One Player's Journey to Maccabi Rugby Glory

Maccabi comes from the word Maccabees, which were leaders of a Jewish rebel army that took control of Judea after Alexander the Great and ruled for 100 years, reestablishing the religion, but also reducing the influence of Hellenism.

Today the name lends itself to the Maccabi Games. The Maccabi Games are an Olympic-style sporting competition held each throughout the world promoting sports among Jewish athletes.

This story is not really about the Maccabi Games (in terms of the history of the games, or its function, but rather the experience of one rugby player who joined the Maccabi side and his experience as a rugby player in the Maccabi Pan Am Games.

The USA Maccabi Rugby team is made up of Jewish American rugby players who complete in the World Maccabi Games and the Pan Am Maccabi Games. Rugby has been a part of these games longer than it has been a part of the Olympics or the Pan Am Games. Rugby got its start in the Maccabi Games back in 1981 at the World Maccabi Games, with South Africa winning Gold. The USA first took part in 1985. (You can read the full history in the 'About' section on the Maccabi USA Rugby Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/MaccabiUSArugby). The USA is no slouch when it comes to rugby in the Maccabi games with picking up Gold at 1995 Pan American Maccabi Games in 7s. The 1997 World Maccabi Games earning Gold 15s. The 2013 World Maccabi Games earning Gold in 7s again, and Bronze 15s.  Most recently at 2015 Pan American Maccabi Games the USA picked up a Gold 7s and a Silver for 15s.

You may wonder how the USA Maccabi Rugby is so dominant?  Part of it is due to the players they have. This is a short list of the current and former USA Maccabi Rugby players (note the number of Eagles);

 Kevin Swyrin,   USA Rugby 7s  (Photo The Rugby Corner) 

 Kevin Swyrin,   USA Rugby 7s  (Photo The Rugby Corner) 

Oky Geffin,  Stuart Krohn, Shawn Lipman, Alan Menter, Cecil Moss, Syd Nomis Gary Puterman, Joel Stransky, Wilf Rosenberg, Dallen Stanford, Morris Zimmerman, Kevin Swyrin and   Zack Test. 

Zack Test, USA Rugby 7s (Photo The Rugby Corner)

Zack Test, USA Rugby 7s (Photo The Rugby Corner)

Dallen Stanford (former USA Eagle, Play Rugby USA, The Rugby Corner, and Rugby Commentator for USA Rugby) explained that players are able to apply if interested. There isn’t a secret method to their side. There isn’t a formal recruitment process. “Applications on the http://maccabiusa.com/ reached over 100 players for the recent 2015 Pan American Maccabi Games, and for the World Maccabi Games trials are held across the country, usually fielding nearly 80 players” Stanford informs us.

That’s how Robbie Keen became a part of the USA Maccabi Rugby team.  Keene is originally from New Mexico. He was in California for college (four years at University of the Pacific (UOP) in Stockton, CA). Post college Keene bounced around California’s Central Valley as part of his training as an engineer for E & J Gallo Winery before landing him in the south bay.

Keene shared with us how his journey with Maccabi rugby began and the experience its given him.  I have known about the Maccabi Games for about 10 years now. I have some family  friends that have been involved in the games, but it wasn’t until about a year ago that I realized they had a rugby program. Believe it or not I found it on my Facebook news feed in a post from USA Rugby.”

 Robbie  Keene at UOP. 

 Robbie  Keene at UOP. 

Once he found the post his FB feed, Keene did some research on this own. “I realized it would be an awesome opportunity for me personally and athletically. So I went to the Maccabi USA website and put in an application. It was a very simple process, and the team took it from there”. As was noted, Maccabi doesn’t have a formal recruitment process but really is done by word of mouth and just player interest.  

For Keene his motivation seeking out a chance to play for USA Maccabi Rugby was to learn more about his own families’ Jewish culture and heritage. His secondary reason was to have the opportunity to play international rugby, and to do so with a team at a very high level.  Keene was part of the men’s 15s side that won the silver medal at the past Maccabi Pan Am Games in Chile. Keene and the USA side got to play against Argentina and Chile.  Not bad for your first time out with the Maccabi USA.

“We were able to play against a Chilean team and an Argentinian team. South Africa had to pull their team so the games invited one of the top Chilean clubs, Prince of Whales, to participate. I was able to travel all around Santiago with my teammates, we also went to Valparaiso, and we took a trip to an eye clinic for under privileged children. It was eye opening (no pun).” It was a rugby tour, but it also allowed for Keene to experience things outside of rugby, see a new county, as well make new friends and create new bonds.

