Plenty of nostalgia at Maccabiah reunion, and hope for future

The style of outfits warn by Canadians at the Maccabiah Games has changed over the years. (Janice Arnold photo)

Joyce Hecht laid out her hardware: 16 medals in gold, silver and bronze.

The table tennis great earned them at six different Maccabiah Games, representing three countries over 20 years.

In 1957, Hecht (née Abraham) was on the four-member team from India, where she was born to Iraqi parents. She subsequently represented Britain at two Games and then, after settling in Montreal, Canada at three more, the last in 1977.

Table tennis player Joyce Hecht displays medals she won at Maccabiah Games be-tween 1957 and 1977. (Janice Arnold photo)

A proud Hecht, decked out in her red “Canada” track suit, was among the over 200 Canadian alumni of the Maccabiah Games who attended a reunion that was held at the Sylvan Adams YM-YWHA in Montreal on Oct. 27.

They included athletes, coaches, managers, chaperones, donors and others.

Hecht was with by her husband, Norman, a Montrealer whom she met at the 1957 Games when he was a wrestler.

She was also a top Canadian player and was selected to take part in the so-called ping-pong diplomacy matches in China in the early 1970s that signalled a thaw in relations with the West.

Also at the 1957 Games was swimmer Barbara Lapin, then 17, who came home with a silver in the backstroke. She was one of only two female Canadian athletes among the 30 that year.

She still cherishes the memory of being in the young state and marching into the stadium with Jewish athletes from around the world at the opening ceremony, as thousands cheered.

Although she never completed again, Lapin, who trained at the Y for 10 years, is grateful that “sport formed the person I am today. My years of being so passionately involved in swimming gave me courage, honesty and common sense,” she told The CJN.


For guest speaker Howard Stupp, who competed at multiple Maccabiah Games as a wrestler and coach, the Games were a stepping stone to the 1976 Olympics and a career with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Switzerland. He served as its legal services director for 35 years and continues as an adviser.

Stupp, who was introduced by IOC colleague Dick Pound, the former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said his first Maccabiah Games in 1973 allowed him to discover Israel and a sense of camaraderie with Jews everywhere.

It was one year after the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics and emotions were especially raw, he recalled.

Stupp said sport provides lessons in discipline and resilience, but winning is not everything.

Tommy Bacher, the president of Maccabi Canada, which organized the reunion, said participating in the Maccabiah Games changed his life by renewing his pride in being Jewish. The Toronto physician was 34 when he played on the softball team at the 1985 Games.

He became emotional, recalling the three 13-year-old girls who had a role in that year’s opening ceremonies. Two had just been born and another was on the way when their fathers were murdered in Munich.

While competitive, Maccabiah is not only for the very best athletes. Irwin Cotler fulfilled his lifelong dream when, to his surprise, he was selected for the masters table tennis competition in 2005. “No one else tried out,” joked Cotler, who was the federal justice minister at the time.

Although he was “demolished” in the first round by the reigning Israeli champion, Cotler said “the experience was incredible.” Also memorable was going to a Beit Halochem centre afterwards and playing with disabled veterans whose “courage and commitment” left a deep impression on him.

Tribute was paid to four “pillars” of Maccabi in Canada, all of whom were from Montreal and are now deceased.

Gordie Schwartz was big sports fan but no athlete, said Gary Ulrich. A skilled fundraiser, Schwartz secured critical support for Maccabi in the 1980s and early ’90s, before his untimely passing.

Fred Oberlander was an outstanding wrestler in his native Austria, but his aspiration to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics was dashed with the rise of Nazism. He made a remarkable comeback at age 40, winning gold at the 1950 Maccabiah Games, when he led the Canadian delegation to Israel.

Joey Richman was an all-round athlete and, despite his diminutive size, played for the Montreal Alouettes and coached at the Olympics. But Maccabiah was what was most dear to him, said his son, Mark Richman.

Abe Luxenberg, a member of the 1957 gold-medal water polo team, devoted the rest of his life to Maccabiah as a coach, manager, chef de mission and unofficial archivist. Luxenberg’s wife, Mary, and his four children are also stalwarts of the organization.

Maccabi Canada recognized Ulrich and Roy Salomon for their more than 50 years of work each on behalf of the organization.

The reunion was not only about the distant past. Two members of the 2017 Canadian team spoke about how much the Games meant to them. Rhythmic gymnast Galia Oliel-Sabbag was the youngest member of the team, at 13, while Jordan Simon still savours beating the U.S. in ice hockey to win gold.

This was the local kickoff of “the road to the 21st Maccabiah Games,” which will be held from July 22-Aug. 2, 2021.