Maccabi USA President, Jeff Bukantz, has dedicated over four decades to an organization that he was predestined to be a part of. Jeff’s father, Dan, competed and won a gold medal in individual foil at the 3rd Maccabiah in 1950, only two short years after Israel’s establishment. You could say that is where Jeff’s journey to the Maccabiah all began (even though he wasn’t born yet when his father competed). A little over 30 years later, Jeff found himself following in his father’s footsteps at the 11th Maccabiah going for gold in individual foil. From there, Jeff’s passion and dedication for Maccabi USA grew and has led him to the top of the organization that he so dearly loves. From Jeff’s dedication to the Maccabi Movement and a lifetime of achievements, he has been selected as one of the recipients of the 13th Yakir Maccabi Award, the highest and most prestigious honor given by Maccabi World Union.
When did you first get involved with MUSA?
I made my first Maccabiah Fencing team in 1981, where I took 4th place in individual foil, the same event my father won gold in at the 3rd Games in 1950. In 1985, I took the bronze medal in this event, and finally won a gold medal in 1989, which completed the father-son journey I embarked on.
I first got involved with Maccabi USA leadership in 1986, at the age of 29, when I became the Chair of fencing for the 13th Games in 1989, responsible for raising the $65K needed to send the fencing team to the Games.
Why are the Games and your involvement in the Maccabi Movement important in your life?
Candidly, my involvement with the Maccabi Movement is extremely important to me as it represents my main connection to Judaism. I am not observant and have at times felt guilty about that considering my position in the Movement, serving as the President of the largest Territorial Organization. I’ve overcome that guilt with the knowledge that I have played a direct role in exposing thousands of Jewish athletes to their heritage and the State of Israel. I am proud of being part of a Zionist Movement.
With the rise in Antisemitism worldwide and in our own country, the rapidly dwindling number of Holocaust survivors like my late mother Alice, and the never-ending demonization of Israel, I know that what we do is more important than ever.
What other roles have you had within the organization?
In addition to chairing fencing for decades, I’ve also served as Junior (U18) Chair for the 1999 PanAm Maccabi Games and 2001 Maccabiah, as well as General Chair for the 2011 European Maccabi Games and 2013 & 2017 Maccabiah Games.
I’ve been on the Executive Committee since sometime in the 1990s, elected as Associate Treasurer from 2009-2013, First VP from 2013-2017, and President from 2017-2022. I look forward to serving for a second term from 2022-2025, which will incredibly, sadly, and proudly complete my nearly half a century arc in my beloved Maccabi USA.
What is a favorite memory over the years you have been involved?
I’ve had way too many memories over the last four decades to list just one.
Rather, I’ll list my top five:
5) The Opening Ceremonies in Berlin in 2015, which were held right next to Hitler’s Olympic Stadium.
4) The Opening Ceremonies in Vienna in 2011, which were held at City Hall where Hitler infamously made his speeches, and a 60-foot Star of David hung from the building. (Not only did he fail to eviscerate us, not only did we survive, but we thrived and came back stronger than ever to peacefully play sports in the ultimate display of Jewish pride and solidarity!)
3) Leading the delegation into the 2013 & 2017 Maccabiah Games, looking behind me at the never-ending throng of red, white and blue clad American Jewish athletes, and realizing that in spite of not being an observant Jew, I helped make a difference in the lives of these fellow Maccabees.
2) Fulfilling a lifelong dream on July 4th, 1989, and bursting into uncontrollable tears, when I finally won the same gold medal my father Dan won in 1950.
1) In direct contrast to #2, coming to the realization that Maccabi USA’s success is not determined by how many medals we brought back to the United States, but rather by how many Jewish athletes we brought to the Maccabiah in Israel, as well as the European and PanAm Maccabi Games.
What is your wish for the 21st Maccabiah?
After two and half years of uncertainty, fear, and incredulity thanks to the COVID virus, I share everyone’s thoughts and prayers that we have a safe and successful Maccabiah Games. My wish is that this delegation of nearly 1,300, the largest in the history of multi-sports games, led by General Chair Lou Moyerman and Vice Chairs Tonja Magerman and Debbie Adams, will bring home the GOLD!
What are you proudest of in your first term as President?
I am so proud of the fact that our leadership recognized that our #1 priority was to endow a need-based scholarship fund and thanks to the incredible generosity of Stuart Weitzman, that dream is becoming a reality.
On receiving the Yakir Maccabi Award:
Being elected to receive the Yakir Maccabi award is a special honor. As opposed to being elected to a Hall of Fame for accomplishments on the field of play, this award is based on receiving the respect of your peers. I am honored and humbled to have been named a Yakir Maccabi awardee, so proud to be part of the Maccabi Movement, and most of all, blessed to have made so many great friends along the way.