No, the Maccabi Games are not the Olympics.
The teens who participate in the annual Jewish sporting event do not undergo the same grueling training as their Olympic counterparts, nor do they strive to break world records.
On the other hand, the Olympics – which this year spurned the opportunity to demonstrate both courage and compassion by honoring the Israeli athletes killed in Munich in 1972 – are not the Maccabi Games, either.
According to Eric Lightman, Maccabi Games director at the JCC in Rockland County – which, along with JCCs in Memphis and Houston, is hosting this year’s event – the petition initiated by the Rockland JCC calling for a moment of silence in London to mark the 40th anniversary of the massacre ultimately drew more than 110,000 names.
While Lightman said he has been too busy to watch the Olympics, he noted that his group’s opening ceremony will differ significantly from that of its secular counterpart. Not only will it bring together young Jewish athletes from around the world, but it will be dedicated to the Munich 11 and include both tributes and a moment of silence.
“The centerpiece will be at the opening ceremony,” Lightman said. “It will be a major element. It’s amazing how much awareness we raised,” he added, citing the “buzz” created by the petition.
Just before the games began, Ankie Spitzer, wife of slain 1972 Israeli Olympic coach Andre Spitzer, and Ilana Romano, widow of Israeli weightlifter Yosef Romano, presented the petition to IOC President Jacques Rogge, alongside leaders from the JCC Rockland. Despite worldwide pressure, Rogge refused the request.
By contrast, compassion, formalized in the “rachmanus rule,” is a big part of the Maccabi Games. Sponsored by the Jewish Community Center Association of North America, with support from Maccabi World Union, Maccabi Canada, and Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel, the Rockland event, to be held Aug. 12 to 17, will place a large emphasis on teamwork, sportsmanship, compassion, and community.
“We talk about rachmanus, compassion, from the time the kids step off the bus,” Lightman said. “That makes it a Jewish event. Not cursing, not just running up the score because you can, but demonstrating values, sportsmanship, and respect for yourself, your teammates, opponents, coaches, and officials. We take it extremely seriously.”
Tenafly team gearing up
Judy Nahary, youth services director at the Kaplen JCC in Tenafly, which is sending 40 participants to the games this year, said the local JCC has been a longtime supporter of the games. It hosted the event in 2003, fielding a team of 420 kids on its home turf that year.
As in most delegations, boys far outnumber girls, Participants range in age from 13 to 16, coming primarily from areas of Bergen County closest to the JCC. Nearly 30 teens from other parts of the county will participate as members of the Rockland delegation.
“We’re sending 14U [14 and under] boys’ baseball and basketball teams, a 16 U boys’ basketball team, and a mixed girls soccer team,” Nahary said. Other students will participate in golf, table tennis, tennis, and dance.
“We form our teams by November and then practice throughout the school year,” she said. “We also practice in the weeks before the games.”
While a large number of students try out, not all can be accepted for team sports, she said, pointing out that the size of a delegation is determined by the ability of the host JCC to accommodate all its visitors. There is more flexibility, however, for individual events.
“We’ve done pretty well [in the past],” Nahary said, noting that Tenafly teams have brought home both gold and silver medals.
Still, she said, it’s not all about winning, and “everyone takes an oath to uphold the rachmanus rule.”
“The kids get it,” she said. “After the games are over and they reflect, they realize that they got so much more out of it than just the competition. They meet Jewish athletes from around the world and take pride in it. At the opening ceremonies, they all get their spotlight moment. But when you see them all march in, you’re rooting for everyone.”
Delegates to the Rockland games this year will come from throughout the United States, Canada, Latin America, Europe, and Israel.
“The experience leaves kids with the feeling that they are one of many,” she said. “It’s way beyond games – you feel you’re part of something bigger.”
Fourteen-year-old Zack Cohen of Englewood – who participated on the baseball team in last year’s games in Philadelphia and will play basketball this year – said he is working hard preparing for the games, practicing about four times a week.
“It’s about 50 percent sports,” he said. “The rest is meeting new kids and having fun.” It definitely makes a strong impression to see so many fellow Jewish athletes at one time, he said.
Jared Caplan of Englewood, also 14, will be going to the games for the first time this year.
“If everyone works hard, we’ll do fine,” he said, adding that he’s excited about it. “It will be a great experience to play with different people and to see friends from other JCCs.”
Both boys, students at the Frisch School, said they would have a lot of friends and family members coming out to cheer for them, since Rockland is so close to home.
Carly Latner, 15, was part of last year’s undefeated soccer team. It had been her first time playing in the games, which she had attended as a guest the year before because her brother was an athlete.
“It was really fun,” said Carly, who lives in Closter and will attend Northern Valley Regional High School at Demarest in the fall. “I made a lot of new friends,” she added, noting that she will participate in the games again this year and is looking forward to it.
A labor of love
Lightman, a third-year graduate student in nonprofit management and Jewish studies at NYU, was hired by the Rockland JCC two years ago specifically to spearhead the upcoming games.
Lightman said the Rockland JCC has been fielding teams at the Maccabi Games since 1988.
“We’ve always had strong delegations,” he said, “as many as 100 kids. It’s always been a program the community really supported. Our lay leadership has always dreamed of bringing it here.”
The community’s dreams, he said, “are finally coming to fruition. It’s a way to give back to a program we believe in and [in which] over 1,000 Rockland kids have participated.”
According to the JCCA, the Maccabi Games, held each summer in North America for the past 30 years, are the largest organized sports program for Jewish teenagers in the world. The Rockland games are expected to draw more than 1,300 Jewish teen athletes, 200 from the local community. Participants must have at least one Jewish parent and identify as being Jewish.
The games have been springboards for some iconic sports figures, Lightman said, citing, for example, swimmers Lenny Krayzelburg and Jason Levak, both four-time Olympic gold medalists.
“It’s an amazing opportunity for the community to come together and put aside their differences for one week,” he said, pointing out that while some events will take place at the JCC, others will be held at Rockland Community College and other athletic venues around the county.
More than 430 Rockland families will host the athletes, Lightman said, and “over the course of the week there will be hundreds of volunteers” helping with the games and other events.
In addition to team and individual sports, the gathering will feature both cultural and social activities as well as social action projects.
On Wednesday morning, all athletes will participate in JCC Cares, “a half-day to do something very important,” Lightman said. Students will have dozens of different projects from which to choose – they can visit nursing homes, beautify local parks, or work with children in the Special Olympics.
Carrie Sakim, Rockland JCC’s athletics director and head of the local delegation, called the games “a fantastic experience for the coaches, staff, and kids. Unless you’ve done it, it’s hard to describe.
“It’s a great social environment,” she said, with participants getting to meet their counterparts from all over the world. “And with social media, that’s lasting friendships.”
Sakim said that preparing for the games is “a labor of love, both nurturing the kids and educating the community as to what the games are all about.”
As she watched the Olympics this week, Sakim said, she noticed that athletes who were interviewed said that they were trying to take it all in and enjoy the experience.
“That’s what I’ve been impressing on our coaches.” she said. “It’s not just playing the game. They should take in the experience.”