Jewish Traditions, the European Maccabi Games

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By Megan Cahak

If you were in Budapest, Hungary in early August of this year, you would have seen a city filled with thousands of excited athletes exploring the local cuisine, getting settled, and entering the main stadium for opening ceremonies of the European Maccabi Games.

The Maccabi Games are known as the “Jewish Olympics”, an athletic event with competitive roots stretching back before Israel was included in the Olympic Games in 1952. Since then, Maccabi USA has become a designated multi-sport organization of the US Olympic Committee and every four years there is the “Maccabiah” held in Israel, with European and Pan American Maccabi Games taking place in alternate years.

The history of the Maccabi Games begins with the first competitions in Prague in 1929. After this, the games were shuttered for 30 years as Europe entered World War II. The games returned in Copenhagen in 1959, and in 2011 the European Maccabi Games took place in Vienna, Austria; a territory formerly occupied by the German Reich.

Returning to European soil after the holocaust, and competing in an all Jewish Olympic-style event, is a life-changing experience to all who’ve done it, and something most of us never will. The members of the US Dressage Team shared their experiences with us representing their country and celebrating their heritage.

The competition was kicked off by the Hungarian President welcoming the athletes and honoring the memories of the thousands of Jewish families who were displaced from Budapest during World War II. The Opening Ceremonies brought together over 3,000 athletes from 40 different nations to compete in a total of 19 sports.

Out of that 3,000, seven equestrians from the United States competed; four in dressage and three in show jumping.

The four equestrians on the US Dressage Team comprised of three professionals and one adult amateur: Rebecca Cord, Connor Giesselman, Leah Marks, and Kelly Artz. Each rider brought their talent and experience to the team ready to face the unique challenges that come with competing overseas. The riders left their competition horses behind in the US and were paired with a “catch-ride” for the games. They had a week in training camp before the competition began to get to know their equine partners.

Competing on a new horse, under intense temperatures, with the added pressure of riding for your country made the competition a real test of the riders’ equestrian abilities. Judged by three FEI judges to the standard, the expectations for each pair were high.

Team medals were won based on each team members’ score on the first day being added up to overall team scores. Individual medals were determined by the highest average of both cumulative scores from the two days of competition. Riders had their choice of competing at the medium or advanced FEI Challenge level, which was namely decided based on the training level of the horse. The US Dressage team added four Team Bronze Medals and Kelly Artz’s Individual Silver Medal to the total US medal count of 155. The United States earned the title of the country with “most medals earned” at the games.

Even with all of the team’s success, the rise of antisemitic sentiments still had an effect on the Jewish American equestrians. The heavy presence of armed security and SWAT surrounding the venues demonstrated the potential threat that Jewish life in Europe still faces. That same weekend, a Facebook post went viral about the swastika crudely painted on a competitor’s horse stall at the Kentucky Horse Park.

“I don’t think people realize what a significant kind of emotional experience that is. Like when you, as a Jewish person [are sitting] in a room with 500 other Jews, and then you see something like that that gets put up in our sport…that symbol carries a history, and was a death sentence for so many.” – Kelly Artz, Team USA Dressage

A big part of the event was honoring the history of Jewish athletes like Helene Mayer, Samuel Balter, and multiple Jewish Hungarian Olympic Medalists from the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The European Maccabi Games brought together new generations of Jewish athletes from dozens of countries to form friendships and immerse themselves in tradition. On Friday evening before attending Shabbat services, thousands of athletes gathered in the Dohány Street Synagogue – the largest synagogue in Europe for a concert. They were able to explore the Jewish Quarter, float along the Danube, visit castles, and soak in the famous bathhouses in Budapest with their new Jewish friends from other countries.

In their downtime from training camp, the US Dressage Team explored Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria. They went to the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, which was founded in 1565 and for hundreds of years was dedicated to raising formidable war horses. The school maintains its traditional dressage training program even to this day. A highlight for the team was their private tour of the stables, by Hannah Zeitlhofer, the first female rider to take the official oath of the Spanish Riding School in its 450-year history.  It was a historic moment for the school and an exciting twist in their strict traditions to allow a woman to reach this position of status.

“Tradition is beautiful, but when tradition excludes people by gender, race, religion… really anything – it needs to be changed”- Leah Marks, Team USA Dressage.

It’s clear that the European Maccabi Games in Budapest were so much more than a horse show or sporting event for these Jewish American equestrians. To the athletes competing, they were an opportunity to celebrate their Jewish past, present, and future.

To commemorate their experience, many athletes swapped pins, jackets, and country signifiers before returning home with new Jewish connections from all over the world. As Abba Kovner says, “This is the story of a people which was scattered all over the world and yet remained a single family; a nation which time and again was doomed to destruction and yet out of ruins, rose to new life.”

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