What do Olympic gold-medal swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg, “Survivor: Africa” champion Ethan Zohn, Doug Gottlieb of ESPN, “American Idol” finalist Brett Loewenstern, and Jay Fiedler of Miami Dolphins fame have in common?
Before they were in the limelight, all five honed their skills and strengthened their Jewish identity as participants in the community and character-building experience known as the JCC Maccabi Games®/JCC Maccabi ArtsFest®. What began as a 1982 pilot project in one city with 300 Jewish youth has ballooned into an annual summer event that attracts thousands of teens from North America and abroad to multiple sites in the U.S. and Canada.
This year’s host communities Austin, Texas (July 28-August 2); and Orange County, California (August 4-9) will greet teens from the U.S., Canada, Israel, Mexico, the U.K, and Hungary. JCC Maccabi ArtsFest will run concurrently with the Games in Orange County. Participants will be able to enjoy a broader social and community experience through the integration of both programs.
Young athletes register for the Games through their local Jewish Community Centers to form delegations. In the same way, young artists audition to join their JCC’s ArtsFest delegation. The Games gives participants the chance to compete in one of 15 team and individual sports; ArtsFest participants can choose from eight different specialties, including rock band, dance, visual arts, musical theater, star reporter, vocal music, acting/improv, and jazz/world music. The program culminates with a final arts showcase.
Since they were established in 1982, the Games 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 for more than a year to plan a busy week of events on the field and off. In every team and individual contest and in each ArtsFest workshop, participants are encouraged to follow the “Rachmanus Rule,” a credo that dictates fair play and support, based on the Jewish values of mercy and compassion. Teamwork, sportsmanship, collaboration, and respect are valued over winning at any cost.
Supplementing the team and individual sports competitions, throughout the week there are fun and engaging social activities that promote friendships, community service projects that instill the Jewish values of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and tzedakah (social justice), and informal educational 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 and ArtsFest year after year, even volunteering as delegation heads, coaches and chaperones once they are too old to participate.
As part of the goal to encourage a stronger connection to Israel, the opening ceremonies include a moving tribute to the 11 Israeli athletes killed by terrorists at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. The Games and ArtsFest also foster community involvement and positive Jewish identity. For example, local Jewish families provide home hospitality to visiting teens, a vital component in reinforcing the concept of Jewish peoplehood and a living reminder of the importance in Jewish tradition of “welcoming the stranger.”
Another key aspect of both the JCC Maccabi Games and JCC Maccabi ArtsFest is the community service program, JCC Cares, which has become a staple of the schedule. With support from Continental Sponsor, The Coca-Cola Company®, this initiative brings athletes and artists together with local social service agencies for social action projects. Past JCC Cares activities have included building homes for the poor, holding carnivals for children with disabilities, cleaning parks, and packaging food for distribution at local soup kitchens.
Hang-Time, another innovation to incorporate Israel into the JCC Maccabi experience, began in 2001. In an area at each Games site designated the K’Far Maccabi, Maccabi Village, Israelishlichim (delegates or emissaries) from the Maccabi Tzair Youth Movement lead activities that teach about Israel, its people, culture and topography. From trivia games to creative Jewish arts projects to taking a “tour” of Israel on an enormous map, athletes and coaches enjoy intellectual and cultural experiences in a fun, relaxed way.
Interacting with international delegations, including those from Israel, has also worked to build a sense of k’lal 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.
Securing Our Jewish Future
Since the inception, about 135,000 teens have benefited from the JCC Maccabi programs, the influence of which extends far beyond the few weeks of summer. Inspired by their participation, many JCCs have developed year-round cultural and athletic programming that has provided the foundation for engaging Jewish teens in commitment to Jewish life and communal leadership – helping to secure a strong future for the Jewish community.