Cuban Jews Find an Israeli Olympics With a Higher Purpose

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RISHON LeZION, Israel -- Roxana González, 25, and her brother Rafael, 24, had barely picked up a bow and arrow since their days as champion high school archers in Cuba. So when they arrived here two weeks ago, they began practicing five hours a day at a dusty archery range, preparing to compete in the Maccabiah Games, a quadrennial international sporting event known as the Jewish Olympics.

The Israelis provided the coaching and the gear. "It was the best equipment we have ever used," Mr. González said.

"They have been a bit rusty at the beginning because they haven't been behind the bow for a long time," said Hillel Kleiner, an Israeli archer and architect who has doubled as a chauffeur for the Cuban siblings. "It amazes me that they came here without their bows. I cannot part with my bow for more than two days."

In many ways, it is amazing that the Gonzálezes are here at all. They were among 56 Jewish Cuban athletes and coaches who marched Thursday night in the Maccabiah's opening ceremony in Jerusalem as the small island nation's first official delegation to these games. Even though Cuba has no diplomatic relations with Israel, they were able to come because of recently relaxed travel restrictions for large groups leaving Havana. Jewish-American philanthropists donated about $200,000 to cover their costs.

Cuba is one of 21 countries participating for the first time in this 19th Maccabiah. Other newcomers include Mongolia, Curaçao and Ecuador. About 9,000 athletes from 78 countries are taking part over the next two weeks in 39 events, including new ones like equestrian competition, seven-man rugby and open-water swimming. All Israelis, including Muslim and Christian Arabs, are eligible to compete, but all international athletes at the games must be Jewish.

Organizers estimate that 20,000 visitors will come to Israel for the games, pumping about $50 million into hotels, restaurants and other tourism industries.

Started in 1932, the Maccabiah Games are where Mark Spitz made his international swimming debut (1965), Ernie Grunfeld led the United States to the basketball finals (1973), and a rower from New Jersey named Michael Bornstein earned two gold medals (1977). Mr. Bornstein later moved to Israel and changed his last name to Oren: he is now its ambassador to the United States.

The Games have been the setting for tragedy as well as triumph: four Australian athletes died in a bridge collapse in 1997. In 2001, during the violence of the second intifada, or uprising, the number of athletes decreased to 2,000.

Participants say the games blend sweat and spiritual self-discovery, in something of a tribal reunion where who wins can seem beside the point. This year's 1,200-member American delegation includes two rabbis. Aly Raisman, last year's gold-winning Olympic gymnast who became the darling of the Israeli news media because she is Jewish (and because Israel failed to win a single medal) is not competing, but she is performing an exhibition Saturday night in Jerusalem.

"I think the Maccabiah is the ultimate form of Jewish unity," said Andrew Szabo, a lawn bowler and head of the 10-member delegation representing Guinea-Bissau. "It's not a cutthroat competition, but about getting together, the camaraderie."

Tal Brody, an all-American college basketball star who won the gold in the 1965 Maccabiah, ended up immigrating to Israel, where he became one of the nation's best-known athletes. "Of course it's important to win the gold, silver and bronze," said Mr. Brody, 69, "but the championship is really gathering here, speaking to a Jew who speaks Italian or Spanish or Portuguese."

That is just what the González siblings have been doing since they arrived July 3. They spent the Sabbath at the home of an Israeli archer who knows Spanish from traveling in South America. They went clubbing with another archer in Tel Aviv. They have enjoyed Israel's abundant falafel.

Walking around Jerusalem on Wednesday evening, they ran into many athletes from around the world. "Everyone is surprised that there are Jews in Cuba," Mr. González said.

There are about 1,500 Jews among Cuba's 11 million people, down from 15,000 before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. Mr. Castro and his brother, Raúl, have attended Hanukkah parties at the Jewish Community House of Cuba, one of three synagogues in Havana, and allowed hundreds of Jews to emigrate to Israel in the past few years.

Individual Cuban athletes have participated in previous Maccabiahs -- Hella Eskenazi, the leader of this year's team, traveled alone to compete in karate in 1997 -- but never an official delegation.

It happened this year largely because of Jeffrey Sudikoff, a Los Angeles venture capitalist who in 2011 started a project called Small and Lost Communities to bring new countries to the Maccabiah. Eyal Tiberger, executive director of Maccabi World Union, which runs the games, said Mr. Sudikoff contributed $500,000 of the $1.5 million it cost to bring 300 athletes from countries participating for the first time this year.

The Cubans' blue-and-white uniforms, with red stripes, were provided by Steve Tisch, the film and television producer who is a co-owner of the New York Giants, and he learned of the athletes' aspirations to go to the games while visiting the Jewish Community House in Havana this April. Not wanting to flout the United States' restrictions on doing business with Cuba, Mr. Tisch said he had them manufactured in Argentina. Sewn onto the right arms are the initials P.R.T., a homage to Mr. Tisch's father, Preston Robert Tisch, who was passionate about Judaism.

"It's not like picking up the phone and calling Nike and asking for a favor, but I wanted to keep it as simple as possible," Mr. Tisch said. "It was a unique moment where Judaism and sports and competition could all meet."

The Gonzálezes live in the coastal city of Cienfuegos, whose population of 150,000 includes 25 Jews. Roxana teaches industrial engineering at the university, from which Rafael just graduated.

"Can you imagine?" Mr. González said. "The only Jewish girl in Cienfuegos is my sister."

Alyza Sebenius reported from Rishon LeZion, and Hillel Kuttler from Jerusalem. Sam Borden contributed reporting from New York.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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