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What Makes the JCC Maccabi Games Jewish

Posted on Tuesday, October 10, 2017 by Jodi Asarch

For the past three years I have had the pleasure of being the Delegation Head for Team Denver for the JCC Maccabi Games.  The JCC Maccabi Games are a week-long Olympic style sporting event hosted by different cities in the US during the summer for Jewish teens from all over the country and world, including Israel.  The Games start with the Opening Ceremonies honoring the Munich 11, the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games.  Denver takes 50-60 teens, ages 13-16.  This year the Games were in Birmingham, Alabama.  Yes, 6,000 Jews in Birmingham raised over one million dollars and home-hosted over 900 Jewish athletes.

The Maccabi Games were created to give teens a connection to the Jewish community who may not otherwise be engaged.  About 40% of our teens are not affiliated with any other Jewish organization.  I often have parents tell me this is their kids’ only connection to anything Jewish.  The overarching goal of Maccabi seems to be met but are we delivering a “Jewish” experience?  

This year in Alabama when the Denver U16 Boys Basketball Team took on Las Vegas, Team Denver was leading by 12 points in the fourth.

What happened next was what makes the Games and many other “maccabi moments” very “Jewish.”

After conferring with our coach, Las Vegas subbed in Gabriel Hafter, a young athlete who suffers from Treacher Collins Syndrome, which causes him to have a soft bone structure so he is unable to play sports.  One of the Denver athletes saw that he did not have a jersey so took off his own jersey and gave it him. Gabriel then dribbled up the court and pulled up for a three.  He drained it.  The entire gym – his team, Denver’s team, the coaches, the referees and everyone watching, erupted in applause and cheering.  One of our teens who witnessed the event said, “Compassion, kindness and inclusiveness are all core at the Maccabi Games, but during this particular moment, we witnessed all three happen at once.”  Gabriel became a celebrity with the Denver Team.  When the Las Vegas team was stuck in Denver on the way home, our players immediately offered up their homes for them to stay and they still keep in touch with Gabriel.  Gabriel’s mother said he wants to frame his jersey. 

I believe three important experiences take place at the Games that are very “Jewish.”

First, we talk about, award and celebrate sportsmanship and midot (character traits) as equal to or more important than winning.  We give Midot Awards for respect, kindness, compassion, inclusivity and team spirit — and they are taken seriously.  Also, at the Games everyone takes part in a service Tikkun Olam project.

Second, many of these athletes usually play on teams where they are the only Jewish athlete – at the Games they feel a part of something bigger, they are part of a community that first and foremost identifies as Jewish.  Teams play competitively against each other but when the match is over they become friends with the other teams unlike at other competitive sporting events.

Finally, the community that hosts the Games, the teens and the coaches gain such a tremendously positive association with a Jewish organization and event because of the friendships developed and being part of something bigger.  Adults often tell me it was their favorite childhood event and it was a Jewish event! Teens also often tell me it is their best week of the summer and it is a Jewish event!

I truly believe this program has a lasting impact on our teens by encouraging a Jewish identity through sports, encouraging a feeling of being a part of a broader Jewish community and creating a very positive association with a Jewish organization.

Jodi Mendel Asarch, an alum of the Wexner Heritage Program (Denver 14), is the current Delegation Head for the JCC Maccabi Games for the JCC of Denver and coaches varsity soccer at the Denver Jewish Day School. Previously Jodi worked in the Colorado Governor’s Office for Energy Conservation and managed the Professional Services Department for eCollege.com.