Israeli, St. Louis teens switch jerseys at Maccabi

Ten Israeli athletes competed as part of the St. Louis delegation in swimming, tennis, and track and field.  Photo: Eric Berger 

By Eric Berger, Special to the Jewish Light

If you attended the JCC Maccabi Games this week and heard athletes from the St. Louis delegation speaking Hebrew with perfect — seemingly native — accents, it’s understandable that you might have been confused.

There were, in fact, 10 athletes from Israel competing on behalf of St. Louis.  They were from St. Louis’ partner city, Yokneam, in the Galilee. Their families had hosted 25 teens, the majority from the St. Louis area, on a trip in June. 

A day after arriving, still jetlagged, the Israeli teens sat with their American counterparts at the Jewish Federation of St. Louis building. They all expressed excitement about competing in the Maccabi Games, though some admitted that it would be strange wearing St. Louis uniforms while fellow Israelis donned blue and white. Israel also sent a delegation to St. Louis to represent the Jewish State.

Omer Noy, a track and field athlete, even joked, “Israel has never been very good at sports… As far as they know, we are from St. Louis.”

Many Israel trips allow American Jewish teens to meet Israeli Defense Forces soldiers and then say goodbye. But in this case, the teens were able to reconnect with one another just one month after first meeting. 

“It’s pretty hard to keep in touch when you are 5,000 miles away,” and eight times zone apart, said Noy. “We got to see our friends again”

The American teens, the majority of whom had attended Camp Sabra in the Lake of the Ozarks, spent three weeks in Israel as part of the Israel Bound trip, sponsored by Jewish Federation of St. Louis. They visited Jerusalem and Haifa, among other places, and stayed with their hosts in Yokneam, a town of 20,000, for two nights and three days. The St. Louis families reciprocated this week. 

Before the trip, “I was most excited to stay with Israelis mostly because I wanted to see how life in Israel differed from life in America and also see what the similarities were,” said Jacob Giancola, a basketball player. 

The teens did a teambuilding exercise in a forest in Israel in which they formed pairs and then tried to pick up and cut fruit while their hands were tied together. Asked how it went, one of the staff joked that they all still had their fingers. They also went tubing in the Sea of Galilee and had a barbeque. 

“I was amazed by how the kids were getting along and getting together very quickly,” said Ariel Yaron, manager of sports in Meggido, a city that neighbors Yokneam. “There was no, ‘We are living in Israel, this is our way of life and you are living in the States.’ Together they are the same and it was very amazing.”

Jacob’s mom, Gayle Giancola, said after hosting just one dinner, she already had “learned so much” about Israeli teens and their preparations for joining the army.

In the meantime, the Israeli athletes were competing in swimming, tennis, and track and field.