Maccabi Games not just about competition

Maccabi Games not just about competition

The basketball team from the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades won bronze medals in the 2009 Maccabi Games. Top row from left, Russel Schmidt, Evan Gold, Kyle Gerber, Jake Diamond, Kyle Glefand, Robert Zeller, coach Sean Mac Isaac. Bottom from left, Yoni Krakow, Shai Kaminetsky, Ben Meisel.

Local teens joined thousands from all over the world at the annual Maccabi Games, hosted last week by the Rosenthal JCC of Northern Westchester, the JCC on the Hudson, and the JCC of mid-Westchester.

The Olympic-style competition offers 11 different sports in all, including baseball, basketball, bowling, dance, golf, in-line hockey, soccer, swimming, table tennis, tennis, and volleyball. Forty-four teams from around the world traveled to mid-Westchester to compete in more than 30 different venues. Delegations were sent from Israel, Toronto, Venezuela, and other countries.

The games constituted the largest Jewish gathering in the area’s history. Some 1,700 athletes between the ages of 13 and 16, 350 coaches, and 1,200 volunteers were there, as well as thousands of spectators.

Some 12,000 people filled New York’s Madison Square Garden for the Aug. 16 opening ceremonies. Two thousand athletes and coaches marched in a procession, and 100 members of the Westchester community performed alongside Broadway cast members. ESPN talk-show host Chris Berman narrated the night, which included – as in every Maccabi Game opening ceremony – a tribute to the 11 Israeli athletes who were murdered during the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Anouk Spitzer, the daughter of one of the Munich victims, who was just days old at the time of the murders, spoke to the crowd.

“The opening ceremony sets the tone for the rest of the event,” said Jeff Elias, coach of the boys’ baseball team from the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades.

Also, Elias said, unlike other sports tournaments, “there is a common bond between athletes [other than playing the same sport],” said Elias, “and that is their heritage.”

He noted that the official “Games Guide” stressed “The Rachmanus Rule” (the Rule of Compassion). Maccabi athletes are told not to allow competition to conflict with compassion.

“The spirit of Judaism is present during the entire competition,” said Cary Schneebaum, Elias’ co-coach.

The JCC on the Palisades’ team was chosen back in November and has been practicing since February. Overall, 48 athletes from the JCC competed in seven sports, bringing home 19 medals.

For many of the competitive events, the first two days determine the seeding for the final two days. But competition is not all the Maccabi Games have to offer. The daily schedules consist of sports during the day with activities during the evening. Monday featured a trip to the Bronx Zoo, Tuesday featured Rye Playland, and Wednesday night was “Host Family Night,” during which athletes could choose to spend explore Westchester and New York City or get together with other families for an outdoor barbecue.

Schneebaum said that the moment the competition ended for the day, athletes were able to “take time off and just enjoy themselves.” The next morning, however, the athletes went right back to competing.

“During the game, you want to win, but the difference is that after the game there is this connection,” said 16-year-old Sam Elias, who competed on the JCC’s baseball team. “There aren’t many Jewish athletes in professional sports, so it’s special to get to play with so many and against so many. You don’t get that too often.”

Thursday presented many athletes with heartbreaking losses and joyous finales. Several metropolitan-area teams finished with gold, including the 14-and-under Westchester boys’ soccer and basketball teams, as well as the 16-and-under Westchester boys’ soccer team. Rockland 14-and-under baseball and Westchester girls basketball both took home silver. In addition, many more local athletes were victorious in swimming and other individual sports.

Thursday night, the athletes took part in the closing ceremony, or more appropriately, the closing party. The Westchester County Center housed an actual amusement park ride right where the old basketball court used to be.

“If there is one thing the athletes take out of the tournament, it’s how to have friendly and intense competition,” said Schneebaum. “And all of that starts with the opening ceremony and culminates with the closing ceremony.”

The YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne sent a delegation of 13 athletes that included 11 soccer players, a swimmer, and a tennis player. Fourteen-year-old swimmer Ilana Kleinfeld of Wayne won three silver medals.

The Y’s soccer team, coached by executive director Steve Allen, lost in the quarterfinals, but Allen’s spirits were high afterward as he praised the camaraderie forged between the competitors.

“I’m a competitive person,” he admitted. “It didn’t lessen my admiration and support of the games. This year we lost in the quarterfinals as opposed to last year getting a bronze medal. We do this for the kids and for the camaraderie.”

Last year’s Y soccer team won a bronze medal in the 14 and under age group. This year’s team had five athletes returning from last year.

This was Allen’s 12th year of involvement in the games and his three children all participated. He recalled that when the games were held in Dallas, his then-16-year-old daughter Rachel, now 19, stayed in touch with a boy she met from New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina hit, she learned that he had been invited to stay with his host family in Dallas.

“That’s beyond heart-warming,” Allen said. “There are millions of stories like this.”

Allen said that Maccabi organizers approached him about the possibility of the Wayne Y hosting the games sometime in the future. The Y last hosted in 1991. Allen added that the Y has already applied to compete in next year’s games in Baltimore, where the soccer tournaments will take place.

In addition to Baltimore, the 2010 Maccabi games will take place in Denver, Colo., Omaha, Neb., and Richmond, Va.

The Olympic style event was created in 1982 and featured 300 athletes from 21 North American delegations and one foreign delegation. Fast forward 27 years, and the games are attended by 4,000 to 5,000 Jewish athletes from around the world and held in multiple sites around the country.

Asked how the games evolved from 300 athletes to the thousands that compete today, Elias attributed the success to “positive word of mouth” and the extraordinary “hospitality of the host families.”

Said Judy Nahary, director of children & teen services at the JCC on the Palisades and head of its Maccabi delegation, “The Maccabi Games are the only Jewish tournament that does not play on Shabbat. That and the fact that the games represent so much more than sports – they represent community-building – is what helped them become what they are today.”

Josh Lipowsky contributed to this article.

The 2009 Maccabi baseball team from the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades. Top, Oryah Amrani, Marc Weitzman, Brian Zeller, Kyle Beldoch, Adam Schneebaum, Jordan Landau, Adam Cushmorow. Bottom, coach Jeff Elias, Jake Hirsch, Sam Elias, Sam Cohen, Josh Waldman, Sam Seelenfreund, coach Carey Schneebaum.
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