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Concentric Circles | Shabbat Shalom 24 Av 5783 שַׁבָּת שָׁלוֹם

By Doron Krakow

Concentric Circles

Just like that it was over. The 2023 JCC Maccabi Games and Access were roughly five years in the making, and not a single one of the teen athletes who participated would have been old enough to compete when the planning began. The experiences we provided to more than 3,000 athletes and nearly 15,000 others, including coaches, delegation heads, volunteers, host families, colleagues, partners, and friends were the upshot of years of hard work, steadfast determination, and an unwavering commitment to Jewish peoplehood.

This past week, the David Posnack JCC in Davie, Florida, and the Jewish community of Broward County hosted one of the largest JCC Maccabi Games in recent memory. More than 2,000 teen athletes from 64 JCC communities across North America were joined by delegations from Ukraine, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Mexico, and, of course, Israel for five days of competition, Jewish service projects, Israel engagement, and community building. The South Florida heat and humidity were high, but they were nothing compared to the warmth of our hosts.

At nearly every major JCC Movement gathering and those in the wider Jewish community, I find myself engaged in conversation about the mission—the purposes for which we work with such abiding dedication. I often speak about it in terms of concentric circles. Three circles to be precise.

The innermost circle comprises the hard-core members of the North American Jewish community—the stalwarts, those active in multiple sectors of Jewish life. The second and next larger circle is the one in which JCCs often operate. It includes the core, of course, but also a much larger number of Jews in our community who feel a somewhat looser attachment to Jewish life. The largest is the one in which the majority of North American Jews are found. Demographers tell us they’re there—and in growing numbers—but have elected to remain apart, having passively faded or simply chosen a different path.

There’s little new in this simplified analysis other than to note that as evidenced by declining levels of participation in so many sectors of Jewish life, the inner circle is shrinking and the middle one is at risk. Having worked in the Jewish community for more than 30 years, I think we operate with the mindset that our success will be a function of how well we do in our efforts to grow that innermost circle and tip the balance of the other two increasingly toward the middle. More members of our community who are more connected, more committed, more engaged. That’s the pursuit of Jewish peoplehood in a nutshell.

But we’re not doing nearly as well as we need to be.

It was hard not to think about the circles as I listened to Samantha (Sam) Cohen this past Sunday evening in Fort Lauderdale. Sam is the extraordinary leader of the JCC Maccabi Games and Access, whose life and career have been inspired by her own experiences as a JCC Maccabi participant from the U.K. who visited New York City for the Games in 2000. While expressing her gratitude to those whose leadership and generosity made this summer’s Games possible, she shared the following statistics:

Sixty-eight percent of first-time participants at last month’s JCC Maccabi Games in Israel and 70% of first timers in Fort Lauderdale are otherwise uninvolved in their Jewish community. Similar statistics are typical of the Games every year.

For the majority of those who took part in the Games in Israel, it was their first visit to our Jewish homeland. Given that 68% were otherwise unconnected to Jewish life, it is more than likely that but for the Games, a visit to Israel may never have happened.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this summer’s JCC Maccabi Games were an extraordinary example of just the kind of success to which so many of us across the organized Jewish community aspire. The power, passion, and purpose of the Games strengthen the fabric of the inner circle and provide untold opportunities to those in the middle circle to move closer to the center. Perhaps of greater significance, these Games allowed the Jewish community to reach into the third circle, drawing hundreds of teens and, through them, thousands of family members and friends into a newfound connection with the Jewish community and the Jewish people. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Except, actually, it does.

The 2023 JCC Maccabi Games in Ft. Lauderdale included the second year pilot of JCC Maccabi Access, a specially designed experience for teens with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Launched last year at the Games in San Diego with seven athletes from four JCC communities, this year’s Access Games included 21 athletes from seven JCCs—and those numbers will grow substantially again when JCC Maccabi Access arrives in Houston in 2024.

For these young athletes and their families, it isn’t a lack of desire or interest that often consigns them to the outer circle. Rather it is a lack of attention and determination on the part of the Jewish community to do what is necessary to include them. JCC Maccabi Access, like the JCC Maccabi Games, is about so much more than the athletes. Through Access, the JCC Movement brings along siblings and parents, grandparents and friends, neighbors and teachers. Like all families, these families struggle with how best to provide their children with experiences that enrich their lives and the lives of the people who love them. They feel 10 feet tall watching their kids march into the arena amidst the fanfare of the opening ceremonies, as part of their JCC’s delegation and when Access officials present them with their well-deserved medals after each event

I attended the Access Games’ closing ceremonies on Wednesday afternoon. Following a celebratory luncheon, the athletes and their one to ones (the people, often family members, who care for them and support their participation throughout the Games) marched into the sanctuary of Temple Beth Emet to the roar of the crowd. Video highlights of the three-and-a-half-day competition preceded the awarding of trophies as each athlete enjoyed one more moment of stardom. I watched these kids with an enormous sense of pride in what we, as a movement, have made possible, but it was the overwhelming sense of joy and gratitude of their parents and grandparents and the obvious impact the experience had on our staff that left not a single dry eye in the house.

Whatever we gave to these incredible athletes, their gift to us is far greater. They have contributed themselves, their families, and all those who love and care for them to our circle. Thanks to them, it—like our hearts—is now a whole lot bigger.

May our Jewish circles continue to grow, and may we go from strength to strength.

Shabbat Shalom | שבת שלום

Doron Krakow
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America

On August 13, 1948, James G. McDonald arrived in Israel to serve as the United States’ first special representative—a role that would, before long, transition to ambassador. McDonald and the U.S. Mission were initially located in the Gat Rimon Hotel, which served concurrently as the home of the diplomatic mission of the Soviet Union. McDonald previously served as a member of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, which visited Palestine in 1946, and as a special representative of President Truman in a series of visits to Holocaust survivors in displaced persons camps throughout Germany in the post-war years. The ambassador chronicled his experiences in his memoir, “My Mission in Israel,” which was published in 1951.

And that’s the way it was…

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