Hoop Dreams

Hoop Dreams

Dylan Groff (left) and his brother, Etai, are honored to be a part of the Maccabi Games. (Photos by Beth Ann Fuhrer)
Dylan Groff (left) and his brother, Etai, are honored to be a part of the Maccabi Games. (Photos by Beth Ann Fuhrer)

In the Maccabi Games, also known as the Jewish Olympics, teams of Jewish athletes from around the world come together and compete for the honor that comes with a spot on the podium. The games are held in Israel the year after the Olympics, and the European Games are held two years later. This summer, when the European Games are held in Berlin, two Pittsburgh brothers will be there as members of the U.S. basketball team.

Brothers Dylan, 18, and Etai, 16, Groff, students at Shady Side Academy, have been picked for the Open Men’s team and the Junior team, respectively.

Both have been playing since first grade and are the youngest on their teams, something Dylan describes as both “a little intimidating” and “a fun challenge. I doubt if there’s going to be any other 18-year-olds playing for their national teams … and I’m trying to earn a spot on that team, and I’m excited for the challenge. I can’t wait to see what happens.”

Etai said that making the team was “an honor” and that he was “excited to go to Berlin and check out the competition,” where the boys will be playing against both college- and pro-level athletes.

Both acknowledged that they are representing not only the United States, but also Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania as the only members of either team to hail from the Keystone State. “That’s very exciting,” said Dylan. “There’s not much else to it. It’s an honor, and I hope we do well.”

The brothers grew up watching the sport and noted there weren’t many Jewish players. Etai cites John Scheyer, the Duke basketball player who was a member of Tel Aviv’s Maccabi team, as an influence. Dylan said that his love affair with the game came from “watching my dad and the success he had with the game, so he’s the one who inspired me.”

The Maccabi games are important because they are a way “for Jews from all around the world to be able to connect through sports,” said Etai. As many know, sports is a great equalizer, with the ability to transcend language and cultural barriers. Dylan said that the Maccabi games help foster Jewish solidarity, and that holding them in Europe “where there’s a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment going around” shows “how united we are.”

B.J. Dunne, coach of the Open Men’s team, agrees. “Being in Berlin, walking into an Olympic stadium where Jews weren’t allowed to participate in the 1936 games, is going to be really empowering, an emotional feeling when you walk into that stadium and there are 2,000 to 4,000 people there and they’re all Jewish. I think it really binds people, brings people together.” The Maccabi Games, he said, are “really the only games where you have an opportunity to represent your country and your religion.”

And that religion means a lot to the Groff brothers. Etai said the responsibility “to continue the faith” is something he feels keenly, while Dylan marvels at the closeness across communities, and even countries.  “That our culture can bring us together like that, I think that’s a very special thing that you don’t find in most other religions or cultures around the world.”

Masha Shollar is an intern for The Chronicle. She can be reached at mashas@thejewishchronicle.net.