After a 15-year hiatus from playing hockey, Rabbi John Linder of Temple Solel laced up his hockey skates earlier this year and will head to Israel in July to represent the United States in the 2013 World Maccabiah Games.
He is one of 16 Arizona athletes who are part of the Maccabi USA team, which comprises more than 1,130 Jewish athletes from 37 states.
The Maccabiah Games “is a great way to support Israel,” Linder says. More than “8,000 Jewish athletes from around the world competing in Israel is just wonderful for Israel, wonderful for the economy of Israel,” he says. “It’s a unique way to express your Jewish identity through athletics.”
Linder, who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., began playing hockey when he was a “squirt” (slang for young hockey players) and continued in high school at Nichols School in Buffalo and Division 3 hockey as a defenseman at Amherst College in Massachusetts. When he entered rabbinical school at age 41, he stopped skating regularly.
In January of this year, after a friend of his from Chicago already on the team noted that the Maccabi USA team, in the 40-plus Masters division, still needed a defenseman, Linder signed up to try out in Philadelphia in March.
“That gave me a three-month ramp-up to get my hockey legs going again and to crank up my conditioning,” Linder says, adding that the opportunity alone to “raise the bar” with his conditioning and exercise would have made the whole experience worthwhile — “Needless to say, a major bonus is that I made the team.”
The Jewish athletic focus is “a wonderful symbol of what Israel is all about,” he says. “It’s an expression of power, so athletes do their best to perform at their optimal level and to do so with the greatest amount of sportsmanship.”
As part of his training, Linder practices twice a week in pick-up hockey games at Arcadia Ice Arena in Phoenix and once a week during a free-skating session. Twice a week, he trains with Noel Washington, the head trainer at the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center.
Washington will be attending the Maccabiah Games as a trainer and manager for the Maccabi USA Masters Soccer-Men’s 45 team; one of his team members, who is also his trainee, is Daniel Indech of Scottsdale. Another local team member is Adam Zweiback.
Washington, who is originally from Trinidad-Tobago and has worked as a trainer at the VOSJCC for 10 years, has met his approximately 20 team members — including alternates and a coach — three times so far, including at the try-outs, which were held in Phoenix in November 2012. His role is solely as a volunteer, so he is responsible for his own expenses. “I’m doing it because of the experience I know I would gain from it,” he says. He says he especially looks forward to visiting Jerusalem to help him relate to events and places in the Bible as a Christian. “It’s the Holy Land, so I want to see the Old City,” he says. “It’s been a dream of mine for a while.”
Linder notes that touring Israel is a big mission of the Maccabiah Games — “to bring people to Israel and to experience the land of Israel.”
So far, Linder has played with the Maccabi USA master’s hockey team twice — they’ve met in Philadelphia for the initial try-out and for practice games — but he will miss the June visit because he will be in Israel on a congregational trip with Temple Solel. After he gets home from the trip, he’ll return to Israel two weeks later for the games, July 18-30.
“I’m thrilled with the honor of playing for this fabulous group of men,” Linder says.
“Not only to support Israel and our brothers and sisters living in Israel, but to have the experience of competing as Jewish athletes and representing the United States of America.”