It was 2001, the height of the so-called Second Intifada in Israel.
Ira Miller of Tenafly was selected to be the Open Tennis coach for World Maccabiah Games, which were set to take place that summer in Jerusalem. He ran tryouts and put together a team, but due to the unrest in Israel there were many cancellations and Mr. Miller did not end up going.
Next July, he hopes to make up for that lost opportunity. Maccabi USA, the official sponsor of the United States team to the World Maccabiah Games, chose Mr. Miller as head coach of the under-16 tennis team for the 21st Maccabiah Games in Israel.
Best known as the Jewish Olympics, the Maccabiah Games are held every four years and are the third largest international multi-sport event in the world, after the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup.
Ironically, the pandemic proved pivotal in Mr. Miller’s ability to take on the responsibility of coaching the team. “I usually run tennis camps over the summer but with covid I am not running camps, so I’m fulfilling a 20-year dream to get to Israel with the Maccabiah,” he said.
Mr. Miller, who has lived in Tenafly for 17 years, has been to Israel as a tourist. The prospect of returning there as a Maccabiah coach, however, is especially meaningful to him. “The event has great cultural importance,” he said. “To be in a venue in Israel with Jewish athletes from other countries creates a bond that everyone feels is tremendous.”
Right now, he’s scouting for 12 outstanding competitive tennis players – six boys and six girls — born in 2006 or 2007. They will play in boys doubles, girls doubles, and mixed doubles in an Olympic format.
Mr. Miller emphasizes that his role is just as much caretaking as it is coaching. “I teach them how to manage their emotions on the court under pressure and I make sure they understand how to give their best effort and win or lose gracefully,” he said.
“In tennis there is an individual component and a team component. Most kids that age have experience individually, maybe on a high school team, but understanding the team concept is also part of the Jewish connection. You are representing your team and your country and the Jewish culture and religion. That puts an onus on the players to do their best not only for themselves, but for the greater good.”
Writing in New York Tennis Magazine in May 2020, Mr. Miller outlined his “team first” coaching philosophy. By sharing this sport as a team, rather than as individuals, he tells his protégés, “Your great times will be that much better. Your down times will be easier to handle. During both you will have teammates to share it with.”
Among the many lessons the “team first” approach teaches young players, he said, is that “there is a greater good, a greater purpose beyond individual accomplishments, and that team success is about as good as it gets.”
Mr. Miller now is head coach for the men’s tennis team at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. In 2012, he won the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Northeast Region Women’s Coach of the Year. He is a nine-time Northeast Conference Men’s Coach of the Year, and a six-time Freedom Conference Coach of the Year.
Over the last 25 years, he also has coached men’s and women’s varsity tennis at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck and at Drew University in Madison. And in 1999, Mr. Miller was head coach for the junior tennis team at the Pan-American Maccabi Games in Mexico, where the U.S. teams also are sponsored by Maccabi USA.
In 2014, he coached Yeshiva University’s men’s tennis, a Division III team, in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. That year’s team was the first in YU’s history to earn a berth in an NCAA postseason tournament.
“Despite all the years I’ve won Division I conferences, I got way more attention for that year at YU because it was the first time the NCAA had to make accommodations for a team not being able to play on Saturday,” he said.
Mr. Miller said he feels confident going into the 2022 Games. “I think it’s important to show that we compete safely in Israel,” he said. “I think it’s important to present strong representation of our Jewish heritage.”
The first World Maccabiah Games were held in in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan in 1932 with 390 athletes from 18 countries. By 2017, the Games had grown to include nearly 10,000 Jewish athletes from more than 75 countries competing in 40 sports.
According to Maccabi USA, its delegation to the 20th Maccabiah in the summer of 2017 numbered 1,131, the largest traveling delegation in the history not just of Jewish sporting events but of all international multi-sport competitions.
Eligible applicants for the under-16 tennis team at the 21st Maccabiah Games may apply at www.maccabiusa.com or receive more information by getting in touch with Shane Carr, the senior director of programs, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (215) 561-6900.