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How Israel Connect reconnected my Jewish Identity in a day

Experiencing Israel Connect for one day already taught me lots about my Jewish roots. Photo courtesy of Maccabi Media

One of our Maccabi Media mentors Marc Zumoff introduced me to a man named Bob Spivak. I didn’t recognize the name at first, but I quickly realized how much weight that name holds within the Maccabi USA community.

Spivak conceived the idea for Israel Connect — the one-week cultural, spiritual and religious precursor to the Maccabiah.

He was the longest-serving president in Maccabi USA history and died on May 25, 2022. In his obituary published by the Philadelphia Inquirer on June 28, 2022, it outlined that Spivak wanted donations made to Maccabi USA. This last request to his loved ones was a true testament to the impact the organization had on his life.

I’m a rookie traveler, and this is my first time out of the country and that’s also the case for many Maccabi USA athletes. Going through just the first day of Israel Connect on July 7, taught me more about being Jewish than I ever learned in 22 years of life. That education and the impact this program has had on me are all thanks to Bob Spivak. He has left behind a legacy that will continue for generations to come.

Lou Moyerman is the general chairman of Maccabi USA and when asked to talk about the program and Spivak’s legacy, he beamed with excitement.

“I think everybody when they leave here, will feel much better about being a Jew and being proud about being a Jew,” Moyerman said. “What they built in this country is really amazing.”

The latter part of his quote is what struck me and many Maccabi USA athletes throughout the first day of Israel Connect. Whether it was seeing the ancient Roman temple in Zippori National Park or the fifth-century Synagogue with original artwork inside, the emotions and Jewish pride exudes from the bodies of exhausted volunteers, athletes and tour guides who hiked in the hot sun.

Part of the Israel Connect day was a hike which ended with a group reflection. Photo by Dylan Manfre

For Blake Silber, a member of Maccabi USA’s open wrestling team and rising sophomore at Gettysburg College, he was more excited about touring Israel than what he came here for, competing in wrestling.

Toward the end of the day, our Jewish Educator Matt Altman led a small group reflection which consisted of athletes from weightlifting, wrestling, and the Maccabi Media team — it appears to be that we are referred to as the “Media Team” when asked what sport we play — in short, it was eye-opening.

He asked three questions

  • What is one thing you noticed about Israel?
  • What are we excited about or excited to learn about?
  • What is our hope to experience for ourselves over the next five days?

Many people shared deep, personal experiences that they essentially told people they had just met a few days prior. 

“It was really incredible. We don’t really know each other, everybody in that circle,” said Becca Magee, who is a native of Massachusetts and competing in her first Maccabiah. “It’s only day one and people (are) comfortable sharing (those) vulnerable aspects of themselves.”

These are the experiences that I believe Spivak wanted people to have as they went through Israel Connect. I think he would have wanted them to be open about their Judaism, learn more about their heritage and absorb the sights, sounds, smells and feelings you can only experience in the holy land itself. 

Dylan Manfre is a recent graduate of Rider University and an incoming graduate student at the University of Maryland. Follow him on Twitter (@Dylan_Manfre11) and on Instagram (@ByDylanManfre)

About the Author
Dylan Manfre has a BA in Journalism from Rider University and is pursuing a Master's degree at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. He enjoys long-form feature writing and sharing pieces that would otherwise go untold. He has won multiple awards for his sports writing at the state and regional levels and considers covering the Maccabiah one of his biggest accomplishments.
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