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After 40 Years, Why JCC Maccabi® Matters More Than Ever

With little more than 10 days until the July 31 kick-off of this year’s JCC Maccabi Games®, the excitement is intense. More than 1,600 Jewish teens are set to arrive in San Diego in the coming days to participate in the world’s largest organized sports program for Jewish teens. Thousands of coaches, host families, volunteers, and spectators will join them, cheering on the athletes throughout the week-long program.

The return of the Games after a two-year pandemic hiatus is adding to the anticipation at the Lawrence Family JCC on the Jacobs Family Campus (LFJCC), which is hosting this year’s event. Expanded to feature the launch of JCC Maccabi Access, this newest facet of the Games will include Jewish teens who have cognitive and developmental disabilities, providing them with a meaningful and integrated JCC Maccabi experience. Continued expansion of JCC Maccabi in the coming years, including Games in Israel in 2023, will bring the program to a greater number of North America’s teens, helping to shape their Jewish identity, connect them to the Jewish world, and prepare them for Jewish communal leadership roles.

In the meantime, several milestone anniversaries will be part of the 2022 Games. For three decades, the Coca-Cola Company has generously supported JCC Maccabi as its continental sponsor, and members of Coke’s executive leadership team will be in San Diego to celebrate the occasion. This year also marks 50 years since the tragic loss of the Munich 11, the Israeli athletes and coaches murdered by terrorists at the Olympic Games in 1972. Following decades of tireless advocacy on behalf of the athletes’ and coaches’ families by Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano—whose husbands were among those murdered—the first-ever moment of silence for the Israelis was observed at the most recent Olympic Games in Tokyo. Steadfast support also came from the JCC Maccabi movement as part of a campaign led by JCC Rockland in West Nyack, New York, which hosted the JCC Maccabi Games in 2012. As always, the Munich 11 will be honored and remembered during the JCC Maccabi Games’ opening ceremonies next week.

This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the JCC Maccabi Games, which were hosted by the Memphis JCC, Tennessee, in 1982 with 300 athletes. By 1997, that number had swelled to 4,400, with Games held simultaneously in six American cities. In 2000 when 16-year-old Sam Cohen, a first-time JCC Maccabi athlete from Great Britain, walked into New York City’s Madison Square Garden for the opening ceremonies to the cheers of thousands of people from all over the world, “it was magical,” she recalled. “As we stood together and sang ‘Hatikvah’ (‘The Hope,’ Israel’s national anthem), in that moment we were all one, and everyone understood they were part of something so much bigger [than themselves]. They were part of a worldwide Jewish family.”

“That experience changed my life,” said Cohen, who today is a vice president of JCC Association of North America and the director of the JCC Maccabi Games. “JCC Maccabi was the place I found my connection and my calling. It opened my eyes to this world of Jewish life that I had no idea existed and to a sense of belonging to the Jewish people and a deep, deep connection to Israel that I am still exploring and building on to this day. I went to New York as a British tennis player; I left as a Jewish athlete.”

Such reactions are even more powerful today, two decades later, particularly in light of the Pew Research Center’s most recent study of Jews that finds that “[T]he youngest U.S. Jews count among their ranks both a relatively large share of traditionally observant, Orthodox Jews and an even larger group of people who see themselves as Jewish for cultural, ethnic or family reasons but do not identify with Judaism—as a religion—at all.” For the majority of JCC Maccabi athletes—and the adults who support them—the Games represent their sole connection to Jewish life, culture, and k’lal Yisrael, the Jewish people. As such, the work of JCC Maccabi to enrich participants’ Jewish pride and identity, as well as their connection to Israel, and instill in them an appreciation and understanding of Jewish values is paramount. Six middot (values or character traits) are central to the Games, guiding how participants interact with both teammates and opponents: kavod (respect, including self-respect), ga’avah (pride), rinah (joy), lev tov (big hearted), tikkun olam (repairing the world), and amiut yehudit (Jewish peoplehood).

JCC Association orchestrates the Games in collaboration with founding partners Maccabi World Union, Maccabi USA, and Maccabi Canada. The annual event offers JCCs an avenue to reach teens; provide them with a supportive environment that fosters mutual respect and sportsmanship; promote and encourage their health, physical fitness, and well-being through athletic activities; and introduce them to the international Maccabi Movement, which offers opportunities for athletic, cultural, and social activities with Jews from around the world.

“There is no other program in the Jewish world that engages thousands of Jews from every corner of Jewish life,” said Cohen. “It is an incredible Jewish experience that is so much more than sports. Most importantly,” she emphasized, “it gives people lifelong Jewish connections and memories and a transformative experience to start or continue their Jewish journey.”

In 2023 JCC Maccabi Games will be held in both Israel and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. From July 5 to 25, more than 1,000 Jewish teens from JCCs around the world will experience the magic of JCC Maccabi in Israel. Here in North America, another 1,800 teens will participate in JCC Maccabi Games to be hosted by the David Posnack JCC in Fort Lauderdale from August 6 to 11.

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