Four Bergen County athletes have struck gold in Mexico City. As representatives of Team USA, Shmuli Coates, Max Zakheim, Amalya Knapp and Gabe Einhorn each took home championship honors at the Pan American Maccabi Games. The competition is a unique event in the world of Jewish athletics. Held every four years in one Latin American country, the games host athletes from across North and South America, Israel and other countries in the Diaspora. The Pan American Maccabi Games are grueling, and feature arguably the best amateur Jewish athletes in the world competing in sports ranging from tennis to water polo to cycling. The event even has a triathlon. Therefore, when a few hometown favorites capture remarkable victories in the tournament, the celebration only grows in grandeur.
Each athlete helped lead their respective teams to victory, displaying dedication to their crafts, impressive individual skill and sincere sportsmanship. Yeshivat Frisch students Coates and Zakheim achieved basketball greatness, defeating team Israel in the championship game. Knapp led Team USA to a gold medal in gymnastics, as well as a silver medal in the individual vault finals. Einhorn and the USA soccer team captured the gold in stunning fashion. They stuck through a 0-0 tie in regulation and overtime to finally beat team Argentina in penalty kicks. Though all four players left Mexico City victorious, each athlete’s experiences in the tournament were unique in their own right.
Coates’ and Zakheim’s journey began in Dallas, Texas, days before the event. There, the team convened for multiple two hour practices over three days of pre-game preparation. Then, on July 5, along with each and every Maccabi athlete, they participated in the opening ceremonies. To Zakheim, this was the most exciting part of the event. He explained that “The opening ceremony w
In tournament play, Coates and Zakheim helped Team USA move through the imposing field of opponents, ultimately winning the gold on July 15. The victory was the culmination of hard work and a passionate roster. Playing in a “run and gun,” fast paced offense, Coates and Zakheim thrived; they were able to force turnovers, push the fast break and score high percentage shots. Though the team benefited from their length and had some size, each player played like a guard. With no set lineups and positions, Coates and Zakheim had the confidence to play their own games, and the results spoke for themselves.as the highlight of my trip. We walked with the entire U.S. delegation into Arena Mexico with the whole crowd cheering. It was really cool to be a part of that.” In addition to the excitement of inaugurating the Maccabi games, Coates and Zakheim had the opportunity to perform chesed in the poorer neighborhoods of Mexico City. Coates, a former member of the chesed based summer program Kol HaNearim, found this part of the trip meaningful. He said that “We played with the kids in the community. We also helped give out glasses to people who had bad eyesight. We brought a lot of energy to the place and I think that made a difference.”
The Maccabi Games were more than what they had both imagined. As Coates so vividly put it, “Maccabi was one of the best experiences of my life. It made me realize how fortunate I am to be able to play the sport I love for my country. It was truly a reflection of all the hard work that I have given to the game of basketball. You really get back what you put in.”
Knapp’s path to the Pan American Maccabi Games was that of a seasoned gymnast. A veteran of Galaxy Gymnastics, Knapp is a level 10 gymnast, the highest level in her age group according to Junior Olympic standards. After serving as an alternate on Team USA in the 2017 Maccabiah Games, she switched coaches and became grounded in an intense regiment of training. Overcoming the challenges of the high school workload and lengthy yeshiva school days, Knapp qualified for the Pan American Games and headed to Mexico City beaming with enthusiasm.
When it came to the competition itself, Knapp had to adapt to various Maccabi specific regulations. From the dimensions of the course to the scoring of the performances, she was forced to shape her routine around the unique design of the Pan American Maccabi Games. Under the guidance of her coaches, she performed impressively, helping Team USA move through the initial rounds and towards the gold medal. Additionally, Knapp found success in individual events. After scoring strong in the preliminary rounds, she moved on to the final rounds in all four major events: vault, beam, floor and bars. Though initially her weakest event, Knapp stepped up her game in the vault portion. She won the silver medal and took home another two bronze medals in the beam and bars events.
More than the competition, Knapp lauded the games’ ability to create lasting friendships. She formed bonds with her teammates, her fellow Team USA athletes and, most importantly, her opponents. Reflecting upon her daughter’s experiences, Chavie Knapp explained that “She couldn’t get enough of it. All she wanted to do was meet other kids and watch other sports. She was proud of other athletes and other Jews that were her age who were also committed. The biggest thing she looked forward to was exchanging her pins and team jacket. It was really a magnificent experience for her.”
At this pivotal point in her career, Knapp looks forward to refining her level 10 abilities and moving on to the next stage of her path as a gymnast. Thrilled with her performance and appreciative of her experience, she hopes to remain in the Maccabi family and lead Team USA to many more gold medals in the years to come.
Last but certainly not least, following the advice of coach Josh (Shua) Pransky
Einhorn joined up with the U.S. soccer team with his sights set on the Pan American Maccabi Games. Einhorn participated in a short soccer training camp a few days prior to the tournament. He felt that the small amount of time in which the players were able to practice together was a difficult challenge for the team. Einhorn explained that “The team was just 22 guys from everywhere in the United States. There were kids from California, Wisconsin, Florida, New Jersey and New York. There wasn’t much team chemistry. The coaches switched up formations every game, and it was hard to learn how everyone played. Everyone on our team was just really skilled. We were all really strong on the field and were able to play well.” Making their way through a few “nail biters,” Einhorn and Team USA found success on the pitch, and achieved their championship aspirations.
Outside of league play, Einhorn spoke volumes about his religious experience in Mexico City, especially his final Shabbat of the tournament. Instead of walking to the towering Sephardic shul, Monte Sinai, Einhorn and the rest of the roster decided to create their own Shabbat services. They organized their own minyan on Friday night, and as a group cooked up a tasty Shabbat dinner that would have made all of their mothers truly proud. Einhorn, the only religious player on the team, enjoyed the opportunity to set an example for his teammates in terms of Jewish observance. “I was the only religious kid on my team. It was cool talking about Judaism—whether it was describing what yeshivas are like, kashrut, Shabbat or other aspects of being Modern Orthodox.”
Hoping that his success at the Pan American Maccabi Games is just the beginning, Einhorn looks forward to continue leading the Frisch Cougars as well as various club teams. And, if his future plans all work out, he hopes to take the next step in his soccer career and compete at the collegiate level.
The beauty of the Maccabi Games is that it brings all sorts of Jewish athletes together. Each brings their own background in sports and each achieves successes unique unto themselves. These athletes each competed in their own distinct ways. What binds them together is their dedication to representing our local community, their passion for athletics and their strong Jewish identities. With these attributes, their futures seem destined for achievements above and beyond the Maccabi Games.
By Dov Levy
Dov Levy is a senior at SAR High School and a summer intern for The Jewish Link.