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2015 European Maccabi Games

Bloomfield couple watch their athlete son compete in former Nazi stadium

By Cindy Mindell

Last month, Bloomfield native and athlete Adam Greenberg snagged a bronze medal in a venue where Jews were not allowed to compete nearly eight decades ago.

From July 27 through August 5, Berlin played host to the 14th European Maccabi Games, where more than 2,000 Jewish athletes, coaches, and officials from 36 countries competed in 19 different sports. The first-ever Maccabi Games to be held in Germany took place at Olympic Park, the same location where Hitler banned German Jewish athletes from participating in the 1936 Olympic Games.

Adam represented Maccabi USA in water polo, a sport he first took up at age 14. Now 27, he was the oldest player on the nine-man U.S. team, and its only goalie. A graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Greenberg lives in Chicago, where he works as an analyst for a management consulting firm and plays water polo on a club team. He last competed as backup goalie in the Pan American Maccabi Games in Brazil in 2012.

“I always look for opportunities to play water polo,” he says. “This is the best opportunity for someone of my skill level to compete internationally. It’s a great way to see the world while playing my favorite sport.”

The European Maccabi Games are held every four years, always two years after the Maccabiah in Israel. Prague was the site of the inaugural European Maccabi Games in 1929, followed by Antwerp in 1930. After a 30-year hiatus, the Jewish athletic competition returned to European soil in 1959, when Copenhagen played host.

German President Joachim Gauck opened the 2015 games at a ceremony that also marked the 50th anniversary of German-Israeli relations. Descendants of Jewish athletes banned from the 1936 Berlin Olympics were invited to light the Olympic flame.

“For me, the highlight of the games was hearing speeches from a Holocaust survivor and delegation heads, sending a message of ‘We’re back,’” Adam says. “It was really cool to be a part of the largest group of Jewish people to gather in Berlin since World War II.”

Adam was accompanied by his parents, Joan and Gary Greenberg of Bloomfield, whose travel wish-list never included Germany. They had watched Adam compete as backup goalie in the Pan American Maccabi Games in Brazil, and decided to make the trip to see him defend the goal all by himself, in a particularly significant venue.

maccabi games group

Some of the 2000 athletes, coaches and officials from around the world competing in the 2015 European Maccabi Games gathered at Berlin’s Olympic Park.

“The thought of 2,000 Jewish athletes playing on the grounds of the 1936 Olympics was a special opportunity,” says Joan. “To have 36 countries send Jewish athletes to compete in a place where, 79 years ago, they were not allowed, was emotional, compelling, and inspiring.”

Gary says that, while he and Joan were concerned that they might not be made to feel welcome in a city with a Nazi past, “we could not have been treated better.”

“From the hotels, the restaurants, the tour guides, and even the cab drivers, they couldn’t do enough for us,” he says. “We were openly shown the good and bad history through museums, the Holocaust Memorial, and the tremendous rebuilding of a city over the last 50 years since the Berlin Wall came down.”

Gary and Joan say that, beyond the high point of watching the games and seeing their son receive a bronze medal, they were also inspired by sites like the Holocaust Memorial and Jewish Museum, and the dome at the top of the reconstructed Reichstag building.

“We left Germany with a totally opposite view from when we arrived,” Gary says. “The people are friendly and welcoming to tourists. It was a worthwhile trip, to say the least.”

Adam considers his team’s third-place win behind Israel and Hungary impressive, especially given that the U.S. only fielded nine players – seven in the pool at any time – when the average roster boasts 15.

“We played both of those teams pretty evenly through halftime, but ran out of gas in the second half of each,” he says. “Playing in a 30-meter pool with only two subs is unbelievably exhausting and as the goalie, I had it easy compared to the rest of the team.”

In a competition dominated by high school- and college-aged players, Adam’s winning turn as a goalie is particularly significant. “I expected it to be a lot of fun, especially since playing in Brazil four years ago was one of the best weeks of my life,” he says. “What surprised me is that I’m getting old!”

Even so, Adam will continue to play on his club team and may compete in the Pan American Maccabi Games, to be held in Santiago, Chile in December. He hopes to defend the Maccabi USA team’s gold medal in the 20th Maccabiah Games in Israel in July 2017.

CAP: Water polo player Adam Greenberg with his parents, Joan and Gary Greenberg.

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