Senior tennis champ’s stroke of faith.
After three decades of top-level international tennis competition, after playing in prestigious tournaments around the world, after winning several age-group championships, Bob Litwin says the most important tennis match of his career is the one he didn’t play. Because of Yom Kippur.
Litwin, a longtime tennis instructor from Glenwood Landing, L.I., who now works as a personal coach, had advanced to the championship match of the 2004 International Tennis Federation’s 55-and-over World Senior Championships in Philadelphia. A victory in the match would have brought him some prize money (less than $1,000) and, for the first time, the No. 1 world ranking in his age group.
The match was scheduled for Yom Kippur. ITF officials would not reschedule it, and Litwin defaulted.
There was never a moment of thinking of playing on the holiday, says Litwin, now 65, who will be a player and coach in the 19th World Maccabiah Games, the so-called Jewish Olympics, which will take place in Israel July 18-30. “It just wasn’t a decision for me.” Respect for the Day of Atonement has always been part of his family’s tradition. “We shut down for Yom Kippur.”
Litwin will be part of a 1,132-member U.S. delegation, the largest-ever to travel from this country to an International Olympic Committee-sanctioned event. The U.S. team, with athletes from 37 states in 31 sports, will include former Olympic swimmer Garrett Weber-Gale; Eric Nystrom, who plays for the National Hockey League Dallas Stars, will be assistant coach of U.S. ice hockey team, and Danny Schayes, retired National Basketball Association player, will coach the Masters 35+ Basketball Team.
Gymnast Ali Raisman, a star of the 2012 London Olympics, is expected to attend the games, but as a spectator, not a competitor.
For Litwin, the match he didn’t play was a highlight of his athletic career.
He calls his choice to walk away from the chance to attain the top ranking in his sport “the greatest thing I ever did as a player. Nothing comes close to it.
“I’m not that religious,” Litwin says. Yom Kippur in 2004 wasn’t play-or-pray. By the time the ITF made its decision, it was too late for him to go to shul. He drove home from Philadelphia that day.
A year later, he reached No. 1 in his age group.
At 55, he was top-ranked in the world in the 55-and-over age group.
Today, he’s No. 1 in his 65-and-over age group in the U.S., after nearly two years off recuperating from a pair of hip surgeries.
A tennis player at Great Neck South High School, Litwin played briefly in college, put aside competitive tennis for several years, working as a history teacher, then resumed the sport in his 30s.
After winning his first national title, the Men’s 35 Grass Court Championships of the U.S. Tennis Association in 1990, he quickly advanced.
He tried out for the Maccabiah Games in 1981, failed to qualify for the U.S. team, then set his sights on the ’85 Games, where he took home a bronze in singles and gold in doubles.
He hasn’t been back to the Maccabiah Games, or to Israel, since then. That was until recently, when a Maccabiah official, aware of his on-court success as a player and off-court success as developer of “The Focused Game” concept of performance-enhancing personal coaching techniques, invited him to coach this year’s squad of senior (65-and-over) U.S. players.
Litwin, who had just suffered the loss of his wife, Carol, to cancer, accepted the offer.
He’ll also play singles in the games. “I may play doubles, too.”
Litwin has already contacted the 25 members of his U.S. squad, on the phone, by e-mail, and at tryouts and a recent group training session. “Serious coaching,” he says. “I’m taking it seriously.”
In his off time, he plans to tour Israel with his wife, JoAnn, whom he married last year. They’ll go to their “top-10 sites … which I haven’t listed yet.”
Litwin is still fit and trim and limber. He still loves playing tennis, he says. He’ll quit, “when I can’t do it anymore. I feel blessed that I can play.”
And, for the one time he chose not to.
Wheelchair is no handicap to success on basketball court.
She was diagnosed at birth with a disease that made her vulnerable to broken bones, and was enrolled in physical therapy at 6 months. By the time Emily Seelenfreund, a Hoboken, N.J., native, was 5, she was outfitted with a wheelchair that helped her get around and was an active competitor in track and field events for the disabled. By the time she was 11, she began playing wheelchair basketball.
Within two years she found she was really good at the sport. It brought her championships, an athletic scholarship, and the chance to travel “all over the U.S.,” to Canada and Australia.
And next week, to Israel.
Seelenfreund, a 22-year-old guard who has “a pretty mild type” of osteogenesis imperfecta (aka Brittle Bone Disease, a congenital collagen deficiency that affects an estimated 20,000-50,000 people in this country), will be a member of the U.S. co-ed wheelchair basketball team in the Maccabiah Games. “I’m a good defender,” she says. “I’m very competitive.”
Seelenfreund will leave Israel two days before the end of the games to return to her job as a third-grade teacher, under the auspices of Teach for America, on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico.
Like many people in wheelchairs, she has strong arms. She does some weightlifting, but most of her strength comes from pushing her chair “every day.”
Like other wheelchair athletes, she will travel to Israel with a pair of chairs — one, which she uses daily on the street, and one, specially outfitted, for basketball.
