Written By Noah Friedman
The Maccabi Open Table Tennis Team has extraordinary tales to tell from around the country. It is ready to be connected by the bond of Judaism and sport as the players compete in the 21st Maccabiah.
The four-person squad is anchored by Tahl Leibovitz, whose incredible story is the backbone. Leibovitz, 47, who will compete in his third Maccabiah, hails from New York, where as a youth, he grew up in an unstable household.
With family issues arising from a relationship with his father, Leibovitz found himself out on the streets of America’s largest city. Luckily, the South Queens Boys and Girls Club gave him a place to develop his game of table tennis.
“I used to play table tennis there from 3pm to 9pm,” Leibovitz said. “They dedicated a space for me to play table tennis because I was homeless when I was younger.”
Leibovitz continued to hone his craft and even received an education, graduating from New York University. He later found the New York City Parks Department, which hosted table tennis matches for intermediate players. Leibovitz couldn’t beat anyone. Just like at the Boys and Girls Club, Leibovitz stuck with it and started to defeat the better players after early struggles.
Leibovitz has been a Paralympian in his career with a decorated trophy case consisting of 13 Parapan American gold medals and 50 International Para championships. For all he has given to the game of table tennis, Maccabi USA General Chair Lou Moyerman announced that Leibovitz would be one of 12 banner bearers for the Maccabiah Opening Ceremony at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on Thursday.
Outside of playing table tennis, he is currently a social worker back in America and also runs an organization called “Project Table Tennis.” He said that helping people is what he is best at.
“We serve community and family projects around the country,” Leibovitz said. “The social work has been something I’ve been very connected to.”
Leibovitz is not the only player ready to make an impact in the gym. Bryan Alter will be competing in his first Maccabiah.
The Englewood, N.J. native grew up in a modern orthodox household. Alter, 23, played a lot of sports, but table tennis was introduced fairly recently in his life, especially when he was deciding to switch majors at NYU from sports management to accounting.
“When COVID hit, all the sports got delayed, then canceled, except one sport in Russia: table tennis,” Alter said. “I would watch and play. I got my own table in the backyard and started playing (against) all my siblings and friends.”
Alter went to Jewish summer camp growing up and had heard about the Maccabiah. When he became interested in trying out, he made contact with Maccabi Table Tennis Coach Joel Roodyn, who told him to send video of Alter playing.
“Me and my younger brother put cameras in the corner of our living room, started rallying, and ultimately made a 15-minute mixtape of me,” Alter said. “A few months later, (Roodyn) called me up and said, ‘Bryan, you’re a great recreational player and we’d love to have you join us for the Maccabi Games.’”
27-year-old Austin Preiss is also on the squad. The now-three-time Maccabiah participant was a two-sport athlete at Lindenwood University in Missouri, playing table tennis and golf. But he got his start in his first love from his father, who was a national coach at the Olympic Training Center in their hometown of Colorado Springs, CO.
“He taught me from age six and since then, I have been traveling around the world and playing professionally,” Preiss said.
Following his graduation from college, Preiss moved to Stockholm, Sweden, where he competed in the first division of that country’s table tennis league. Now, Preiss has stepped away from the sport full-time to move into the public sector as a client manager at a healthcare company.
“In the U.S., there isn’t a whole lot of money for funding in table tennis, so I had to get a career and take that stepping stone, but I hope to play overseas again in the future.”
Preiss will do just that, albeit temporarily. Preiss is happy to be in Israel again.
“This is my favorite trip and my favorite place in the world to be,” he said. “I love the comradery. I love celebrating my Jewish faith.”
21-year-old gap year Sarah Samuels is from Johns Creek, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta – at least right now. Her journey has taken her around the world because of her father’s job in the oil business.
“I was born in Texas. I lived in Africa for three years and then China for six years and then Kuwait for three years,” Samuels said. “Then New York City for five years and Florida for two or three years and Georgia since last summer.”
Samuels had the unfortunate circumstance of being the last player to arrive in the table tennis delegation. Her flights kept getting delayed and after all the chaos, she finally touched down in Israel on July 11, about one week after the rest of her teammates had been preparing. Nontheless, Samuels said she is ready to go and can’t wait to compete.
Roodyn has also not been able to make it to Israel due to traveling issues, so Leibovitz has taken on the role of player-coach. Leibovitz said he expects Roodyn to make it for The Games.
The Maccabi USA Open Table Tennis pros will be competing at Mor Metro-West High School in the town of Ra’anana, situated between Tel Aviv and Netanya in the northern part of Israel from July 17 -22. Make sure to follow the Maccabi World Union live stream of the Maccabiah Opening Ceremonies on July 14.
Noah Friedman is a Los Angeles native and graduated from Arizona State University. Follow him on Twitter (@NoahFriedman_), Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/noahfriedmanpage) and https://maccabiusa.com/maccabimedia/