By Dr. Alex Sternberg
Co-chair Maccabiah Karate
Four local yeshiva boys outdid themselves in the recent M21 Maccabiah Games in Israel. Representing a variety of local yeshivas including Rambam, HAFTR, and MAY, they added a demanding and time-consuming karate training program to their already filled yeshiva schedules to fulfill the dream of competing in the Maccabiah.
The Games come around every four years, always a year after the Olympics. Due to the COVID lockdown, the Olympic Games were postponed. With the Olympics postponed to 2021, the Maccabiah World Union dutifully also postponed their Games to the summer of 2022. These Games were the 21st Games, dubbed M21. I have been the chairman of karate for most of the Games since karate made its debut in 1977.
Previous karate teams featured some great international champions such as David Bressler, Yossi Shor, Dov Sternberg, Ilyse Sternberg, and Avi Azoulay, to name just a few.
The M21 karate team however, faced challenges not even imagined by previous teams. In the past, as I travelled to participate with my dojo team to the U.S. national championships, I was always on the lookout for Jewish athletes for the Maccabiah. I would invite those whom I found up to my room Friday night for an impromptu oneg Shabbat. Most of the previous karate team members remember fondly, huddling in my room, listening to Kiddush and eating kosher challah and cold cuts. For many, it was the first of many firsts. Shabbos, Maccabiah Games, listening to Kiddush, and becoming aware of Israel.
But this M21 team was different. As a result of the COVID shutdown, there were no National Championships. No local ones either. Furthermore, many trained in noncompetitive dojos where they never participated in tournaments.
With time marching on and the need to have team selection forcing our hand, we decided to invite interested athletes to send us a video showcasing their talents. I must admit that some videos revealed inexperienced athletes who had never stepped into the ring before. I began to feel disheartened.
But after the team was selected, those who were local Five Town athletes contacted me and asked if I could provide some additional training preparing them for competition.
As the COVID lockdown was gradually being lifted, I began to take them to the few tournaments that were being held in NJ and Pennsylvania. NY was still in lockdown mode. Slowly, their level began to improve. By now, I had 3, 4, and sometimes 5 training in my private dojo in my house.
As their competitiveness improved, so did my confidence in them. In addition to training with me several times a week, they made the sacrifice to travel to Brooklyn early Sunday mornings to train with members of a highly competitive dojo. Here they faced national champions. Soon, we looked for other more competitive dojos to train with.
My little group was growing. In addition to Jeremy Livschitz, Aryeh Abramson, and my son Yonatan, we were joined often by Dr. Leeber Cohen, a 65-year-old physician. Leeber was an amazingly motivated athlete whose hopes for a Maccabiah medal gave inspiration to his much younger teammates. He travelled from Teaneck frequently to train with us. But if we can judge motivation by distance travelled to train, Xenia Khusid, who came every few weeks from Boston Mass., was the most motivated.
An additional member of the Five Towns Four was Mathew Odinsky, who was in Israel for his gap year. Mathew had trained with me and Yonatan for years prior to leaving for Israel.
With the whole world affected by COVID, the Maccabiah Games also saw a reduction in participation this year. But not from the U.S. MaccabiUSA (MUSA) took over 1,350 athletes, coaches, and managers. We weren’t a team as much as an invading force. In the face of lockdowns, no in-person team selection or training, this was a tremendous accomplishment for MUSA.
Our Five Towns Four arrived in Israel ready as could be. Undoubtedly, they were nervous, facing a veteran and more experienced group of competitors. In most sports, those coming from chutz l’Aretz, are at a major disadvantage. U.S. athletes in team sports, such as soccer and basketball have, at most, a few practice chances to form team unity and cohesiveness. They face Israeli teams who have practiced together for months and years as the national team of Israel. They represent the country in international events. Some competed in the recent Olympic Games.
Athletes trained by me over the years have been mostly orthodox yeshiva students. In fact, for many years, my orthodox yeshiva boys and girls, have been the only orthodox U.S. athletes at the Games. This year was no exception. Six of the 14 karate athletes were orthodox.
Nervously, the U.S. karate team arrived at the Hadera Sports Palace, ready to compete. Israelis had the home court advantage to be sure. But more than that, all the matches were judged by an almost exclusively Israeli panel of referees and judges. Talk about an uphill struggle. Despite all this, our boys were superb. In two days of competition, they fought like lions making the parents who travelled to Israel proud to support them. The medals won by the Five Towns Four* speak for themselves:
- Men’s Team Kata: Silver (Mathew Odinsky,* Yonatan Sternberg,* Aryeh Abramson*)
- Men’s Team Fighting: Bronze (Ethan Waxman, Mathew Odinsky,* Aryeh Abramson*)
- Men’s Individual Kumite (fighting): Bronze Mathew Odinsky*
- Male JR Team Kata: Silver (Evan Sterk, Jeremy Livschitz,* Aryeh Abramson*)
- U18 Mixed Gender Team Kata: Silver (Ava Brenner, Yonatan Sternberg*, Julia Kerpel)
- Male Individual Kata JR U16: Bronze Jeremy Livschitz*
- Male Individual Jr. Kata U18: Bronze Yonatan Sternberg*
*Denotes Five Towns athletes
This M21 was my 12th Maccabiah experience. I have enthusiastically supported the Maccabiah for close to 50 years. I look forward to my 13th, or bar mitzvah games, in 2025.
The Maccabiah Games affords each athlete a maturing and growing experience. No one comes back the person he/she was before the trip. As the Maccabiah proclaims:
“Three weeks to experience—A lifetime to remember.”
Is there a future Maccabiah karate athlete on your radar? firstname.lastname@example.org.