WESTFIELD, NJ — The Westfield Area YMCA and the State of Israel are separated by 7,500 miles, but for David Lazarus the Westfield venue became the connection to an opportunity to coach the 2017 United States Maccabiah Chess Team in the recently completed games held in Israel July 6 to 17. 

Held every four years, the Maccabiah Games are a Jewish multi-sport competition and the world’s third-largest sporting event.

Lazarus, a first year chess instructor in Millburn, was helping John Moldovan and Patrick Mazillo direct the Westfield Chess Quads on April 2 when, between rounds, he began a conversation about his new teaching career with one of the contestants, Michael Weinstein of Pine Brook. Lazarus does not remember how the subject came up, but Weinstein asked him if he knew of anyone interested in coaching the US team in the Maccabiah Games.

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Lazarus said that he would be thrilled.

“He wanted to make 100 percent certain that I knew what the Maccabiah mission was and that it was much more than just coaching chess,” Lazarus recalled.

“I told Mike about how insistent my wife was that I do this,” he remembered.

After another week, Lazarus got a congratulatory letter from Maccabiah National Leader Shane Carr. Lazarus had to make up for lost time (many of the coaches had been hired in early 2016) but after a battery of medical tests and information webinars, he and hundreds of others boarded planes to Israel on June 27.

The next three weeks were a whirlwind of activity, with the first week encompassing Israel Connect, six days of excursions to many of Israel’s most important and historic sights. On July 4, Lazarus and his junior team of four boys and two girls born from 1999-2002 headed to Haifa, where the junior chess tournament was to be contested, starting on July 9.

In between, on July 6, 1,135 US athletes and athletes from 80 other nations converged on Jerusalem for the opening ceremonies.

“We had been told this would be the highlight of the games and we weren’t disappointed,” said Lazarus. “To have 50,000 people cheering you as you walk around the track is something I never thought I would experience in my lifetime. It was surreal and no matter how many times I watch the videos, I still have to pinch myself.”

Haifa was the headquarters for the junior contestants, who made up half of the US team. Fifteen minutes from their beachside hotel was the Maccabiah version of the Olympic village called The Hub. Junior athletes from 80 nations converged for a combination of athletic competitions, social activities and meals, among other things.

The chess competition was held in a part of the hotel in the hub and ran for six days from July 9 to14, with two games contested on July 10. A US player, Joseph Zeltsan of New York, took the individual gold medal with a score of 6 ½-½. A US girl, Simona Nayberg of California, was top women. Overall the six US players scored an aggregate 28 ½-13 ½.

“I was happy with our performance, although I had little to do with it. My job was to make sure the kids had the best possible overall experience of appreciating their heritage and on that point I believe we succeeded,” said Lazarus.

“The kids have made friendships that will last a lifetime and have memories they will still be talking about many years from now.”