Israeli feeling at ease in coming to America

While playing basketball in Maccabi Games, Blaier relishes the peacefulness

Youth Sports

August 13, 2002|By Rick Belz | Rick Belz,SUN STAFF

Yair Blaier, a 16-year-old Israeli, has left his native country for the first time to play basketball in the United States at the Jewish Community Center Maccabi Games.

Baltimore is the second stop on a three-city, three-week tour that is a relief for him from the ever-present stress created by suicide bombers that haunt Israel.

Devoutly religious, he didn't eat the first day he was in America, because he was afraid the food would not be kosher enough. But he says he is having a good time here. His first stop was Memphis, Tenn., where the point guard scored 40 points in one of the games.

"It is a great feeling to be in America because it is less frightening than Israel. The host families have been very warm," he said. "They are wonderful. And American girls are the best."

Blaier lives near the large Israeli/Arabic village of Kafar Kasem in the small town of Oranit among 2,500 other families. He is best friends with an Arabic basketball player with whom he played last year, but now Blaier is afraid to travel to that friend's home.

"We are afraid to drive on buses or go to malls or large markets," he said. "All children have cell phones and call home a lot."

A sudden clap of thunder during a storm in Memphis sent his teammates diving under a table.

He has known one 16-year-old who was killed in a bombing and another who lost a leg.

"But we try to live a normal life. It is not fun if you are always afraid, or always have to be in the house," he said.

A highlight of his Baltimore visit was a trip to the National Aquarium and its dolphin exhibit. "We have a small aquarium in Israel. This one is big and beautiful."

His basketball coach, Yoram Fenster, describes Blaier as a "soul player" -- one with a big heart.

Blaier has played basketball since he was 5, following in the footsteps of his brother, Roi, now 24. His father, Zvi, who is the head of the religious section of Oranit, was a soccer player.

Blaier travels two hours by bus every day to play for Fenster, who also coaches the Israeli national deaf basketball team. Fenster used a lot of sign language yesterday against a Baltimore opponent at the Towson Center.

Fenster said that Blaier's ability to drive to the basket is his strength, but that he needs to work on his outside shooting.

Blaier admires NBA star Jason Kidd, whom he watches on cable TV in Israel.

"I've learned a lot from his moves," Blaier said.

Blaier scored only four points yesterday in the Israelis' 48-31 loss to Baltimore. Israel led 17-16 at halftime before Baltimore, one of the favorites to win the championship, pulled away.

Although sports is an important part of the Maccabi Games, which include 1,924 athletes participating in 12 sports at nine sites around the Baltimore area, the social aspect of the event is more important, the participants say.

Athletes trade pins, T-shirts and jackets, and enjoy barbecues, parties and dances as well as sightseeing.

They also will participate tomorrow afternoon in a hands-on community project.

Chaim Shoson, the director of Maccabi Israel, said: "The most important thing for Maccabi Israel is for our children to get to know the Jewish community abroad."

At a glance

What: Jewish Community Center Maccabi Games

When:Through Thursday

Where:Nine venues in Baltimore area

Closing ceremonies:Thursday, 6:30 p.m., Towson Center

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