From Central Synagogue to Israel’s Maccabi Games: An Interview with Athlete Nina Markovsky
March 2, 2023 | General News
If you looked for Central Synagogue member Nina Markovsky in Winter 2019, you might have found her chanting from our bimah for her Bat Mitzvah. In the Summer of 2022, you would have found Nina in quite a different Jewish venue: fencing for Maccabi USA in Israel at the Maccabiah Games, the world’s largest Jewish youth sports event.
With Israel’s 75th anniversary– and Maccabi 2023 – approaching, the accomplished 16-year-old athlete sat down with Central to reflect on her experience at “The Jewish Olympics,” her time in Israel, and her Jewish identity.
CENTRAL: How and when did you start fencing? What drew you to the sport?
NINA: In fourth grade, I went to summer camp and tried archery. It was really fun because I was in my "Hunger Games" phase, you know? But in New York City, there aren't a lot of archery classes available for 11-year-olds. I decided to try fencing because it seemed like the closest thing. So I started fencing in fifth grade.
There are three different types of weapons – foil, épée and saber – all with different rules. I started with saber, which is the one you're most likely to see in movies. Like in “Star Wars,” they use a “lightsaber,” that’s literally what they’re doing. I did saber for about a year and then I switched to foil fencing, which is what I’m doing now. I've been doing that for about five years. Most people start when they're, like, eight or seven years old, so I'm definitely a little late to it. But it's still fun.
CENTRAL: How did you decide to participate in the Maccabi Games?
NINA: I’d never been to Israel, and I thought it’d be fun. I only started international tournaments this year – I actually just got back from Italy – but I’d never been abroad for a tournament at that point. Also, my mom told me it would be really special to go to Israel. I didn’t really understand what she meant until I got there. I was like, okay, whatever, I'll do it. I assumed it was just another one of those things she wanted me to put on my college resume. But when I actually went there, it was an incredible experience.
Before Israel, I’d go to synagogue, I went to Religious School, I had my Bat Mitzvah, but I wasn’t super confident about being Jewish. I didn’t want to get anything that had a Star of David on it, because there were a lot of antisemitic attacks going on and I didn’t want to provoke that. But then I got to Israel, and I just felt so in touch with my Judaism because all the fencers around me – the people on our team – they were all super Jewish. I actually ended up buying an anklet with little Stars of David on it. It was really cute. But I lost it.
CENTRAL: Oh no! That just means you have to go back.
NINA: Yeah, I do!
CENTRAL: Were there particular moments or experiences during your time in Israel that made you feel more connected to your Jewish identity?
NINA: Maccabi offered Shabbat services on Fridays for all the athletes. It was really fun to go to those, because it felt like we were all really part of something together. We were all different athletes in different sports, but we were all also Jewish. It was something connecting all of us. That stuck with me.
I remember we went to the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem. At one point, some of the athletes themselves went up to say prayers. It felt really special. We’ve always learned stuff about the Holocaust, my school does something every year to acknowledge it. But at Yad Vashem, I felt really connected. Now I feel like if someone said something antisemitic or denied the Holocaust, I’d want to defend being Jewish and defend my history.
One time, Team USA was having this little group hangout at the end of the day in someone's dorm. And one of the guys—who I'm still actually friends with, he goes to my fencing club sometimes—he told me about wrapping tefillin every morning. I had no idea what that was. Again, I wasn't super religious before I got to Israel. But I just thought that was so cool, that someone's that dedicated to Judaism. And it inspired me to want to become more dedicated and more religious.
CENTRAL: That’s great. How did it feel to represent American Jews specifically?
NINA: I felt like we were all fighting for the same thing, being American and Jewish. I grew up in a community where a lot of people are Jewish so I hadn't thought about it that much. But the Maccabi Games made me realize there are so many Jewish people in the world. Also, a lot of the girls on my team were about to enter college, and some of them hadn't been recruited for fencing. This was their last tournament ever. So it was really special to all of us, just because we were all fighting for them to be able to get their last win.
CENTRAL: Have you stayed in touch with your teammates?
NINA: We see each other at national tournaments and catch up. I'm usually not able to stay long enough for dinner since we have events at different times because of our age difference (most of the Team USA fencers are older than I am), but they’ve gone to little group dinners together. We’re all still in touch with our coach from the Maccabi Games, Mike, who was really nice. We still have our WhatsApp group chat, which is awesome. And two of the fencers go to my club; I see them every week.
CENTRAL: What was it like to meet Jewish athletes from all over the world?
NINA: It was crazy. There was this one concert that they hosted where they had a bunch of celebrities come to sing for us. The venue was huge, and it was packed. I didn't realize how many people in the world – and specifically athletes – are Jewish. It was so crazy. And I felt so honored to be able to be there.
CENTRAL: Was there anything special about competing in a Jewish context?
NINA: We had to fence the Israeli team, and they’re really good. There’s this one girl who always gets, like, top 8 out of 200 people at international tournaments. She’s insane. She’s been a World Champion before. I tend to get very competitive, so when I lost to her, I was a little upset. And I was like, “I’m gonna hate this girl for the rest of my life.” But then after that event, she came up to our team and gave each of us this little keychain that had the Star of David and said “Israel” on it. And she was like, “Mazel tov! We all did well. That was so fun!” So then I was like, why would I hate her? We’re all Jewish and we had a fun experience together.
CENTRAL: If a fellow Jewish athlete were on the fence about signing up for the Maccabi Games, what would you tell them?
NINA: It’s incredible. You meet new people. You get more in touch with your Jewish heritage. You can talk to more people who understand your experiences. Everyone there is so friendly. I don't think I met a single person that was genuinely mean or hated being there. Even the people who were less in touch with their Judaism than I am ended up feeling more connected.
CENTRAL: What's next for you? Either fencing-wise, or Jewish-wise, or both?
NINA: I want to be able to do more things for the Jewish community. I have also been doing stuff with Central, like we have those nights where we go around feeding the homeless – the Midnight Runs – I did that last year. It was definitely fun and I made friends. I want to do more things like that.
For fencing, this is the first year I've done international tournaments. That’s super fun. I have dual citizenship from my dad – he’s from Bulgaria – so I'm able to fence for the USA and Bulgaria. And even though I'll have my ups and downs, fencing’s always really fun. So I want to continue that. Definitely.
CENTRAL: Do you want to fence professionally?
NINA: I don’t have a specific goal. I'd like to fence in college. I don't know if I'll be recruited or not, but I don’t really care. I want to keep doing it until I pursue a profession. I just love the sport.
Thank you so much, Nina! No matter what you do next, your Central community will be cheering you on!
Maccabi USA builds and sponsors the USA delegation to the Maccabiah, which is the world's largest gathering of Diaspora Jewry. Convening once every fours years in Israel, the event brings together 10,000 Jewish athletes ranging in age from 12 - 80+, representing 70+ countries, competing in 40+ sports. The next international competition is the Pan American Maccabi Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in December 2023. The next Maccabiah in Israel will be in July 2025. For more information, please visit: www.maccabiusa.com.
There are also JCC Maccabi Games for teens in Israel this summer starting July 5, 2023. If you’re a Jewish teenager who’s interested in competing in future Games – or if you’d simply like to learn more – visit https://jccmaccabi.jcca.org/. This summer is also the 2023 JCC Maccabi Games for Jewish high school athletes, hosted by the JCC Association, in Fort Lauderdale.
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