By Sean Shapiro
Special to the TJP
Linda Leftin has always been a fan and watcher of high-level rugby.
She grew up watching the sport in South Africa, and she was in attendance when the South African National Rugby team, the Springboks, won the Rugby World Cup in 1995 on home soil.
So when Leftin was in Israel for the 20th Maccabiah Games, where she won a bronze medal in tennis, she was naturally drawn to the rugby matches.
“It was a such a high level of rugby, it was really fun to watch,” Leftin, who lives in Dallas now, said. “The matches were great, and it was tough to choose a side when the Americans and South Africa played for the championship. It was like watching my current home against the country I grew up in.”
In the end the Americans pulled off the upset against South Africa, which ended up being the desired result after Leftin had struck up a friendship with Sam Rabb, a Dallas native playing for the American team.
“I didn’t really know many people over there before we (Leftin and her husband) went on the trip, and we were watching the rugby and I found out there was a member of the American team from Dallas,” Leftin said. “And after they won the gold medal, Sam and I were able to take a picture together with our medals. It was such a cool experience.”
Overall, that’s what the 20th Maccabiah Games were about for a handful of Dallas residents — faith, sport and community.
Griffin Levine, a rising senior at Yavneh Academy, scored 12 points as the United States won gold in basketball. Sisters Ashley and Hayley Isenberg also medaled in women’s basketball in the junior and open division.
“It was such a great experience to go over there and represent your country,” Levine said. “To win was great. But being able to spend time in Israel and get to know people from all around the world, that was awesome. To use basketball, a sport I love, to get a chance like this was amazing.”
For the Isenberg sisters it was a special experience, even if they weren’t on the same team.
“I went over there a little bit later because of an injury,” Ashley Isenberg said, “so to be able to already have my sister there and be able to help me get comfortable with everything was great. It was also nice to be able to connect with different teams because of her connections.”
In addition to competing against Jews from around the world, the Maccabiah Games gave athletes a chance to tour and explore Israel.
“That was one of my favorite parts of the trip, to be able to spend time in Israel and make friends with others from around the world going through the game thing,” Levine said. “It really was a special trip.”
Winning, of course, makes things a little bit sweeter.
For the men’s rugby team winning gold against South Africa was a big statement. The South Africans were the favorite heading into the tournament, and it spoke volumes for American rugby — no matter what faith.
“We came in with a plan to win,” Rabb said. “We wanted to make sure that we sent a message and proved what we were capable of. From the beginning of training we had that goal, and we weren’t going to come up short of that.”
Rabb was a big part of that goal. He played all but 10 minutes in the tournament for the Americans, and said celebrating the Maccabiah victory was one of the highlights of his rugby career.
“We knew we were going to win the day of the final,” Rabb said. “We came in and you could feel it in the team meetings. As we got ready, we knew it was going to be a big moment for our team.”