The series of Maccabi games that annually span the globe aim to highlight more than just Jewish athleticism: They're in the business of reinforcing Jewish pride. Nowhere was that mission more apparent than in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last week, as a team of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries and rabbinical students cooperated with the 11th Pan-American Maccabean Games to help contestants, their families, friends and fans embrace their Jewish heritage.

From the moment the more than 5,000 Jewish athletes arrived in the South American capital city, they availed themselves of a host of Jewish-enrichment activities, from putting on tefillin to posing questions to any number of the 20 rabbinical students who fanned out among the venues and mobilized a "mitzvah tank." Strictly kosher food, supervised by Chabad-Lubavitch of Argentina, was made available in abundance.

And on the Friday night leading into Shabbat, Jewish women lined up to light Shabbat candles before joining a standing-room-only prayer service attended by N.Y. philanthropist George Rohr and members of his family.

Marietta , Ga., natives Mitchell and Amy Kaye and their three children were among the visitors. In between winning medals on the golf course – Mitchell Kaye wrested a silver medal in the masters' individual golf event, while his sons Jared, 17, and Adam, 16, placed second and fourth respectively in the junior division – the father participated in the prayer service operated each morning by Chabad-Lubavitch. Each of his sons, meanwhile, donned tefillin with Rabbi Tzvi Lipinski, director of Beis Chabad Palermo Soho in Buenos Aires.

And when Lipinski arrived at the golf course to offer the other players a chance to put on tefillin, Kaye turned to friend and fellow competitor Jon Levin and asked him, "Why don't you try it?"

Levin, from Huntington Beach, Calif. , who hadn't donned the ritual prayer boxes since his bar mitzvah 36 years ago, promptly rolled up his sleeve. In an interview later, he said he still remembered the Hebrew blessings.

The experience was "great, really very enlightening," he said. "My Mom and Dad are no longer here, and for me to be able to do this at the games has been my true dream."

A veteran of six Maccabi games over the past four years, Levin said that before meeting Lipinski, the athletic competitions were his only "Jewish connection." Now, he said, he's looking forward to checking out his local Chabad House in South Huntington Beach.

A Palpable Energy

Lighting the Shabbat candles at the 11th Pan-American Maccabean Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Lighting the Shabbat candles at the 11th Pan-American Maccabean Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Buenos Aires yeshiva student Sholom Bluming estimated that over the course of the games, some 600 Jewish men put on tefillin.

One day before the opening ceremonies, Rabbi Chaim Boruch Oirechman, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of the Argentine capital neighborhood of Puerto Madero, was setting up the mitzvah tank outside of the local sports club when a large group of athletes from Canada walked by.

"Where are your tefillin?" they asked Oirechman. "It's impossible to find a Chabadnik who doesn't have a pair of tefillin with him."

The rabbi promptly produced a set, which the athletes donned before reciting the Shema prayer.

For Shabbat, as some 3,000 guests attended the Chabad-led dinner in the large exhibition hall, other families joined some of the emissaries for a more private meal.

For instance, said Kaye, his family, who regularly attend the Cobb County, Ga., Chabad House directed by Rabbi Ephraim and Chanie Silverman, "had a lovely meal" at the Oirechmans.

At the exhibition hall, one Guatemalan athlete told Bluming, "When I walked in the room and saw more than 3,000 Jews from all over the world singing and rejoicing together, I felt such a joy for Shabbat that I never felt before."

"In the middle of dinner, a lot of teenagers started dancing," said Rabbi Yisrael Kapelushnik, director of youth and camp activities for Chabad-Lubavitch of Buenos Aires. "The emotion and energy were amazing."