Q&A: Canadians over age 50 are bringing more than medals back from Maccabiah

Leonard Asper at the 2022 Maccabiah Games.

Like the Olympics, Israel’s signature sporting event, the Maccabiah Games, is held every four years. About 10,000 athletes compete over the course of two weeks.

Unlike the Olympics, though, the Maccabiah includes a senior division, enabling seasoned competitors to extend their personal quests for athletic excellence.

We interviewed Anton Rabie, the co-founder and director of Spin Master toys; Leonard Asper, an entrepreneur and lawyer with a history in media and communications; and Kevin Green, the international chair for Israel Tennis & Education Centers.

Leonard Asper

How many things can you name that you would leave your business obligations for two weeks for?
Well, I hate to say this, nothing else. Not even my family, unfortunately. This is so special, that so many people from all over the world, whether it’s Argentina or Canada or the US or Australia, India, they make every exception they possibly can and the world stops when there’s a chance to compete in the Maccabiah Games, because it’s such a special time to meet people like you, Zionists who love Israel, people who love sport, people who love just being together with their friends and reconnecting every four or five years.

It’s a very meaningful event that can’t be replicated, and so, it’s the only holiday we’ll ever take.

You’re a tournament quality tennis player. Would you say the Maccabiah is something other than a place for playing great tennis matches?
Yes, the quality is very good. There are former professional players here, there are people who are ranked on the world over-50 tour. And so I got a bit of a cold shower here, because I didn’t realize quite how good the competition was.

I played ice hockey here in 2017 and 2013, and for Canadians, that’s a little easier. We were very, very competitive and we were fighting for the gold, whereas here, and one of the things it’s harder for people from colder climates is to play tennis in 35 C heat. So that’s been a bit of a challenge, getting used to the heat.

Like I say, it’s about friendly competition. Not everyone wins the gold, but most of us aren’t necessarily here to win the gold, we’re here because of the spirit of how athletics can mix with culture and education and friendship.

The Asper Foundation just announced a gift of $2.5 million to the Asper Maccabi House [at Kfar Maccabiah in Ramat Gan]. Why are Jewish sports so important?
Until we started getting involved with Kfar Maccabiah and the Maccabi movement generally, I hadn’t gone back and thought about that question, about Jewish sports. But “Jewish sports” is not an isolated term. Jewish sports are weaved deeply into the history of the last 120, 130 years.

What Maccabi does in particular really well is to bring people to Israel who are not necessarily very imbued with Israeli history. They’re not very connected to Israel at all, not educated about Israel. They’re kind of out there playing sports and they just happen to be Jewish. But then they come here and they get this connection and it never goes away, and it was through sport.

Yes, we have Birthright, we have all these things that bring people to Israel and all the missions that the Federations do, but when you bring a 17-year-old to Israel to play sports, magic happens. And you didn’t have to shove it down anyone’s throat, it just got there, and that’s just a great thing.

Looking at Israel through the lens of a businessman, what are you proud of and where do you think there’s room for improvement?
Israel is always talked aboutas the Start-Up Nation, and it is that, but there’s agriculture and a strong focus on startups here and business ideas about solving problems.

I find there’s an over-indexing, a disproportionate number of business people here who are thinking globally, not only in terms of what’s their market but what problem are they solving. It’s the technical problems, the Wazes of the world, how we make things faster, easier. But it’s also how do we feed the world, how do we deal with climate change, how do we deal with pollution and poverty and stuff. And those business ideas are emanating from Israel.

I think what’s changed in Israel in the last probably 10-15 years is Israelis were great at making the coolest, best and most wonderful products in the world—everyone knows the list—but less effective in marketing and commercializing those things. But now, the coming together of capital, ideas, people and the marketing skills I’m talking about—it takes ideas and teams and money and marketing and sales and execution—that is all coming together within Israel itself.

These businesses that are starting up now in Israel are complete businesses. That’s keeping more money here. It’s like you have oil, then you have refining, but now you have the oil and the refining all in one place. The value added is in Israel and it’s being poured back into the Israeli economy and it’s just compounding upon each other.

