Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Cuba participates in the 19th Maccabiah Games

A report from my amazing colleagues in JDC Cuba ...

It was about a year ago that World Maccabiah got in touch with JDC because they wanted a meeting with the Cuban Jewish community. This year the Maccabiah had the vision to invite small communities in the Diaspora to participate in the games experiencing a world Jewish encounter. They formally extended this invitation to the president of the Jewish Community, Adela Dworin, assuring that the participation of any Cuban athletes would be guaranteed, sponsoring the air fare, meals and accommodations. It was with pure honesty and determination that the vice president of the community, David Prinstein, also present in the meeting expressed “we don`t have any professional athletes in our community, but if you give us six months, we´ll make them”.  After several encounters, the decision was made, the Jewish community of Cuba would be represented for the first time in their history in what might be the biggest Jewish global event, by participating in the 19th Maccabiah Games.

The following steps were made by the local Cuban community that began a research all over the island to look for amateur athletes within community. Each local community`s president would do a thorough search of their congregants and propose them to make up the Cuban teams. As a result, 33 athletes were selected from not only Havana (where the majority of the population and institutions are located) but from different provinces across the country such as Cienfuegos, Sancti Spiritus, Santiago de Cuba and Santa Clara. The community put together Table Tennis, Futsal (indoor soccer), Karate, Archery and a Softball team. This last one was made up half by local members of the community that live in Cuba and completed by the other half of former members of the Cuban Jewish community that had made Alia and currently live in Israel and have their own team. In addition, 13 dancers were selected from all over the country to represent the community in the largest Rikkudim (Israeli folk dancing) Dance Festival in Israel known as the Carmiel Festival. The dance troupe would not only participate in the festival but proudly dance in front of the Cuban delegation at the memorable Maccabiah inauguration ceremony.

The months of hard training in the different sports took place and the community had to make the best efforts for their delegation within the possibilities. The community owns no training facilities so the practices took place in public places with the several disadvantages this option carries.  JDC funded essential projects in the important stage of preparation. Projects such as a nutrition complement for the athletes to enhance a healthy diet. The food packet delivered once a month included extra proteins (chicken, beans), pasta, milk among other products.

Another goal was to assure each athlete and dancer with a pair of sneakers which they were lacking of and in some occasions the exact training footwear needed to practice the sport.

It was import to assure refreshments (mineral water and energy drinks) during practice, transportation for the players to reach the practice area and back, and extra transportation and accommodation for the participants living outside of La Habana were the training took place. In average, once a month an intensive training was scheduled were players living in other provinces travelled to La Habana and had a 4 day long training with the team.

In the case of the Futsal team, in joint efforts with Clam and JDC, a coach from the Argentinean team travelled to Cuba for 10 day intensive training and helped in the arrangement and preparation of the team.

In addition to setting the conditions for proper training, the road to the Maccabiah games was long and at the same time, going by quickly. There were a series of things that had to be considered before the team actually made it to their flight and accommodations in Israel, to begin with uniforms: for each sport and a unifying delegation one. JDC, private donors and the support of other community friends fully funded all the uniforms and costumes of the Cuban Delegation.

Also taken care of by JDC were:
·        Tax fair rate
·        Transportation to and from the Airport for the Delegation
·        Transit Visa in France
·        Cell phones for the Delegation Staff in Israel
·        Transportation of the Uniforms to Cuba
·        Per diem for the 2 Archery  Athletes that received training in Israel 15 days before the games
The commitment was powerful and passionate. The Cuban Jewish community was already full of pride as their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers prepared for the games. In Cuba it was much more than a game, it was the first time a delegation as big as 46 people would leave the country altogether to represent something they are proud to be: Cuban Jews. Some participants had left the island to participate in programs such as March of the Living or Birthright, but many had never had the opportunity of travelling abroad. The 19th Maccabiah games became a theme of growing unity within the community where the children from the Sunday school would prepare videos expressing the support and the adults choir would prepare songs to congratulate a team that were already winners at home.
It was an ambition to have an “intensive training” with all the athletes and dancers together to build the bonds of The Cuban Delegation,  regardless of what sport or what choreography tied each one to the project. The overall project was representing the community they all belonged to. So, JDC developed and supported an overnight camp with the objective to turn the group into a team. Volunteers were chosen to prepare different workshops that would help the participants feel reassured before the games. These workshops varied from: explaining security issues at airport and Israel level, packing and ideal suitcase, expected behavior at hotels including the first experience with Israeli buffet breakfast, history of the Cuban Jewsih community, etc.  The camp altogether set the seed of the Maccabiah games near and real and by the end of the day athletes could dance and dancers could score.

The only thing missing was a grand “good luck” ceremony from the community to the delegation. JDC supported a community Havdala with special guests, including local authorities, community presidents from all over the island, the community Rabi Shmuel Szteinhendler and the associated JDC director for Latin America, Dr. Fabian Triskier. That evening the delegation’s flag bearer was announced and the Cuban community said farewell to a team that aspired to win the medal of dignity, not knowing that they would return having earned another 5 winning medals.

Once in Israel, the delegation was divided in teams to different cities to start the competitions. The feeling of a whole Cuban delegation wasn’t split up and in the little free time, teams would travel to support each other at different games. The inauguration ceremony was a true example of the fervent joy the teams felt of representing Cuba for the first time in the Maccabiah Games. The reception of the Cuban delegation was wild, surprised by the lively entrance of the 13 energetic dancers and a 9 meter Cuban Flag held by the athletes. That night, the thoughts shared were filled with deep emotion when the delegation identified their Cuban flag in the spectacle of the ceremony and realized that they were making history for their community. 

Each player was true to the sprit to fair play and stayed this way outside the completion as well. And in the completion, the teams showed real enthusiasm, reaching results much surpassing any expectation:
·         Bronze medal in Karate: Abel Hernandez (the Delegation`s Flag bearer)
·         Bronze Medal in Karate: Heberto Bedoya
·         Bronze Medal in Archery: Roxana Gonzalez
·         Silver Medal in Team Archery: Roxana and Rafael Gonzalez (siblings)
·         Gold Medal in Team Archery: Roxana and Rafael Gonzalez
Yet the congratulation also goes to the teams that had no wins in their participation and still left the games feeling winners, because they gave their heart and souls with great appreciation of the possibility to play. The dancers also had their share of recognition vibrantly spreading their local music and joy at the Carmiel Festival. 

Now, with all 46 back home, the community is eager to hear about the delegation`s performance and so we are currently planning the occasion where the athletes and dancers can share their meaningful experience. With the spark the 19th Maccabiah Games left, all athletes are willing and excited to continue training and hopefully develop a new Sport Department in the Jewish Community of Cuba.  Perhaps, this may turn into the next program that enhances social and cultural community life while rebuilding the Jewish identity on the island. For the Jewish Community of Cuba to participate for the first time in an world Jewish event such as Maccabiah means many things, but unquestionably strengthens a voice that echoed this last Shabbat when each participant was welcomed home to their community, a clear voice that together sounds like this:  Am Israel be Cuba Chai.

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