On your mark, get set, go to the Maccabi Games
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On your mark, get set, go to the Maccabi Games

The first time I experienced the opening ceremonies of the Maccabi Games it was awe-inspiring," says Maccabi Games alum Steven Mark. The annual games, known as the "Olympics" for Jewish teens, attract athletes from around the globe and give participants the chance to compete in one or more of 14 individual sports. This August, more than 50 delegations will attend, at three different sites. "You can’t duplicate the experience," Mark continues. "You look around and you realize there are people all over the world that you have a connection to, even though you’ve never met."

Mark, who played basketball at the games in 1995, is now the director of sports and recreation at the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township. He is also a games delegation head and will be heading to Orange County, Calif., this summer with a troupe of nine YJCC athletes, including a boys’ basketball team, a golfer, and a female basketball player, Michele Feldman, who will join the roster of a coed JCC team from Baltimore.

The JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, which has hosted the games, will send 5′ athletes, eight coaches, and two delegation heads to the Orange County site. Their students will take part in a variety of competitions including baseball, basketball, tennis, table tennis, swimming, and boys and girls dance.

Dancing is not usually considered a competitive sport, but, says Louise Sansone, the Maccabi dance coach from the JCC on the Palisades, like the other Maccabi contests, it helps "teach the students that they have to make the world a better place. The best moment is watching 1,000 enthusiastic athletes be competitive, but also have compassion for the other athletes."

Sansone and her choreographer Frankey Rodriguez lead their team in the most watched sport of the games. Dancers compete in a variety of dance styles including: ballet, jazz, and hip hop, both as individuals and teams.

Most of the Bergen County YJCC’s athletes are Pascack Hills High School students. The YJCC’s boys basketball roster includes Michael Friedberg, Sam Katz, Eric Pittel, Michael Horn, Jake Wolfin, David Nathin, and Max Needle, who attends Ridgewood High School. Gregory Bell is the delegation’s golfer. Michael Friedberg, along with Sam Katz and Eric Pittel, will be going to the games for the second time, and Michele Feldman for the third time. "Seeing the opening ceremony was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," says Friedberg, who attended last year’s games in Connecticut.

Josh Spielman of the JCC on the Palisades boys U16 baseball team remembers the Connecticut games fondly. He and his teammates, along with making friends, took home the gold medal for their baseball prowess.

"The Maccabi games offers a group of yeshiva kids a wonderful way to be introduced to a high level of topnotch players and, unlike other team sports, it doesn’t interfere with Shabbat," says Howard Spielman, Josh’s dad and coach. This year’s U16 baseball team plays together year ’round in anticipation of the games and is composed of athletes both from area yeshivas as well as from local public high schools. And of course, they are hoping to win the gold again this year, said Spielman.

The Maccabi Games began as a pilot project in one city with 300 Jewish athletes, but has grown to an annual summer event that attracts thousands of youngsters to host cities. Now in its ‘5th year, the games will draw nearly 5,000 athletes and will be held in three different host cities, Houston, Texas; Baltimore, Md.; and in California’s Orange County (the exact site has not been made public for security reasons).

People involved at every level say that since the games were established in 198′, they have offered a life-changing experience, not just to the athletes themselves, but also to their parents and coaches and the legions of volunteers in host communities who work hard all year to plan a busy week of events on the field and off. In every team and individual contest, participants are encouraged to follow the "Rachmanus Rule," a credo that dictates fair play, based on the Jewish values of mercy and compassion. Teamwork, sportsmanship, and respect for opponents are prized over winning at any cost.

Supplementing the team and individual sports competitions, social programs promote friendships, community service projects instill the Jewish values of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and tzedakah (social justice), and informal instruction that fosters a personal connection to the state of Israel. Over the years, participants have spoken of making new friends and memories to last a lifetime, motivating many to return to the games year after year, even volunteering as delegation heads and coaches, once they are too old to compete.

As part of the goal to raise teens’ awareness of and connection to Israel, each year the opening ceremonies include a tribute to the 11 Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian terrorists at the 197′ Olympics in Munich, Germany. For the past several years, Anouk Spitzer, the daughter of Andre Spitzer, one of the Munich 11, has appeared at the gathering.

The games are also said to foster community involvement and positive Jewish identity. For example, local Jewish families provide home hospitality to visiting athletes. Another key aspect of communal support is the volunteer social service program, "Days of Caring and Sharing," which has become a staple of the schedule. With support from the Coca-Cola Company, the continental sponsor, this initiative brings athletes together with local social service agencies for day-long social action projects. Past Days of Caring and Sharing activities have included building homes for the poor, holding carnivals for handicapped children, cleaning parks, and packaging food for distribution at local soup kitchens.

Hang-Time, another innovation to incorporate Israel into the JCC Maccabi Games experience, began in ‘001. In an area at each games site designated the K’Far Maccabi, Maccabi Village, Israeli shlichim (delegates or emissaries) from the Maccabi Tzair Youth Movement lead activities — from trivia games to creative Jewish arts projects to taking a "tour" of Israel on an enormous map —that teach about Israel, its people, culture, and topography.

The interaction of international delegations, including those from Israel, is intended to build a sense of k’lal Y’Israel, the unity of the Jewish community worldwide. A dozen Israeli sister cities send athletes to participate alongside their American counterparts. Music, signs in Hebrew, kosher food, and more all contribute to the strong Jewish aura of the JCC Maccabi Games.

The sense of community that the games offer is very real. Howard Spielman notes that after meeting on the field in intense competition, the teams board the buses together. "It’s a wonderful feeling to look around on the bus and see the kids from opposing teams exchanging uniforms and team pins," he says. "It’s a great week."

"Kids take something special away from the games," says Mark, who feels the athletes not only connect with their Jewish heritage, but they become more involved with the JCC when they return home. "The moment the athletes experience the opening ceremony, they realize what a big deal it is," says Mark, "and the overall majority of kids want to return to the games year after year."

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