And where is there room for improvement?
Look, the electoral system here makes it challenging because the governments change quickly and unpredictably. No one’s going to change that really but it is a challenge, because you don’t have this every four or five years, something where you know you have whoever it is, whether you like them or not like them. That’s a little bit challenging.

And you have to find a way to tell parts of the world, at least, what Israel really is, and what it isn’t, because obviously there are incredible misperceptions about Israel keeping capital out of Israel. So I think marketing the country is the biggest thing.

And continue to develop the transportation systems. There’s a lot of traffic here. It’s no one’s fault, it’s growing so fast. It takes a long time to build a highway and rail lines and stuff. It doesn’t take that long for 200,000 people to show up. So, people are coming faster than the country can create infrastructure. I think keeping a real strong focus on building the infrastructure necessary for the quality of life here will be just as important as getting capital here, and they’re kind of intertwined.

Anton Rabie

Anton Rabie and daughter Lexi at the Maccabiah Games, 2022.

You’re over 50 playing tennis. Is it a little different? Is it harder?
You’re playing against people in your age group. So, we’re all 50. It’s not like I’m playing against a 20-year-old who can last longer on the court. Since my natural coordination is average, I spend a lot of time on the fitness, on the backstage. So, I try my best to stay in shape and eat well.

Tell us a little about your toy company. How did you develop the concept for some of the really well-known toys?
We have an incredible team. My partners Ronnen [Harary] and Benny [Varadi], when we founded the company, they spent so much time on the innovation side. I handled the people side of the business, and the sales, and the leadership, and they handled the innovations. So I really give them a lot of credit.

Ben Varadi established incredible relationships with inventors. Several years ago, we brought close to 25 top inventors in the industry to Israel. It was an incredible experience that Benny and Ronnen had with the inventors.

How do you see Israel’s toy industry?
There’s always great intellectual property here. You look at Rummikub, Rami cube, depending on how you pronounce it, that was invented here. Israel is a hub for technology, and it’s an interesting place for us to stay connected to.

What do you take away from these Games?
Anyone who can have their kids come here, it’s a real privilege and a real treat. My daughter here, Lexi, is having the time of her life. To encourage your kids to come here is an absolute must. It’s not about competing, it’s about the experience in Israel.

Being here in Israel will profoundly change your views for life. I think a lot of kids who come once will get the bug, and they start really giving back and really stretching their minds in an amazing way. It’s very powerful, it’s very powerful in many ways.

Kevin Green

Kevin Green at the 2022 Maccabiah Games.

This was your sixth time of being in the Maccabiah Games. Do you see a difference in playing a little bit older?
Well, I can tell you that people are staying in better shape. I wish they weren’t, but it’s extremely competitive. The competition’s fantastic from all over the world. There’s great talent in the Diaspora.

Tell me a little bit about the Israel Tennis Centers.
The Israel Tennis Centers go across Israel, and they’re designed to help children at risk, in need. It’s all about inclusion and bringing people together.

Just recently the Arab cities have asked us to help them with their issues of violence and drugs and not going to school, and we’re helping brothers and sisters create a better Israel. That’s how we feel. We think that one child at a time, working together and working hard to bring everybody together. We want to create leaders.

It’s a joy. The children that we see—oh my goodness—they’re the best. It keeps you coming back. They’re just so special. They have such excitement about what’s coming next. And hopefully we create opportunity and excitement and passion, motivation, integrity, giving back and all those characteristics in these children.  It’s really an honor to be part of this.

How many sports centers are there in Israel?
There’s 18 centers. We see about 7,000 children. There’s probably about 250 to 300 people that work with our organization.

In 2013, you actually marched alongside your son, who was competing in the Juniors. What was that like?
It’s very emotional and very special. It’s magnificent, to go to march with your son, to see the world, the Diaspora, marching into that stadium. It’s incredible.

Felice Friedson and Debbie Mohnblatt conducted these interviews on behalf of The Media Line.