The Maccabi movement began in 1895, when the first all-Jewish sports club was formed in Constantinople. The first world Maccabiah Games were held in Israel in 1932. This two-week competition still takes place every four years, and has featured many world-class Jewish athletes including: Mark Spitz and Jason Lezak (swimming), Mitch Gaylord (gymnastics), Ernie Grunfeld and Danny Schayes (basketball), and Brad Gilbert and Dick Savitt (tennis).
The first North American JCC Maccabi Games for teens were held in 1982 in Memphis, with 300 athletes participating. Since then, the Games have grown from a small pilot project in one host community, to a world-class sporting competition held each summer in multiple sites throughout North America.
Last month, 111 teen athletes and artists represented Team OC at the 2016 JCC Maccabi Games & ArtsFest in Stamford, Connecticut. For over 25 years Orange County has sent teens to the Olympic-style games, and this was the largest travelling OC delegation to date. The team includes Jewish teens with diverse backgrounds and varying religious affiliations. For the first-time, Team OC includes youth who graduated from the JCC’s annual Jr. Maccabi Games, one day of competition and fun.
“It’s an amazing life changing experience for Jewish youth from around the world to come together. With the common thread of being Jewish, they compete in art, athletic activities and participate in community service” – Adrienne Matros, board member for Merage JCC and the national Jewish Community Centers of North America.
Team OC joined over 3,000 participants from across the globe, for the largest gathering of Jewish teens in the world. “The sheer size of this event and the opportunity to connect so many teens to Israel and to the Jewish people is epic!” says Sam Cohen, Assistant Executive Director at the Merage JCC, and a participant including athlete, coach, delegate head and Games Director of the Games since 1999. “For many of our teens, this will be the highlight of their Jewish journey. The energy and excitement that comes from bringing together both the local and global Jewish communities make it a unique and unforgettable experience for every participant” says Cohen.
“The Games & ArtsFest are unique because you are totally immersed in intense programming with Jewish teens from your own community and from all over the country. There is no other program like it where you are surrounded by Judaism, sports and arts, and also friendship. It may last just a week—but the friendships and connections I made will last much longer, and my sense of Jewish pride will last a lifetime,” explains Joey Sable, a four-time ArtsFest participant. Joey, a sophomore at Orange County School of the Arts, participated in the musical theatre arts specialty as part of ArtsFest.
Orange County had teens playing baseball, boys and girls basketball, golf, hockey, boys and girls lacrosse, boys and girls soccer, as well as swimming, tennis and even ping pong. In addition, our Orange County teens participated in master classes for musical theatre, rock music and the visual arts, with an arts showcase ending the Games with a raucous celebration.
Team OC athletes also represented our community with pride off the field, earning special gold medals for demonstrating midot, or Jewish values. These values include Tikkun Olam (repairing the world); Kavod (respect); Rina (joy); Ga’ava (pride); Lev Tov (open heartedness); and Amiut Yehudit (Jewish people hood).
As important as the sports competitions, the teens look forward to the many fun and engaging social activities that promote friendships, community, global and Israeli connections and Jewish values. Just prior to the Games, our Team OC teens travelled together to New York City bonding them as a team, introducing them to new friends from their own “backyard” they would not otherwise meet, celebrating Shabbat, touring and creating memories.
During the Games & ArtsFest, teens stayed with the host community’s families, enjoying meals and outings, and again, feeling connected to the larger Jewish community. In fact, Doug Gottlieb, a CBS Sports analyst and former professional basketball player, and former OC-resident, hosted four OC teens at his home, with his wife and three children.
In addition to activities with host families and the Games themselves, all the teens were involved with JCC Cares, for an afternoon of community service. Together they lived the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam, and were further connected to thousands of other fellow Jewish teens who share their history and culture.
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, many eventually volunteering as coaches and chaperones. Parents, coaches and volunteers are also impacted by the fun and strong sense of Jewish people hood and connection to Israel. “As a former athlete and now coach at the Maccabi Games, I know firsthand the feeling of pride representing our community at the Games.” Catie Chase, girls soccer coach, involved in the Games for more than 15 years.
“Year after year, Team OC athletes represent the Merage JCC with spirit and sportsmanship and make us proud,” said Dan Bernstein, President & CEO, Merage JCC, “Their strong sense of Jewish camaraderie, combined with impressive athletic and artistic abilities are the highlights of the Games.”
While many think of the JCC Maccabi Games program as the “Jewish teen Olympics,” it also serves a purpose much greater than just an athletic competition. The Games promote community involvement, teamwork, and Jewish pride. Regardless of who gets awarded medals, each athlete leaves with positive memories, life lessons, and lasting friendships.