Like other wheelchair basketball players, she’s strapped into her sports chair, to prevent her from falling out of it in case of a collision.
She has already suffered a broken arm from playing basketball. “It was just a broken arm. Anyone could hurt themselves playing.” She recovered, and went back to the court. How many other times has she broken bones? “I haven’t kept count.”
People who learn of her athletic background are often surprised, Seelenfreund says. “Most people haven’t heard of wheelchair basketball.”
The most-common question she hears: “Can you dribble?” Of course she can. She can also shoot, from as far away as the three-point line, and she can pass.
People sometimes ask, “Can you dunk?” Silly question. Of course she can’t.
Seelenfreund responds with a question: “Can you imagine my wheelchair flying 10 feet in the air?”
Seelenfreund is also a certified scuba diver.
A 4.0-GPA political science graduate of the University of Alabama (one of four colleges in the U.S. that offer both men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball programs), Seelenfreund will attend law school at Harvard University after she finishes her teaching assignment in New Mexico.
For the last month she has been back with her parents in New Jersey, training for her upcoming competition at the Jewish Community Center in West Orange. Her family is active in the United Synagogue of Hoboken congregation, where Seelenfreund also served as a summer camp counselor; she became bat mitzvah at Temple Sharey Tefilo Israel in South Orange, whose sanctuary and bimah were wheelchair accessible.
This year she hosted a seder for some friends on Passover at her home in Gallup.
Seelenfreund, who’s been in Israel twice before — once on a family trip, once on Birthright — was recruited to the Maccabiah team by an official whose specializes in disabled athletes. She accepted right away. “I love to travel. I love Israel.”
She was an alternate on the U.S. women’s basketball team in the Paralympics last year, but didn’t get to go to London.
The 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro are on her mind, Seelenfreund says. “I would love it.”
Maccabiah hockey has sparked his interest in Judaism.
Growing up in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, Adam Block had two dreams for the future: a career in music, and maybe one in professional hockey.
Dream No. 1 came true. An executive since 1992 with Sony Music Entertainment’s Legacy Recordings, Blocknow serves as president of the firm’s “catalog label” division, directing the marketing of such artists as Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley.
Dream No. 2 didn’t pan out. A “good athlete” as a kid, he soon realized that a career in the National Hockey League was not a realistic goal. A veteran of roller hockey, of youth hockey, of a club hockey team he formed at Vassar College, of men’s league hockey at rinks in the New York area, and of coaching his son’s youth hockey teams, he will get his first taste of international hockey as a defenseman with the USA Masters Ice Hockey Team team at the 19th Maccabiah Games.
Block, who lives on the Upper West Side, is 49.
At Israel’s only professional-size ice hockey rink, located inside the Canada Center in Metulla, near the country’s northern border with Lebanon, Block will be part of a sport that is returning to the Games after a 16-year absence. The U.S. team will compete against Israel (whose team is largely composed of émigrés from the former Soviet Union), Canada and France.
“The opportunity to compete for American Jews against brothers from around the world is both an exciting and emotional opportunity,” Block says. “I’m incredibly grateful.”
A teammate on a men’s hockey team here with Maccabiah connections asked him last winter, over beers after a game, if he had heard of the Maccabiah Games.
Was he interested in playing on the U.S. team in the 2013 competition? Block was.
But he had his own question. “Am I Jewish enough?”
He was raised in an unaffiliated family and didn’t go to Hebrew school or have a bar mitzvah. Now married, he and his family are members of Congregation Rodeph Sholom, where his two children, now teens, marked their bnei mitzvah.
“I don’t win attendance awards,” he says, adding, “I’m not particularly religious.”
He’s a “proud,” identified Jew, and his teammate said he was “more than Jewish enough” to play in the Maccabiah Games.
Block, who’s been to Israel twice before with his family, says he looked forward to doing it again. “I knew I would go back.”
He’s now going through rehab for a recent shoulder injury.
Block says his participation in Maccabiah practice sessions has whetted his interest in Judaism.
One Friday night, a rabbi on the team led the hockey teammates — including “a lot of attorneys” and “a guy in the steel business” — in a brief “service,” featuring the Hebrew blessings over wine and challahs. “I found myself surprised about how emotional a moment it was for me.”
Part of it, he says, is the uniquely Jewish milieu. Wherever he’s played hockey, wherever his Maccabiah teammates have played the sport, they’ve usually been the only Jewish player on the roster.
And part of it, he says, is that this time he’s not just watching someone else doing something identifiably Jewish.
Earlier, particularly when supporting his kids bar and bat mitzvah training, his Jewish involvement “was always through others’ experiences.
“Now,” he says, “I feel I’m actually doing something.” Because of his Maccabiah ties, “I’m feeling a stronger bond to Judaism. I’m more and more explaining what it means.”
Block says his Maccabiah participation reinforces his decision to have his family join Rodeph Sholom and have his children go through a Jewish education. “I want them to have a better foundation than I had.”