JCC Maccabi Games, the world’s largest Jewish youth sporting event, took place this summer in Israel and in Florida. The JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains and the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly both sent delegations to both events.
Among 1,000 Jewish 14- to 17-year-old athletes from 10 countries participating in Israel during July were 14 from the JCC on the Palisades and 14 from the JCC of Central New Jersey.
Each delegation came home with many medals. Perhaps just as importantly, most members forged new international friendships and a deeper connection to Judaism and Israel.
The Olympic-style JCC Maccabi Games in Israel, a signature program of JCC Association of North America in partnership with Maccabi World Union, drew 74 delegations from North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Morocco sent a delegation for the first time, thanks to the Abraham Accords that the country signed with Israel three years ago.
Team sports competitions included baseball, basketball, flag football, ice hockey, soccer, and girls’ volleyball. Individual sports included swimming and tennis, as well as a “star reporter” competition in sports journalism and social media.
Because the Scotch Plains and Tenafly teams were small, the athletes played on mixed teams with peers from other states and countries, Emily Einhorn said. Ms. Einhorn, who headed the Central Jersey Maccabi delegation, is the athletics director at the Scotch Plains JCC.
“All the teams and their coaches met for the first time at a practice on Friday before the games,” Ms. Einhorn said. “Most of them were from other communities in the United States, and our girls’ soccer team included a player from Switzerland and a player from Canada.” That team won a silver medal, while two other teams with some Scotch Plains players won bronze in volleyball and baseball.
“Kids who didn’t know each other before the games came together and became close knit,” she continued. “Our delegation was on a bus with one from New York, and some of those kids have become friends. I love the connections these kids form. It’s something that stays with them for years to come.”
Her sentiments were echoed by the delegation head of Team Palisades, Raychel Reilly, who is the chief health and wellness officer at the Tenafly JCC.
“We brought a full basketball team to Israel and quite a few individual athletes, but the others were playing with kids from five or six delegations who had never met before, yet they played so closely by the end of the week,” Ms. Reilly said.
“Team Palisades included 14 athletes from our community and five from our sister city in Nahariya,” the official sister city of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. “They were an amazing addition to our team, and our kids are all best friends now.”
The bonding was further cemented following the week of games, as the teens set off together for 12 days of educational touring and service projects.
Doron Krakow, president and CEO of the JCC Association, called the experience “a profound encounter with the wider Jewish world.”
He noted that while the participating teens reflected a diversity of observance, background, and identity, JCC Maccabi marked the first immersive Jewish experience for 63 percent of them.
All participating athletes received a $3,000 voucher from RootOne, an organization that subsidizes immersive summer trips to Israel for thousands of Jewish teens.
The athletes earned the travel money by attending a series of online courses developed in partnership with the iCenter and taught by North American JCC Maccabi Education Fellows. The classes introduced JCC Maccabi teens to the diversity of Israel and encouraged them to explore their individual relationships to Judaism, Israel, and Zionism through the lens of sport.
Samantha Cohen, the JCC Association’s senior vice president of program and talent, said, “As part of our broader Israel engagement strategy, we worked with RootOne to design learning opportunities that show Israel’s vibrancy, successes, and challenges and connect young Jewish athletes to engaging content that speaks to their love of sports. This experience is also a special way to welcome teens into the Maccabi Movement and strengthen their Jewish identity before many of them head to college.”
The activities included climbing Masada at sunrise, floating in the Dead Sea, sleeping in a Bedouin tent, and celebrating a collective b’nai mitzvah ceremony at the Western Wall for those athletes who had not marked this Jewish milestone.
“We had shomer Shabbat kids and those with no Jewish connection at all,” Ms. Einhorn said. “For a lot of them, it was their first time going to Israel and getting in touch with their Judaism.”
The service portion of the trip included, among other things, getting acquainted with wheelchair basketball athletes at the Israel Sports Center for the Disabled and playing wheelchair basketball and table tennis at the Beit Halochem rec center for disabled IDF veterans.
