It was hot, but very cool!” was how one local teen — and gold medal winner — described his participation in what is commonly known as the Jewish Olympics.
Benjamin Tartakovsky, 17, of Manalapan gained his victory as part of the undefeated American junior ice hockey team that scored an upset win over Canada in the 20th Maccabiah Games, held July 4-18 in Israel.
The event, organized by the Maccabi World Union, began in 1932 and is held, like the Olympics, every four years. The third-largest international sporting event in the world, the games this year drew 10,000 athletes from 80 countries, competing in 45 different sports. They were organized into four divisions: junior, for athletes ages 15-18; open, for elite athletes; masters, for older competitors divided into different age categories; and Paralympic athletes.
The Maccabiah Games have long embraced several Olympic traditions, such as a torch relay and rousing opening and closing ceremonies. Other activities are offered to engage youth, strengthen the connection between Jewish communities and Israel, and impart the history and culture of the country through tours. While Jerusalem hosts the bulk of the events, competitions are spread throughout the country, including Haifa and Tel Aviv. In Israel, the players and their coaches and trainers lived in several Maccabiah villages.
Among the thousands at the Games were 70 athletes from New Jersey, 10 and a trainer were from the coverage area of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ; seven brought home medals.
The other gold medalist was Josh Friederwitzer of Woodbridge, a member of the boys’ junior soccer team. Scoring silver was Rachel Gulotta of Metuchen, who played on the open women’s field hockey team.
Winning bronze medals were: Matthew Darlow, Tinton Falls, men’s Paralympic basketball; Evan Hymanson, Morganville, gymnastics bar and parallel bars with the open men’s gymnastics team; Alec Weissman, East Brunswick, open men’s volleyball; and Katelyn Zimmerman, Wayside, a trainer with the bronze medal-winning men’s and women’s volleyball teams.
Other area athletes were: Matan Berkovsky, Morganville, junior boys’ swimming; Ian Grusd, Colts Neck, men’s masters soccer; Andrew Hoffman, Holmdel, men’s masters tennis; and Sam Rikshpun, Morganville, men’s youth soccer.
Ben Tartakovsky’s hockey team, like others representing Maccabi USA, brought together athletes from all over the country, who began practicing together after arriving for their three-week stay in Israel.
“It was a surreal feeling,” said Ben in a phone interview with NJJN about the team’s 5-2 victory in the championship round. It was particularly gratifying to have “the USA come out on top, because Canada always seems to have our number in international hockey games,” he said.
Ben is a senior at Manalapan High School, where he is a defenseman on the varsity boys’ ice hockey team. He has been playing the sport since he was 8 for the Jersey Shore Whalers ice hockey club in Brick. He hopes to play hockey in college.
This was his first visit to Israel. The tour for the Maccabiah athletes, Ben said, allowed him to absorb the culture and “the whole meaning of what it means to be Jewish and learn who you are.”
“It was a great experience seeing the country and eating the food and playing hockey in the desert,” he said. “I made lifelong friends, and I’ll always remember it.”
Josh, whose goal is to become a professional player, said soccer “is kind of in my blood” owing to his family’s roots in Argentina, where the sport is somewhat of a national obsession. He is a junior at Next Gen Leadership Academy on the Rowan College at Burlington, on the Pemberton campus, which combines academics, soccer, and leadership development.
The 16-year-old, who went through one tryout in south Jersey and one in Los Angeles, was one of 20 players chosen for the team. It was also his first trip to Israel.
The grueling seven-game schedule playing against top-notch athletes, in which the team won its gold by beating Brazil 3-2 in overtime, was nothing new to Josh: His school competes against such professional Major League Soccer teams as the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United.
On the way to his own professional career, Josh said, he hopes to play on a college team and compete in the Olympics with the U.S. men’s team.
“The whole experience was amazing,” said Josh, whose family belongs to Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen. “We went to all parts of Israel with the Maccabi USA Israel Connect program. I really liked it, especially Jerusalem and going to the Western Wall, which has so much rich history. We were the underdogs and weren’t supposed to win, so when we did win, the whole team went crazy. The whole thing was just amazing.”
Gulotta, 20, played on a team with members of varying ages. Like the others, she came to the games with a great deal of experience in her sport. She played on the Metuchen High School team and currently plays with the College of New Jersey in Ewing, where she is a junior business major. She has played club soccer “all my life,” she said, beginning at age 6 with the G-Force field hockey club in Morristown. Gulotta previously competed for the United States in the 2015 European Maccabi Games in Berlin.
Her team beat a highly-rated Holland team twice to make it to the championship round, but lost 2-0 to Argentina in the final game.
“Holland has been in the championship round every year, so that was a big deal,” said Gulotta, who also was a first-time visitor to Israel.
“It was awesome — everything from the opening ceremonies to touring Israel and meeting so many people from around the world,” she said. “Israel was amazing. We went all over the place, from the desert to Tel Aviv. It was so cool having all the teams together and making friends.”
Darlow, at age 51 was the oldest of the local medal winners. Born with spinal bifida, which has confined him to a wheelchair, he began playing basketball at age 12 while growing up in Colonia.
“I played with teams in New Jersey and played while at the University of Illinois, which is one of the few schools in the country to have a varsity wheelchair sports program,” he said.
He plays about 10 hours a week in Hackensack as a member of the Bulova Nets, a team associated with the NBA’s New Jersey Nets and sponsored by the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. Darlow said he has never let his disability define him; he has a successful career as vice president of digital adoption and client experience at a major investment company outside of Princeton, coaches a junior wheelchair team, and races in 5K events “for fun.” Because this is only the second time wheelchair sports have been part of the Maccabiah games, few countries fielded teams, said Darlow.
Team USA had only three Israeli teams as opponents, all of whom had played together and with each other before. In contrast, the American players, who ranged in age from 16 to 53, had their first practice only after arriving in Israel.
Darlow had never been to Israel before, and, he said, echoing his fellow athletes, “It was amazing.”
“It was a very powerful experience seeing all the sites,” he said. “One of the best things about the games was meeting other people from the U.S. and all the other countries who were competing and the feeling of fellowship among all of us as Jewish athletes.”
He enjoyed seeing “so many wonderful things I’ve only seen on TV and pictures,” he said, including Yad Vashem, Masada, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem’s Old City, and the Kotel.
Zimmerman described the experience of working with athletes from all over the country as “awesome.”
Her interest in becoming part of the training team began while she was still a student at the University of Delaware, where she heard about the opportunity from trainers there. Additionally, her sister was on a basketball team competing in the 2005 and 2009 Maccabiah games.
A trainer at Ocean Township High School, she previously went with the U.S. team to the 2015 Pan American Maccabi Games in Santiago, Chile. Her family are longtime members of Congregation Torat El in Oakhurst.
As part of the medical team, which also included doctors, chiropractors, and massage therapists, Zimmerman said, “I worked with multiple teams, mostly volleyball” during their entire time in Israel, also assisting during and after practices and in treating injuries.
At the Maccabiah, she said, “Getting to experience all the Jewish things was just great, and getting the medals was a complete surprise. The teams didn’t have to award the trainer medals, but they did.”