They’re playing to win.
But as Boston area athletes Nicole Frevold and Anna Sylvan-Jaffe prepare to compete in next week’s 14th European Maccabi games in Germany, they are keenly aware that they are part of a sporting event that will be making history.
Frevold, a 17-year-old rising senior at Marblehead High School and Sylvan-Jaffe, a 30-year-old MIT graduate who lives in Concord, are among a half-dozen local athletes plus other coaches who are heading to Berlin for the international Jewish sporting event that will take place from July 27 through August 5, in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.
This Maccabi competition, that kicks off with a grand opening ceremony, will be the first time the games will be held in Germany, and in the stadium that hosted the 1936 Nazi-era Olympics, when the world took in the event even as German Jewish athletes were excluded from the games.
With more than 2,000 Jewish athletes from 36 countries, it will also be the largest gathering of Jewish people in Berlin since World War II, according to Maccabi USA.
“I can’t even imagine,” Frevold said, anticipating being part of the Berlin ceremony. “Knowing that Jews were not allowed to play in Germany in 1936, this is really important.”
“I will feel very proud to walk into that stadium,” she added, referring to the opening ceremony that will take place in the Berlin Waldbühne, where 15,000 spectators are expected.
Maccabi athletes experience a dual passion — combining their athletic prowess with their Jewish identity, according to Sherry Levin of Newton, who is on the board of Maccabi USA.
Athletes come from all backgrounds of Jewish identity and levels of religious observance, Levin told the Journal. “The underlying connection is truly an amazing one,” said Levin, a coach at Beaver Country Day School who has competed in the Maccabi games in basketball and track and field.
The Maccabi games are a great opportunity for young athletes who may not otherwise be connected to Judaism, agrees Ken Schwartz, a Los Angeles-based board member of Maccabi USA whose son, Sam, will join Frevold on the badminton team going to Berlin. “It offers an opportunity to experience their Judaism through sport,” he said.
Readers of the Journal may be familiar with Frevold, a winning badminton player who competes globally. In the 2013 Maccabiah games in Israel, her first time visiting the country, she took first place in the junior singles division. Last summer she won the mixed doubles competition in the Pan American Junior Games in Guatemala.
Frevold, who got hooked on competitive badminton when she was nine years old, is looking forward to these games.
While she trains regularly with Israeli-born Nikki Vered at Marblehead Youth Badminton, she has also been training for Berlin with Sasha Boyarin who is coaching the junior and adult badminton teams.
“I love working with him. He cares about the players and wants them to succeed. He’s tough, we’re working hard every single practice, but we can have fun,” she added.
Boyarin, 26, a graduate of Brandeis University, grew up playing badminton with his dad, Kirill Boyarin, who emigrated to the Boston area from the Ukraine where badminton is a reigning sport and he was a champion player. The younger Boyarin credits his dad, the badminton coach at the Maugus Club in Wellesley, with building up a local following of highly skilled and competitive players, including many young Jewish kids who are taking to the sport in increasing numbers.
Many people will be surprised to discover that competitive badminton is “incredibly athletic, ballistic and chess-like. Strategy and finesse are super critical to playing well,” Maccabi USA’s Ken Schwartz said. Since his own son got involved in the sport, he’s learned that there are pockets of strong players around the country, including many Jewish athletes.
Other badminton players from the area are Daniel Berdichevsky, Isaac Ehrlich and Alan Shekhtman; Schwartz and Jessica Cohn, both of Manhattan Beach, Calif., round off the team.
This is only the second time the Maccabi games includes equestrian dressage, according to Jaffe, who will be coaching Maccabi USA’s Equestrian team and competing in the dressage events.
Jaffe traveled to Germany a few weeks ago to select the team’s horses.
While she’s competed around the world, this is the first time she’s part of the Maccabi games.
There will be a lot of tough competition, she anticipates. Germany has a top dressage team.
She has high hopes for the Maccabi games as a welcoming environment. “Because it’s a sporting event, it is very open to anyone. There’s something about athletics that bridges ethnic, racial boundaries.” She also sees the Macccabi games as a way to connect more with her Jewish identity.
“What’s it like to be Jewish now, not only in history and what it’s like to be German now. The best way to experience that is to participate,” she said.
Other local athletes include Jonathan Stern, who is playing on the men’s soccer team.