Maccabiah athletes get closer to Jewish roots
As the Canadian junior girls volleyball team made a run for the medals at last month’s Maccabiah Games, the team found support from a sizeable contingent of Canadians in the Holy Land.
Among the regular spectators at their games, including the bronze medal showdown versus Brazil, were members of the Canadian boys baseball team. And the girl the boys really took a liking to was Aja Gyimah, the team’s 17-year-old spiker.
Not content to simply cheer for Gyimah and the rest of the Canadians, the boys came dressed as if for a playoff football game in November – shirtless with the letters for “Aja Smash” painted on the bare chests of eight of them.
The support was appreciated and it might have played a part in the girls’ medal win against Brazil.
It certainly put a smile on the face of Gyimah, who is proud to display a photo of her personal fan club.
The Canadian girls beat the Brazilians in a five-game set, but it shouldn’t have gotten that far. “We made it more dramatic than it should have been,” Gyimah said.
A competitive streak and a will to win never hurt any athlete and weeks after the game, she’s still not happy that a six-foot-five Brazilian player was able to block her trademark spikes. “That’s kind of embarrassing. Usually I don’t get blocked,” said the five-foot-11 Gyimah.
A provincial-level player, Gyimah had the opportunity to try out for Team Ontario this summer. The thing was, a scheduling conflict meant she couldn’t do that and still participate in the Maccabiah Games. In the end, she chose the Games.
The idea of competing in the “Jewish Olympics” cinched it for her.
“I wanted to learn about my religion. I’m not very religious. My mom, Debora, is Jewish. My dad isn’t. I wanted to learn about my background.”
From her name to her appearance, Gyimah does stand out.
“I don’t look Jewish,” she said. “It’s good that the Jewish community is branching out and meshing with different races.”
Her dad, Alex, is from Ghana. The family celebrates festivals and holidays, as well as Shabbat, she said.
“My family was very supportive of my going to Israel. They support me in volleyball too,” she added.
In addition to the athletic competition, Maccabi Canada’s junior athletes were treated to a five-day tour of the country. The visit to the Western Wall, the Kotel, was particularly memorable, Gyimah said.
“I just felt really connected to my Jewish half…I’m really happy I went. I learned a lot about Jewish culture.”
The opening ceremonies were pretty awesome as well: “Walking into the stadium and seeing 30,000 people was amazing.”
On the court, Canada had a hard time keeping up with the top American and Israeli teams. But if anyone was ready for the competition, it was Gyimah. A member of the Scarborough Titans for the past five years, Gyimah is a left-handed right-side hitter.
With her height and her leaping ability, she gets high to get leverage on her spikes. As a lefty, “people don’t see it coming,” she said.
Gyimah was so taken by the Maccabiah experience, she’s hoping to continue her involvement with the organization. She’s got her eyes set on the Pan American Maccabi Games, to be held in Chile in 2015.
And she’s planning to be back on the Canadian team at the next Maccabiah Games in Israel in four years, along with her brother, Daenan. Like her, Daenan, 15, is a volleyball player on the Titans. He also runs track.
“I’m going to mold him into the perfect player,” she said. Next time, “we’ll go together.”
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Kayla Greenberg’s best event going to the Maccabiah Games was the high jump, and though she did come home with a bronze medal in that event, she was nevertheless a little disappointed.
“I was seeded first,” said Greenberg of her positioning in long jump, “but I didn’t pull through.”
Still, a bronze in that event to go along with a rather unexpected bronze in the 4x100-metre relay is nothing to sneeze at.
Going into the Games, her personal best in the high jump was 1.65 metres. At the Maccabiah she jumped 1.55 metres.
Her second bronze in the relay pretty much came out of the blue. Greenberg and her roommate convinced British and Turkish athletes to form a 4x100 relay team. Greenberg had run the race in high school, but never as the anchor. Their success was an added bonus, especially considering the circumstances dished out to the junior athletes.
Unlike the Games four years ago, there were no problems with the quality of the accommodations. But Greenberg said junior athletes had other obstacles to overcome. They could not simply go from the hotel to the track. They were first ferried to the Wingate Institute and from there were taken to the venues where they competed. Sometimes the time from leaving the hotel to actually performing could be seven or eight hours, she said.
The circumstances didn’t make for the best performance. But, “it was pretty amazing. I would do it again as an athlete,” Greenberg said.
For the athlete, the Games marked her second trip to Israel. She was there first at age 14 on a post bat mitzvah visit with her family.
The Games were a memorable experience – the march into the Teddy Kollek Stadium for the opening ceremonies a particular highlight.
“There was a lot of Canadian pride when we marched in. People were chanting, ‘Go Canada Go.’”
“It was amazing to march in front of the parents’ section,” where her mom and dad, Cary and Joel, were sitting.
The 19th Maccabiah Games attracted 9,000 athletes in 78 delegations, among them 600 Canadians.
“The Maccabiah opened my eyes to the diversity of Jews around the world,” said Greenberg. “I never thought there were Jewish people in some of the countries that were represented.
“I wanted to take part in the Maccabiah Games because I realized what an amazing opportunity it would be to meet Jews from around the world and compete in my first international meet, as well as another chance to experience the wonders and sights of Israel.”
Greenberg herself added diversity to the Canadian team. Born in China, she was adopted as an infant and raised in Toronto.
She’s been back to China once to visit the orphanage where she lived. It was a chance “to see the place you come from,” she said. “It was interesting to see where I came from.”
Greenberg has been involved in track since Grade 3. She now trains three or four times a week in the junior development program run out of the University of Toronto.
“I consider myself a Jewish girl who’s into track,” she said.
Maccabi Canada track and field coach David Tepper recruited her to the Maccabi team after seeing her at last year’s OFSAA Metro Regional Track Championships.
“He saw me win first in Toronto for high jump and followed my progress for the rest of the outdoor track season. Since I made the standard for the high jump and long jump required to enable me to compete,” she said.
As she prepares to enter Grade 12, Greenberg is already considering her athletic career in college. She’s applied to a number of Canadian schools and she’s gearing her athletic career up to the next level.
“I plan to train for the heptathlon,” she said of the grueling seven-sport event that includes three races, long jump, high jump, javelin and shot put.