Another activity was picking onions for distribution to the needy through Israel’s national food rescue organization, Leket, which was founded by Joseph Gitler, who made aliyah from Teaneck.
The delegations attended shows by the Shalva Band, featuring Israeli musicians with disabilities, and Mayumana, an interactive performance group.
“I believe every Jewish teen should experience JCC Maccabi, whether you attend a Jewish day school or whether it’s the only Jewish thing you ever do,” Ms. Reilly said. “It brings people together under one common umbrella to have the time of their lives and create a connection to Judaism through sports.”
One of Team Palisades’ co-captains, 17-year-old Charlie Hurd of Wanaque, began participating last year “and it was one of the first Jewish experiences he’d had,” Ms. Reilly said.
“When he came home, he started wearing a yarmulke to his varsity basketball games, and he inspired and impacted another teen athlete, Justin Rodriguez, to participate this summer. Justin, who is from a half Jewish household in West Caldwell, went into it with eyes wide open, wanting to absorb and learn everything from celebrating Shabbat to putting on tefillin for the first time. He came back with a real sense of pride in being Jewish.”
In addition to medals for sports achievement, Team Palisades earned four midot — character — medals. Justin won one of these medals; the others went to Orly Silverstein, Itay Solomon, and Matt Collado.
“Matt started swimming only two years ago,” Ms. Reilly said. “He entered 12 events at the Maccabi and won 12 medals, which is very rare.”
Matt, 15, who is from Tenafly, told Ms. Reilly that the midot medal was the one that made him most proud, she reported. “It was awarded unanimously by all the coaches in the swim meet for the way Matt conducted himself with respect in and out of the pool,” she said.
After Israel, JCC Maccabi continued in North America from August 6 to 11, hosted in partnership with the David Posnack JCC in Fort Lauderdale.
Nearly 2,000 teens from the United States, Canada, and six other nations competed in baseball, basketball, ice hockey, girls’ volleyball, flag football, lacrosse, soccer, table tennis, tennis, swimming, and dance competitions. A parallel program was offered for Jewish athletes with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The Scotch Plains JCC sent a delegation of eighteen 12- to 16-year-olds to Fort Lauderdale, where they garnered 11 medals in swimming as well as a silver medal in under-15 girls soccer and bronze medals in under-15 boys soccer and in 15-16 girls soccer.
“In Florida, there wasn’t time to have a structured practice before the games began, and still we saw that these mixed teams of kids who had never been on a field together before did incredibly well together,” Ms. Einhorn said.
The Fort Lauderdale event also included a community-service component.
“Every year, each delegation is assigned an item to bring, and this year they all brought sneakers of different sizes,” Ms. Einhorn said. “They packaged up the shoes for disadvantaged children and included handwritten notes with encouraging messages such as ‘Let’s Kick off a Great School Year.’”
The JCC on the Palisades sent 11 athletes to Fort Lauderdale and came home with eight medals.
Some athletes, including Team Palisades co-captain Ava Marchfeld, 16, participated in both the Israel and Florida games.
Ava, from New City, N.Y., served the winning point in her team’s gold-medal volleyball match in Fort Lauderdale. “That was my third set of JCC Maccabi games, and it was so amazing to finally win gold!” she said.
This year, the JCC Association raised more than $5 million for JCC Maccabi. In addition to RootOne, which is supported by the Marcus Foundation and powered by the Jewish Education Project, funding came from Mosaic United, the Samueli Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Seed the Dream Foundation, and other individual and anonymous donors. The Coca-Cola Company also is a longtime sponsor of the JCC Maccabi Games.
The Games’ partner, Maccabi World Union, is the world’s only international Jewish sports organization that focuses exclusively on sports for Jewish teens and young people. The organization, comprising about 450 clubs in 70 countries on five continents, organizes Maccabiah, the so-called Jewish Olympics, in Israel every four years.