Keen was a baseball player all through school, however, his father Steven Keene had played for the Albuquerque Aardvarks in the 1970s and got Keene interested in rugby. It wasn’t until college that Keene took up the game. As a freshman at UOP Keene took up the game as a way to stay fit for baseball, but he quickly realize that he was better at rugby than baseball and made the shift. “It was also more fun to play in every game than watch” recalls Keene.

Keene is a very versatile player that identifies as a forward but has played in the backs. Keene says his preferred position is lock, but he enjoys playing flanker. He’s even tried the front row but described his experience as “not my cup of tea”. Keene’s ability to move and pass has allowed him to play effectively at fly half, but overall considers himself as forward, and that’s what he played for Maccabi. 

Keene has played against quality sides and has rugby experience to give him some perspective. We asked how playing for USA Maccabi was different than his other rugby experience. “Well beside the fact the guys were from all over the US, the only difference was that I have never seen a group of 30 men come together as a team so quickly. Not many of the guys knew each other before the games, so we had about 24 hours before our first match to get acquainted with one another.”  His teammates on this tour hailed from all over the United States, the North East/New England, the Midwest, the south and a few from California.  Keene noted that even though this team (Maccabi) had not been together but for a very short time it felt as close as his college team whom were together for three years!

Keene acknowledge that this experience was different than any other experience he had playing rugby. The obvious was that he hadn’t played with any of the others until 24hrs before a game, but it was the learning that occurred for him that impacted him. “Besides the experience of getting to go on tour to Chile and play rugby, I was able to learn so much about rugby. I am not sure I can explain it in words. I’ve been playing rugby for 9 years now, and in those 10 days, I think I learned more than I did in my first 8 years of playing” exclaimed Keene. It could have been that everyone was there for the same goal, it could have been the fact that most did not have any previous experience with each other and so everyone was open (no baggage) or even the caliber of players they had, whatever it was Keene was not able to verbalize it but did internalize it.

I have never seen a group of guys play harder for each other” says Keene about the team. That is what has hooked him to continue to tryout for and remain involved with the Maccabi’s side.  Keene is now focusing on trying to make the USA Maccabi team for the 2017 Maccabi’s World Games. So Keene is working toward possible tryouts this summer.

So here are some things you should know about the Maccabi’s Rugby. It is competitive! If you would like an opportunity to play rugby internationally and have some Jewish ancestry Keene suggested considering this. The USA Maccabi side is not limited to just the world games, but do tour, and play in tournaments when possible. Dallen Stanford said that while nothing is planned for the immediate future, they do plan to run in one or two big tournaments leading up to the 2017 World Games.

For players who may be interested organizers urge them to submit an application (
http://maccabiusa.com/ ). While players are encouraged to apply and go the trials, players should be aware of the level of competition is high. Stanford told us they had over 100 applicants for the recent Pan-Am games, and often have 80 players trying out at different trials across the country. That should not discourage you, Keene was one of those 100 to submitted and application and in return had a life changing rugby experience.

The struggle with the USA Maccabi Rugby has been getting guys together to train. As noted players came from all across county to play in the Pan-Am versus those who come from Australia, Argentina or Israel who live closer and or play on the same clubs year round Stanford informed us.

USA Maccabi Rugby team in Chile during the 2015 Maccabi Pan-Am Games. (Keene is center on a knee)

USA Maccabi Rugby team in Chile during the 2015 Maccabi Pan-Am Games. (Keene is center on a knee)

 The current Maccabi side has a good deal of turnover from year to year and Stanford notes that of the players from the 2013 only two where there for the 2015 side, but he anticipates that most the players from the 2013 and 2015 will likely come out and seek to play in 2017. The USA Maccabi’s will be focused on both the 15s and 7s for the 2017 World Games and so they are seeking a broad range of players.

The unique aspect of the Maccabi team unlike a club side is that everyone on the team shares a common a common heritage. So if you share the same heritage as the Maccabi, have a desire to play internationally, want to play a high level rugby (7s or 15s) want to play with some legends, want to meet a great group of players, and to be able to have a unique rugby experience then we do suggest you follow in the footsteps of our friend Robbie Keene and submit and application. At this time USA Maccabi Rugby is working on selections and preparation for the 2017 Maccabi World Games in Israel.

Dallen Stanford on the left. 

Dallen Stanford on the left. 

We want to thank Robbie Keene for sharing his own Maccabi story as well as Michael Rudzinsky for helping us make the story happen, and finally thanks to the legend Dallen Stanford (listen to him call a game and you’ll see why he’s a legend, and he was Eagles 7s player as well) for some of the insights and history on the program. Thank you all.

And if story intrigued you at all, do what Robbie did and get an application in.