Few athletes ever get the chance to represent their country on the international stage.
So when Jacob Biller, senior-to-be at Manhattan High School, learned of a chance to represent Team USA at the Maccabiah Games in Israel in the upcoming weeks, he jumped at the chance.
Biller, now in Jerusalem in preparation for the Games, has been overseas training with the Team USA junior baseball team for nearly a week in advance of Thursday’s opening ceremonies.
The Maccabiah Games, in its 19th year, is designed to provide Jewish athletes with the chance to strengthen their Jewish bonds and create a heightened awareness of Israel and Jewish identity, all while encouraging Jewish pride through sports. The Games bring together the world’s top Jewish athletes for an Olympic-style international competition.
The Games have been held every four years since 1953 and are always held the year after the Summer Olympics. This year’s games will include more than 7,000 Jewish athletes from around the world, with more than 900 expected to make the trip representing the United States.
For Biller, hearing about the games from a family friend sold him on the idea of trying out. He made his way to Chicago for the national tryout and was notified months later that he made the team.
“My dad was researching into camps and whatnot, and he had talked to a couple people we know from Kansas City who have participated in the Maccabiah Games before, one as a wrestler, and so we researched into that knowing this was the year they’re held,” Biller said. “We saw there were tryouts we could go to, so we went.”
The one-day tryout was mainly to evaluate where each player would fit should they make the roster. Biller, who was the regular second baseman for Manhattan High, as well as a pitcher, said the team would find out their roles once training began in Israel.
Biller is the only Kansan to make the team, and joins a pair of players from the Chicago area as the only Midwesterners to make the squad. Most of the team is from New York or California.
“I visited my uncles in Chicago, and there are two kids from Chicago on the team, so I ended up meeting them for lunch when we were up there and talked to them a little bit,” Biller said. “But other than that, I don’t know any of the kids - it’ll be a first-time meeting for me in New York.”
The team met up in New York last week and flew to Israel together. Biller said he already had his passport, so there were no travel issues to overcome on short notice. The past week was spent practicing as a team and sight-seeing in Israel ahead of Thursday’s opening ceremonies.
Biller said part of what excited him most about making the trip was the chance to play alongside other Jewish athletes, something he doesn’t do much of in Manhattan.
“Meeting other Jewish athletes from around the world will be awesome,” he said. “Being here in Manhattan, there’s not a huge Jewish congregation. I think I’m the only Jewish student at Manhattan High School — at least that I know about.
“So I think getting to meet other people and see what their experiences are and their childhood will be interesting.”
In addition, there are several Olympic athletes from 2012 in London making the trip.
“I just recently found out there are a couple Olympic athletes coming to this,” Biller said. “One is (Garrett) Weber-Gayle, a swimmer, and the other is Aly Raisman, who was a gold medalist in the gymnastics competition. So, the different kind of athletes that are there is unbelievable.”
Upon receiving word he made the team, Biller had to let his summer team, the Kansas Crush, know that he would be leaving. He played with them until about a week before departing.
Biller also had to raise money in order to go. According to the Maccabi USA website, the cost associated with making the trip is around $8,000 per junior athlete.
“I did ask for donations from different companies or family members or friends that could possibly help out,” Biller said. “A lot of it once we’re there is covered. There’s not much to worry about once we’re there. We just have to get to New York.”
Once the games start, Biller will be competing until the games close on July 30.