Grab some Gatorade and tie your basketball shoes tight — we don’t want any cramps or sprained ankles while Michael Shapiro takes you on a trip you didn’t see coming. Hear his perspective on Jewish identity, the cultural power of sports, and why you should always pick up the phone.
As a teen, I didn’t always feel the strongest of ties to my Jewish identity. Sure, I was Bar Mitzvah’d and celebrated the Jewish holidays, but it always seemed like these things were at odds with other parts of my identity, like being a competitive athlete. Whether it was juggling basketball practices with Hebrew school, traveling on weekends for sports tournaments instead of attending youth group events, or not having many (if any) Jewish teammates, it never felt like being Jewish and an athlete could ever fully coexist. However, through my involvement with Maccabi USA and other sports-focused Jewish organizations, I learned that I could combine both sides of my identity, culminating with me coaching at the 21st World Maccabiah Games this past summer in Israel.
In the middle of May, I received a phone call asking if I would be interested in coaching in the games, scheduled to begin just six weeks later. A coach had stepped down from the USA Men’s 3×3 basketball team and my name had come up as a possible replacement. The World Maccabiah Games in Israel are the third largest international sporting event in the world, behind the summer and winter Olympics, so I knew how big of an honor it is to compete in these games. Spending the summer coaching basketball in Israel with and against some of the best Jewish coaches and athletes in the world? Talk about a no-brainer! After a few weeks of preparing for the trip with virtual calls, fundraising, and a quick (but stressful!) passport renewal, I was on a plane to Tel Aviv to embark on this journey.
Once we arrived, the whirlwind of the games began, and the next three weeks were filled with non-stop adventures. We had our week-long training camp and Israel Connect program (nicknamed “mini-birthright”), including seeing the cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, experiencing Masada and the Dead Sea, having a wonderful Shabbat celebration with the entire USA delegation, and visiting the Western Wall and Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center. We enjoyed the opening ceremonies, held in Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium and attended by President Joe Biden. Parading out among 10,000 Jewish athletes, as the crowd of thousands cheered I was filled with the most incredible feelings of elation, community, and pride. Then, we had our sports competitions, which were held in Netanya, a coastal city about 30 minutes north of Tel Aviv with some of the most beautiful coastal cliffs and ocean views I have ever seen.
The competition was top-notch, with many current and former college and professional players competing. As thrilling as the basketball was, the best part may have been in between our games, when we really got to connect more with the people and the country. Between eating shawarma and falafel, traveling to the northern cities and nature preserves, connecting with other athletes and coaches from all over the world, and experiencing the nightlife of Tel Aviv, there was no shortage of tremendous memories made beyond the athletic field.
Reflecting on the trip and the recent high holidays, I realize how much I have to be grateful for. I am thankful for the amazing people that I have met and the Jewish community that I have been able to cultivate through a multitude of Jewish experiences. I am amazed at how, even in a country that I only visited for three weeks, I instantly felt at home surrounded by the language and culture of the Jewish people. And it makes me even more proud to be Jewish and glad to be able to have places like the Maccabiah Games, where multiple aspects of my identity can intersect and be celebrated. I finally feel settled in knowing who I am and my place within the Jewish community, which is such a long way from where that teenager was years ago. But with this story, I have also learned to remain open to what life may throw your way – because you never know when that phone may ring, and an extraordinary adventure could be waiting.
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