David Gelfand smiles after racing at the U.S. Paralympics Swimming Team Trials in 2021. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)
David Gelfand still remembers the two-week vacation he took with his family to Israel when he was 13, around the time he celebrated his bar mitzvah.
Gelfand had fun traveling around the country and learning about its rich history. A decade later, he has returned to Israel as a recent college graduate and an accomplished swimmer who’ll get to race against other Jewish athletes in the pool.
Gelfand, 23, arrived in Israel earlier this month. He spent one week going sightseeing around the country and the next two weeks representing the U.S. at the Maccabiah Games, which are known as the “Jewish Olympics.”
“So it’s pretty cool coming back and now being able to see a lot of the country from very different eyes,” Gelfand said while staying at Shefayim, a kibbutz in central Israel along the Mediterranean coast. “Now 10 years later, I get to really see and understand it and get to visit the country in a very different way than I did when I was 13.”
Around 10,000 Jewish athletes are competing in 42 sports at this year’s Maccabiah Games, which runs from July 12-26 at several venues around Israel. Gelfand is the only athlete there who’s also a member of the U.S. Paralympics Swimming national team.
A native of Weston, Connecticut, Gelfand narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 last summer and last month’s 2022 Para Swimming World Championships in Madeira, Portugal.
However, he's getting another opportunity to compete on a world’s stage at the Maccabiah Games. In the six races in which he's competed, he's reached the podium six times, including three golds.
It marks another milestone for Gelfand this summer. In May, he graduated from Tufts University with a degree in mechanical engineering.
“It’s always a huge honor to be representing Team USA, whether it’s at the Pan American Games, which I competed at in 2019, or whether it’s at Paralympic Trials,” Gelfand said. “Whatever meet it’s at, it’s always a huge honor to represent Team USA. And it’s really cool to be able to represent them in different meets and in a different venue.”
Prior to the meet, Gelfand said he was also looking forward to spending time with other Jewish athletes and celebrating “that part of my identity” while in Israel.
Gelfand was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency, a condition in which he has no hip socket and a small bone for his left leg. His parents introduced him to swimming when he was only a few months old.
He said he felt a sense of freedom in the water, and he learned to accept his disability and who he is while standing on the pool deck.
Gelfand won three events at the 2018 World Para Swimming World Series in Indianapolis. A year later, he earned five medals at the same event, including a gold in the 200m individual medley.
As a Jewish Para swimmer with some of the world’s fastest times in his classification, Gelfand said he wasn’t surprised to be named to the U.S. swimming team for the Maccabiah Games. He was recruited to join the team, and he applied to be a member in October.
His decision to compete at the Maccabiah Games came only a few months after he fell just short of qualifying for the Tokyo Paralympics at the 2020 U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in Minneapolis.
“I did everything I needed to, and really at the end of trials I felt like there was nothing more that I could’ve done,” Gelfand said. “It was disappointing. It was not fun to be left at home during the Paralympics, but I was proud of the effort that I put in. I was proud of the experience, and I knew that I still really enjoy and love swimming.”
Swimming has now taken Gelfand back to Israel for the first time since his childhood. However, he said he wasn't putting too much pressure on himself to reach the medal podium at the Maccabiah Games.
“I don’t find it to be very helpful to set expectations in terms of medals, in terms of stuff like that. My goal is to hop up on the blocks and race and to just swim fast and represent Team USA as best I can,” Gelfand said before he competed. “So that’s my plan, and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m just excited to get up and race.”