Rockland scores gold in hosting Games
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Rockland scores gold in hosting Games

Next up: Keeping volunteer 'army' interested and involved

Marla Cohen is a freelance writer. She lives in Rockland County.

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Rockland’s 16U baseball team brought home a silver medal.

They came, they saw, they conquered – 1,225 teen athletes, who descended on Rockland County for the five days of the JCC Maccabi Games.

As the final party music thumped and teens – giddy from an action-jammed week of sports and activities – capered about during a closing carnival, their delight was evident to any and all.

“The activities, the sports, meeting new people,” said Nikki Suedi, a 15-year-old soccer player from Toronto, gushing about what was “best about Maccabi.”

“I liked the hang time and the swimming,” said Alon Shami, 13, a first-time games participant from Israel. “I want to do it next year.”

The teens took with them medals, a sense of accomplishment, newly forged friendships, and a lifetime of memories. What they left behind was probably more important, having contributed to a community’s sense that just maybe, anything is possible.

“I thought the whole thing came together professionally; it was a very complicated thing to pull off,” said New City Jewish Center’s Rabbi David Berkman, of the JCC’s and the community’s efforts. “So many things needed to be done in a smart way, and, really, it all came together, all the planning came off. They really did an outstanding job.”

Berkman, who delivered the invocation at the opening ceremony of the games on August 12, was impressed with the level of detail, the dedication of the volunteers, and how they meshed with JCC staffers.

“This wasn’t like licking a few stamps,” he said of the level of volunteerism that marshaled 750 members of the community toward a single goal. The JCC hit the ground running and never looked back, from the silent minute held during the opening ceremony in memory of the 11 Israeli Olympians murdered at the 1972 Munich games, through the last bus pulling away from the JCC at the end of the week loaded with exhausted athletes.

Volunteers arranged a transit system that ran constantly and reliably between the hub at Rockland Community College to a variety of sports venues; came up with creative, Israel-themed downtime activities; planned evening parties; organized catering and snacks for an army of hungry teenagers; handled medical care for the inevitable injuries; kept score during games; and hosted athletes – to list but a few of the jobs that were planned out over two years leading up to the event.

The Olympic-style competition is the largest event of its kind for Jewish teenagers in North America. JCC Rockland has been sending teens to the games since 1988. Hosting is an Olympic-size event of a very different kind, and Rockland’s JCC is among the smaller ones to attempt mounting such a huge event. The community is basking in the afterglow of what was clearly a successful experience.

Aug. 12-17 also was the week to pay back those communities that hosted the earlier games. There were 37 visiting delegations, with groups coming from all over the United States, as well as from Israel, Great Britain, Venezuela, Canada, and Mexico.

Participants were housed by 430 host families, who arranged barbecues, swim parties and New York City shopping trips for the visiting guests. It was an experience that made a believer out of Helen Schreiber and her husband, Rob, a former lacrosse player.

Their guests – female athletes from Philadelphia – took gold in their sport (lacrosse, of course), and Helen and Rob cheered them on each day. More than that, the six months Helen spent volunteering on the housing committee after agreeing to host were very rewarding, she said.

“I met some lovely young Modern Orthodox women, and I never would have crossed paths with them before,” she said. Because she had toiled so long on the housing, she was worried the actual event might come as a let-down.

It was anything but.

“I don’t think it could have been better, and I am not so easily pleased,” said Schreiber. “It worked out perfectly.”

More than that, the games will “make us think twice about being more involved,” she said. “It gave us an opportunity to reconnect with the Jewish community in a way we haven’t in a long time.”

Lona Benney Kaplan, an administrator at Coupe Theatre Studio and director of the Rockland Youth Dance Ensemble, had not thought about becoming involved until she was approached by the JCC. She had a handful of reasons why not, but in the end served as the dance commissioner for the competition in that field.

Kaplan put together workshops – with a Broadway veteran, a Rockette, and a hip hop artist from New York – for the 19 competitive dancers. The teenagers had varying degrees of skill, but Kaplan found it satisfying to provide such a positive experience for the mostly 13- and 14-year-old girls who participated.

“I’m thrilled they got to see that,” she said of the workshops and the high-level judges she recruited from the field. “And I’m thrilled that I managed to make time to do this, because it was great.”

According to Eric Lightman, the JCC Maccabi Games director, the post-games feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive” so far. “It’s really more than we ever could have expected,” he said.

In the days leading up to the games, Lightman worried about everything, he said. With eight different sports venues controlled by eight different agencies and organizations, he had reason to be up nights. The JCC in Philadelphia hosted last year, he noted, and on a final walk-through of a facility only days before the games opened, they were informed that teens would not be able to use the showers.

Rockland encountered nothing like that. “When push came to shove, everyone came through and helped,” he said. The staffs at various sites pitched in, came early, and wanted to know what they could do to make things work right.

Rockland County itself saw a real boost during the games, both in the recognition they brought and economically, said County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef.
“The hotels were full, people were going to retail centers purchasing things, there was a real infusion of investment in Rockland County,” said Vanderhoef. “So, from almost every perspective, it [the games] was a success.”

Locals were not the only ones happy with the results. JCC Rockland managed to “do a phenomenal job,” said Dan Deutsch, vice president of the JCC Maccabi Experience, part of the JCC Association, which stewards the JCC Maccabi Games. JCCA staff were in Rockland, observing first-hand how the week unfolded.

“The key to running an event of this magnitude is having all the preparation in the world, and then having the flexibility and room to adapt and tweak as you go.” The JCC had rain plans, knew when to add buses, and in general had done the legwork to make the games flow.

With the games over and gone, the task for the JCC now is to take that energy and enthusiasm, and spin it into greater engagement in the organization and in the community, said Deutsch.

That, of course, is the original goal. In 2009, when JCC Rockland’s board of directors agreed to host the games, the hope was that an event of this magnitude would raise the JCC’s profile in the community, and galvanize the hosts and the myriad other volunteers into becoming more actively involved.

David Kirschtel, JCC Rockland’s chief executive officer, said that the games showed that the community was capable of making a difference on a grand scale. From the effort on behalf of the Munich 11 to win a minute of silence at the London Olympics’ opening ceremony, through welcoming visitors warmly, through the competition itself and finally the closing ceremonies, he said the community demonstrated that it could make a difference in a big way.

“We showed the community, and the world, that we can accomplish anything we set our minds to,” he said.

Now, the community needs to take that potential and carry it forward, he said. He hopes that more people will see not only the JCC, but also their own synagogues, and other organizations as places that can benefit from the heightened energy.

“There are many people who always step up and lead in their community, in their synagogue, their day school, their federation, their JCC, and a lot of people who don’t even put their foot in the water,” he said. “The JCC Maccabi Games gave everyone the opportunity to not only put their feet in, but to get out of it more than they put into it.”

The teens, who were really the focus of the week, seemed to understand that community was really what it was all about.

“Everybody was like a big family,” said Adi Globus, a Rockland swimming star who earned 12 medals during the games. “It was really friendly competition and it was really good to race people from all over the world.”

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