St. Louis athletes on their mark for Maccabiah Games in Israel

Jacob Lefton, 17, is one of the St. Louisans heading to Israel for the Maccabiah Games this summer. Photo courtesy Debbie Lefton

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

St. Louis will be well represented on the world stage at this summer’s Maccabiah Games in Israel.

The international event will feature more than 10,000 Jewish athletes from 80 countries, including 1,110 from Team USA. The games run July 4-18, although many athletes will arrive in late June.

What drives them? It depends who you ask.

“The main reason, to be honest with you, is that I have an opportunity with my wife and kids, and they can see me participate,” said Aaron Vickar of Olivette. “To me, that’s probably the most exciting piece about all of this. They can experience it with me.”

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Vickar, 41, a native of St. Louis, competed in the hockey competition in the Open Division (ages 18-35) of the games in 1997 when he was a college goalie. This time, Vikar, who played AAA professional hockey, will be a defenseman in the Masters Division (age 40 and over). 

“I’m older. Maybe wiser … or maybe just older,” chuckles the Kol Rinah congregant who is a financial advisor and also board chair for the local Anti-Defamation League. “It’ll be a different experience, a different time in my life to participate and play for Team USA.”

Jacob Lefton, 17, of Creve Coeur, is looking forward to playing as a defenseman on the hockey team for the Junior Division (participants born 1999-2002). 

“In my opinion, it is one of the most action-packed sports out there,” he said. “That’s what I like about it.”

Jacob, a student at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School and a congregant of Shaare Emeth, has played soccer and won a silver medal in table tennis in the JCC Maccabi Games, which are held each year in North America.  

 Buthockey, which he’s been playing since he was 6, is his first love.

Jacob, who was selected for the team after submitting highlight tapes, is excited about seeing Israel through the Israel Connect program, which allows Team USA members to tour parts of the Jewish State including Yad Vashem, Masada and the Dead Sea. It is his first visit to Israel.

“I think the biggest part is just the whole Israel experience, being in Israel and being in such a big group of Jewish people who are all coming together to play sports from different countries,” he said.

Jacob’s mother, Debbie Lefton, added: “The competition is kind of secondary. It’d the experience of being with so many other Jewish youth.”

Daniel Reuben, 18, of St. Louis, a left winger, will be a teammate of Jacob’s. 

“I think it is a great opportunity to represent your country,” Reuben said.“That’s something every athlete wants to do at some point.”

Reuben wants to see the Western Wall during his trip. Like Jacob, it will be his first time in Israel.

“I’ve looked at the roster, and I know some of the guys and the teams they play for,” he said. “It looks like we have a really good team.” 

Reuben said a friend from Ohio first brought up the idea of competing four years ago.

“We haven’t played on the same team since then,” he said. “Last summer, he got in touch and said, ‘We’re still doing this right?’ Now, we’re both on the team so it’ll be fun to play with him again.” 

Greg Busch, 47, of Chesterfield, will be a forward on the Masters hockey squad.

For Busch, who coaches hockey for the JCC Maccabi St. Louis team, which will compete in Miami later this summer, the international game will afford him his first trip to Israel.

“It is something that I think brings you closer to the history and the background of where you are from,” said Busch, a Shaare Emeth congregant. “I’ve wanted to go to Israel the last few years. I’ve tried to get involved in a few trips and never made it happen and, suddenly, this opportunity arose. I said this is something I really can’t pass up. I’m really looking forward to it.”

St. Louis University student Olivia Silverman will play  soccer for Team USA. The Cincinnati native plays goalkeeper for the SLU women’s soccer team. Shesaid she enjoyed the sport from a young age.

“The team environment is everything to me,” said Silverman, 19 a psychology major. “If it was an individual sport, I definitely wouldn’t like it as much. My teammates at SLU are my family.”

Silverman said that people play different styles of soccer all over the world and that she’ll be interested to see the types of play on display at the games.

“I’ve played in Costa Rica before, and they play completely different than we do in America,” she said.

It will be Silverman’s first visit to Israel.

“I’m not really surrounded by Jewish culture at SLU, so it is nice to branch out and get to know my religion and [myself],” she said.