Local athletes score in international arena
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Local athletes score in international arena

The JCC on the Palisades sent a large delegation to the Maccabi Games in Detroit.

As the world’s top athletes competed in Beijing last month, a younger generation of Jewish athletes from around the world gathered in Detroit for the annual JCC Maccabi Games.

More than 3,000 athletes, all between the ages of 13 and 16 – from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Hungary, Israel, Mexico, and Venezuela – competed in an Olympic-style tournament Aug. 17 to 22. The games included baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis, golf, table tennis, swimming, and dance. New Jersey was represented with seven delegations, including two from Bergen County.

The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly sent 46 athletes to compete. Judy Nahary, the JCC’s Youth Services director and head of its Maccabi delegation, called the experience exhausting and exhilarating. And, she added, “it’s a great opportunity for the kids to bond.”

JCC athletes took home medals in basketball, tennis, table tennis, swimming, and dance, and came in a close fourth in baseball after a game that went extra innings. Baseball coach Howie Spielman called the team a “fantastic group.”

The YJCC basketball team displays its silver medals with head coach Keith Horn.

“Each kid had his moment,” he said.

Nahary agreed that each player performed well, but she called right-fielder Justin Rocke “an exceptional athlete who has been with us for four years.”

Justin, a 16-year-old senior from Northern Valley High School in Demarest, kept the game going by throwing a crucial out to home plate at the bottom of the 10th inning. While he helped the team win the gold his first year, in 2006, Justin said the Maccabi tournament is less about winning and more about being “part of something big.”

The games have helped transform Justin’s team from “12 kids that are teammates to 12 kids that are friends,” he said, adding that he’s made friends from around the world because of Maccabi.

Among those friends is 15-year-old pitcher and outfielder Sammy Elias, who “pitched beautifully,” Spielman said. Sammy, who attends the Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan, said that it was his dad, Jeffrey, who encouraged him to get involved and he is glad he did.

“If you won, it would be a great accomplishment. And if you didn’t, you knew you played against great teams,” he said.

Although the baseball team didn’t get a medal this time, Sammy took home a “great experience” of coming up against the top teams in the country and “good kids on every team.”

Spielman said the 16-team tournament was the largest his team participated in and so the fourth-place finish was something to be proud of.

“The medal rounds are played on one-game elimination, so one small mistake and you’re out; it was a great accomplishment,” he said.

The delegation from the YJCC in Washington Township participated only in the basketball tournament, with 14 players altogether on the girls and boys teams. With help from Cole Dorfman, the top scorer for the division, the YJCC took home the silver medal.

This was the first silver medal for YJCC coach Steve Mark, who participated in the tournament from 1995 to 1998 and has coached at the YJCC for four years. Last year’s girls team won the bronze medal, although this year it was eliminated in the quarter-finals.

“Being such a small delegation and playing against more dominating forces, our team’s goal was just to try and win a couple of games,” Cole wrote in an e-mail to this newspaper, “but after our first two blowout wins, we all looked at each other and said, ‘We can win this!'”

Cole credited his teammate, Brian Horn, for putting the YJCC two points ahead with eight seconds left in the game against Atlantic County. Atlantic County won that game by one point with a half-court, three-point shot. The YJCC beat Atlantic County by two points when they met again in the semi-finals.

Cole said his team was “thrilled to win the silver.” The Los Angeles-Westside team, after winning the final game, gave the team “a great compliment,” Cole said, by calling them the “only challenging opponents.” Cole plays on the varsity team at Pascack Hills High School and hopes to play in college as well.

Spielman called the tournament an experience “in Jewish athletics” and noted the friendships that were formed. “Kids made friends across the country, from Detroit to L.A.,” he said.

Over in Wayne, the YM-YWHA of North Jersey returned to the Maccabi Games after an absence of a few years. Shari Kalter, delegation head and youth and teen director, said, “Randi Ploshnick, the daughter of basketball coach Ira Ploshnick, won two medals in swimming. She tied for the bronze medal in the 50 yard free and won the silver in the 50 yard fly. The YM-YWHA’s boys’ soccer team, coached by Steve Allen, the Y’s executive director, won the bronze medal against Mexico. Ivan Rudd went undefeated and brought home the gold in tennis.”

Nahary pointed to an agreement between all the athletes called the Rachmanus Rule to explain why no one has a bad word or feeling after losing in the Maccabi Games. The rule asks that a stronger team not play too aggressively against a weaker team, forbids “lashon hara” (speaking ill), and even asks that the players of every team be mutually supportive, as everyone should “guide an athlete if you see him or her having trouble with a skill.”

While the Maccabi participants reported an experience they’ll never forget, they also said that not enough people are aware of the games.

“I knew very little about the Maccabi Games before I got involved,” said Spielman, who began coaching the JCC baseball team when his son, Josh, joined four years ago. Spielman called the games “a great experience for the kids,” and wished for more awareness of the games. The tournament can be improved by “getting it out there” and encouraging widespread participation, he said.

“If a kid enjoys playing sports, he should definitely try out for the Maccabi Games,” said the JCC’s Justin.

Steve Allen, executive director of the YM-YWHA of North Jersey, coached the boys’ soccer team, which won the bronze medal at the Maccabi Games.
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