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From Rio to the Maccabiah...

The Olympic Games came to a close in Rio last week and left with us plenty of memories. The gold medals of Michael Phelps in the pool or Usain Bolt on the track helped all who watched them soar the shining peaks of sporting ambition alongside their heroes. Likewise Simone Biles in the gym and the champions and near-champions in every sporting discipline.

Jewish sportspeople also shined. Aly Raisman took a gold and two silvers for the US and now has a glittering array of six Olympic medals. There were two Israeli bronzes in judo – one won with much newspaper coverage as an Egyptian judoka was sent home for refusing to shake his Israeli opponent’s hand. Other Jewish athletes competed for several different countries including Canada, Australia, Argentina, South Africa, and hosts Brazil. And after 44 years, the 2016 Olympics finally marked the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 with a special ceremony.

Yet, unlike with Nobel Prizes for Science or Economics, the sum total of Jewish medals in Rio was probably in proportion with Jewish global demographics. That is to say, it was typically negligible (an historic list of Jewish Olympic medallists can be found here)! It was for this and other reasons (a fuller history is available) that the Maccabiah Games were created, and first held in 1932. A sporting occasion bringing together people from Jewish communities around the world to compete and celebrate together – and someone Jewish could win every medal!

The Maccabiah Games, like the Olympics, are held every four years. The 20th Maccabiah will be held next summer in Israel, and many sportsmen and women come together to our Jewish Olympic Village – Kfar Maccabiah.

I participated in 2001 in the Maccabiah Games. It was my first trip to Israel and what a great introduction to the country it proved. The Opening Ceremony contained no less razzmatazz than the Olympics and as I remember it was the famous swimmer Mark Spitz who lit the Maccabiah Olympic Torch. We marched across the Teddy Stadium, one country after the other, all of us wearing our national colours and waving our national flags.

As the “Jewish Olympics”, the Maccabiah is not shy about including Jewish “sports” such as chess and bridge. There are also categories for kids and for adults, as well as for “masters” – older age-groups e.g. over 35s, over 45s, over 55s – in many sports. It makes for an interesting social mix but does not mean the competition is any less competitive.

I was competing in the chess competition and was proud to bring home a bronze medal for the GB team. It even made the Jewish Chronicle! It was funny that in the chess section, everyone of my opponents spoke Russian – be they representing Israel, the US, Germany or Russia!

It would be wonderful if we could put together a Singapore delegation for the 20th Maccabiah Games next July. With 43 different sports on offer (see this for the full list) – there really is something for everyone. As a small Jewish community we might not be able to manage a full rugby squad, but surely we could put together some swimmers and golfers and tennis players, a fencer, a judoka and someone for the half marathon. And any success we made would be historic and up there to be celebrated in Singapore alongside Joseph Schooling!

This Shabbat let’s start to dream – it’s not just for kids, it’s for every age group - and if you are interested, please get in touch with me for more details.

"Give ear, O heavens, Let me Speak..."

As a rabbi, certain Torah portions become associated with certain students. For me reading Ha’azinu each year conjures up memories from 2005, when I spent a long summer in Poland as a rabbinic student serving the Beit Warszawa progressive community, culminating in the High Holydays. One of their members, a young Pole in her early 20s, Ludmila, was a leading member of their emerging minyan and wanted to celebrate her bat mitzvah. This was quite possibly the first bat mitzvah in Poland since the Second World War, and perhaps even the first adult bat mitzvah in Poland!

We chose Ha’azinu, Moses’ swansong, both for the beauty of its poetry and because it would give the maximum number of weeks for learning the cantillation.  The portion sees Moses giving his final words of advice to the Israelites, looking ahead to their future misdemeanours, their neglect and abandonment of the God who had rescued from Egypt, and predicting their eventual demise and dispersal from the land of Israel. The poetic form aids the heightened sense of an ending, the bad news seeping in surreptitiously songful. Here, Moses’ speech “drips like dew, drops like rain, droplets falling on the grass” (Deut. 32.2) The Israelites are soaked to the bone, damned and drenched before they know it in their own stubborn unreliability. God’s perfection is contrasted with their foolish treachery, and all the time the language rises and tumbles. Predicted backsliding is depicted beautifully, as the relentless rhythm of the poem seals their ignominious fate.

The text had added poignancy for me as I knew that shortly after I would be leaving Poland to move to Jerusalem for the third year of my studies. Although this meant I was able to make the journey that Moses could not and live in the Promised Land, for me the poignancy lay in what I was leaving behind. For three months I had been immersed in Beit Warszawa, playing a small part in the rebirth of Polish Jewish life, sixty years after all had been destroyed. This was nothing short of miraculous, even if it has been a delivery not without considerable and traumatic labour pains. It is no exaggeration to say that almost every Polish Jew today has a story to tell from their family history, be it from the Shoah or its aftermath, growing up in post-war Poland with its pogroms and periods of state-sponsored anti-Semitism until the brighter times of today.

With Ludmila I remember discussing some of the theology inherent in Ha’azinu, and the way that it related to the Holocaust and modern history. I would seek to excuse the people from blame, and refuse to link bad behaviour with tragedy, either then or now. I argued that Moses’ prediction was written later than the rest of the Torah and enjoyed the benefit of hindsight, but for all my proofs from my freshly-studied Biblical Criticism classes, this is not the most satisfying of arguments. Rather I wanted to find support for the Israelites in the text itself, and defend them against the bitter words of Moses.

Reading Ha’azinu each year renews the challenge, and ten years later I am still searching. Perhaps the vindication of the Israelites lies in the last verse of the Torah portion. Moses “may view the land from afar but may not enter” (Deut. 32.52), rather it is “a gift to the children of Israel” (ibid.). They may be about to mess it all up, but they must have their chance and their free will to do so. On a Shabbat that so often follows Yom Kippur, it’s a timely reminder that we are not and have rarely been angels, that we accept that there are plenty of mistakes to come, and yet we can remain cheerful about our prospects for the future. Even our sins are “priced in” to this future, yet hope remains that we can do better. This is true of both progressive Jewish life in Poland, and on this side of the world in Asia and Australasia. Let’s remain positive throughout 5776!

Thu, April 26 2018 11 Iyar 5778