Where Faith and Sports Intersect
Six Colby athletes are competing in the Maccabiah Games in Israel this summer
Josh Wolman ’92 has always been serious about his tennis game. This summer, he takes his game to a new level when he represents the United States in the 2022 World Maccabiah Games in Israel.
Wolman, head of school at Aspen Country Day School in Colorado, is competing in singles and doubles tennis at the international sporting event that many people refer to as the Jewish Olympics. Delegations of Jewish athletes from more than 90 countries participate in approximately 40 sports over two weeks in July in Haifa, Jerusalem, Netanya, and Tel Aviv.
Wolman is among 1,300 athletes representing the United States and one of six from Colby. Four are hockey players. Clay Korpi ’24 and Max Abene ’26 will represent Team USA in the open division, while brothers Kenneth Kearns ’01 and Evan Kearns ’04 will skate in the master division for athletes 40 and older. Clara Danzilo Lehv ’24, a member of Colby’s varsity squash team, is part of the USA Women’s Open Squash Team at this year’s games.
The games and related worldwide competitions are becoming a Colby tradition. Jonathan Kalin ’14 won a gold medal with the junior basketball team at the games in 2017, and Colin Hutzler ’10 played for the men’s soccer team at the Pan American Maccabi in Mexico City in 2019.
The games are hosted by the Maccabi World Union, a youth and sports organization that promotes Jewish identity and traditions through cultural, social, and educational activities. The first Maccabiah was in spring 1932 in Tel Aviv, followed by another in 1935. The rise of Nazism and World War II forced a 15-year hiatus. The games resumed in 1950 and generally have been held every four years since in the year following the Olympics.
For the love of tennis and faith
Wolman, who celebrated his 54th birthday July 13 with an opening-match win, hits the ball like a pro. There’s nothing casual or indiscreet about how he handles himself on the court. He grew up playing tennis in Massachusetts, enjoyed a stellar career at Colby, and has maintained his competitive edge into middle age. He won the Colorado Clay Court Championship three years in a row beginning in 2017.
Playing tennis at Colby allowed him to pursue his dream of competing with the best players in the country. He was nationally ranked in his junior and senior years. “Tennis was a really important part of my college career,” said Wolman, who majored in American studies. “It was something that I put time into and that I really liked. Friends would come out and support us. It was small-school tennis, but we had a good team.”
Thirty years later, he is representing his country in international competition. When he tried out for the Maccabiah Games team in Florida, he played with former college players who remembered him from Colby. He is going to the games with the intention of winning, but he made the commitment to spend July in Israel with his wife and kids to explore the country for reasons of faith and family.
“As a kid, I had always heard about the Maccabiah Games. It was one of those things that was word-of-mouth within tennis circles and Judaism circles, so I have always been interested. It would be great to do well, but this is not a regular tennis tournament. It’s a lot more meaningful,” he said. “I am not the most religious person, but my religion is important to me. It’s about identity and how you know who you are.”
Passing on traditions
Wolman is also interested in the pay-it-forward aspect of the games. The older players in the master division pay higher competition fees to subsidize the cost for the younger athletes. “My contribution allows more younger people to participate, which I really like,” he said, noting that Judaism encourages passing along opportunities from generation to generation.
Korpi and Abene are examples of those younger athletes. Teammates at Colby this winter, they have begun skating together as members of Team USA in Israel. Both made the commitment to the Maccabiah Games because of the role of faith in their lives.
“Judaism has been a huge part of instilling me with the morals I have and given me my backbone. And hockey is a big part of my life too. Hockey is what brought me to Colby,” said Korpi. “Being able to combine the two and being able to do that in Israel—at the hub of it all, the center—is just an amazing opportunity.”
The Team USA hockey players gathered in Philadelphia for a five-day training camp in early July, then flew to Israel, where they will remain until the games conclude July 28. Korpi met Abene during tryouts for the games, but they didn’t realize their Colby connection until later. “He’s a great kid, and we’re super excited to have him and his positive impact on the hockey team.”
After the Maccabiah Games, Korpi, a psychology and economics double major from Rye Brook, N.Y., will spend a month taking a financial accounting course at the London School of Economics. He will be back at Colby in late August “and hopefully by then, or soon after, they will have the ice back in.”
This is Abene’s second trip to Israel and his second Maccabiah Games experience. His brother played hockey on the 2017 team, and Abene assisted the equipment manager. “I would fill the water bottles and dry the gloves. I had a great experience as a 14-year-old and knew then I wanted to play in the games myself. I saw what an amazing experience it was for my brother,” he said.
At age 19, Abene will be among the youngest skaters in the open division. He grew up in the Bay Area of San Francisco and moved east to play prep school hockey at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. His Jewish lineage runs through his mother and grandmother.
He said he was playing “to pay respects to my mom and grandmother and enrich myself in the Jewish tradition. When I get to Colby, I will be involved in Hillel and will celebrate all the holidays with Hillel. But if you ask any Jew, one of the biggest aspects of being a part of the Jewish community isn’t necessarily the religion but maintaining the connection you have with other Jewish people. That is what the games mean to me.”
A personal milestone
For Lehv, the games represent some of the best competition she’s faced on the squash court as well as a personal, cultural, and spiritual awakening. Before the games began, she toured Israel with other athletes as part of the Maccabi USA program Israel Connect, which encourages participants to explore their Jewish identity.
At the end of the program and on the eve of the games, she celebrated her bat mitzvah, a coming-of-age ritual that typically happens when a girl is 12. She participated in a group ceremony with about 35 other athletes. As part of the ceremony, she read a portion of the Torah. “I always wanted to have a bat mitzvah, but I never had the opportunity because I was focused on other things,” she said.
Including squash. She grew up in New York City and has played competitively since she was 8. She was a three-time High School All-American and three-time U.S. Squash Scholar Athlete Award winner. At Colby, where she majors in science, technology, and society and minors in computer science and Jewish studies, she helped lead the team to the Epps Cup in the College Squash Association national tournament.
In addition to connecting more deeply with her Jewish culture and fatih, competing in the Maccabiah Games brings Lehv one step closer to another personal milestone. “I always wanted to play in the Olympics, but squash is not in the actual Olympics. This is as close as I could get.”
Brothers on ice
Family connections convinced brothers Ken and Evan Kearns to return to the ice together in Israel. Their older brother played in the games in 1997, and both have harbored the idea since. They decided to play this year because they wanted to see Israel, connect with relatives they have never met, and introduce their own families to deeper elements of their religious faith.
“Getting to know my family and getting to know Israel is why I am going,” said Ken Kearns, an orthopedic surgeon near Philadelphia. “I am excited about the hockey, but hockey is an excuse to go to Israel.”
Evan Kearns, chief legal officer and corporate secretary at Cogent Biosciences in Boston, concurred. “I said yes because my brother and I are taking our whole families over there. It’s a unique, once-in-a-lifetime family experience to go to a place like Israel, where we never would have gone on a vacation.”
Evan Kearns has “bummed around” in Boston-area beer leagues but hasn’t played competitive hockey since he graduated from Colby in 2004. After committing to the Maccabiah, he began skating three days a week to get into game shape.
Ken Kearns put his hockey career behind him when he went to medical school and completed his residency after graduating from Colby in 2001. He hadn’t skated at all since his son was born four years ago and had no plans to do so anytime soon.
Then his brother called. “It kind of started as a joke,” he said. “Evan convinced me to do it, so I flew to Boston for the tryouts and here we are.”
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