the first skyscraper in Israel, and the place where you can find some of the greatest a beaches in the world.

We began where the first families who came into Tel Aviv established the city and charted the path where the leaders of the fledgling country took those noble actions. We also stopped by Nachalat Binyamin, where the artists were out selling their wares (happens on Tuesday and Friday only), and Carmel Market, which was bustling with people shopping for Shabbat, or just looking to grab fresh, delicious food.

Our last major stop was to Rabin Square, where we learned about the final moments of Yitzchak Rabin's life before he was shot at point-blank range after a speech about peace. I still remember where I was when that happened in November 1995. For me, it's akin to remembering where you were when Kennedy was assassinated.

The day ended with a little R&R at Bell Beach in Herzilya. Before that, we drove along the Yarkon River and by Yarkon Park (think of it as the Central Park of Tel Aviv). The Yarkon River has been cleaned up over the past number years by JNF, after it was the site of a tragedy during the 1997 Maccabiah. Among the Australian athletes who perished in that tragedy were two bowlers, Yetty Bennett (z"l) and Greg Small (z"l). Their memories continue to be a blessing to our Maccabi Bowling family.

We began our day early with practice at Herzilya Bowling at Kenyon Sheva Cochavim (Seven Stars Mall). I had gotten used to practicing in Ramat Gan (just as I had gotten used to spending pre-camp at Kfar Maccabiah) so it was a new experience for all. The staff was very nice and accommodating though I'm not really sure when they last conditioned the lanes. Still, though, we had a good practice that included some open bowling and head-to-head friendly competition.

Basically, everyone was bowling against the field, even though we spread over two different pairs. After each game, the top scorer earned 30 bonus pins, 20 bonus pins for the next scorer, 10 bonus pins for 3rd place, and no bonus to the lowest score. Scores we close across the board, but after Day 1, Marc has a small lead over me, followed by Uri and Jared. Well pick up the "competition" on Sunday and then close it up on at our last practice on Monday.

One more thing about this bowling center: the have lanes 6, 11, and 13, but also lane 17 with no 18. That's just how they roll, literally.

Time to go unplug and get ready for Shabbat. Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom from Kibbutz Shefayim in Eretz Yisrael.