For the first time in its 81-year history, the Maccabiah Games this year welcomed a Cuban delegation to its competition, The New York Times reported.
In fact, there are 21 countries participating for the first time in this 19th Maccabiah, including newcomers such as Mongolia, Curaçao and Ecuador. But Cuba is especially notable because of previous restrictions set by the Communist regime running the small Caribbean island on citizens traveling abroad.
56 Jewish Cuban athletes and coaches from the nation’s roughly 1,500 Jews marched Thursday night in the Maccabiah’s opening ceremony, The Times reports.
Even though Cuba has no diplomatic relations with Israel, the delegation’s participation was made possible because of recently relaxed travel restrictions for large groups leaving Havana. Jewish-American philanthropists donated about $200,000 to cover their costs.
Two of the athletes, Roxana González, 25, and her brother Rafael, 24, had barely picked up a bow and arrow since their days as champion high school archers in Cuba.
The Israelis provided the coaching and the gear. “It was the best equipment we have ever used,” Mr. González said.
“They have been a bit rusty at the beginning because they haven’t been behind the bow for a long time,” said Hillel Kleiner, an Israeli archer and architect who has doubled as a chauffeur for the Cuban siblings. “It amazes me that they came here without their bows. I cannot part with my bow for more than two days.”
Walking around Jerusalem on Wednesday evening, they ran into many athletes from around the world. “Everyone is surprised that there are Jews in Cuba,” Rafael González told The Times.
Individual Cuban athletes have participated in previous Maccabiahs — Hella Eskenazi, the leader of this year’s team, traveled alone to compete in karate in 1997 — but an official delegation has never taken part.
It happened this year largely because of Jeffrey Sudikoff, a Los Angeles venture capitalist who in 2011 started a project called Small and Lost Communities, to bring new delegations to the Maccabiah. He donated $500,000 of the $1.5 million it cost to bring 300 athletes from countries participating for the first time this year.
Other donors also helped out. The Cubans’ blue-and-white uniforms, with red stripes, were provided by Steve Tisch, the film and television producer who is a co-owner of the New York Giants. Tisch learned of the athletes’ aspirations to go to the games while visiting the Jewish Community House in Havana this April. He had the uniforms made in Argentina, not wanting to flout U.S. restrictions on doing business with Cuba.
“It’s not like picking up the phone and calling Nike and asking for a favor, but I wanted to keep it as simple as possible,” Mr. Tisch said. “It was a unique moment where Judaism and sports and competition could all meet.”