By David Unger
It’s easy for me to say that after working in the JCC field for more than 25 years—I left in 2003—some of my best memories of my JCC career are those of the JCC Maccabi Games®.
As a Jewish professional in a small Jewish community such as Portland, Maine, I often encountered challenges that larger Jewish communities don’t necessarily face. One of these challenges was how to strengthen and maintain our youth’s Jewish identity in a world of growing assimilation. The JCC Maccabi Games allowed us to achieve this goal beyond our wildest dreams.
In 1999, I was the executive director of both the JCC and the Federation. At the time, our community was in the process of merging the two organizations and Jewish Family Services into its current model, the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine. When I took the program budget for the JCC Maccabi Games to the JCC’s executive committee, the members did not approve the funding. I was told we needed to raise the funds ourselves, independent of the budget, if we wanted our kids to participate. I took on the challenge and exceeded our goal. (As an aside, these “asks” were by far the easiest “asks” I had to make in my JCC and Federation career.)
My two sons were on the JCC Maccabi team, giving me insight into the experience—both as a Jewish professional and as the parent of athletes who participated in the Games.
At our first Games at the Louis S. Wolk JCC of Greater Rochester, in New York, as I stood with my younger son in the staging area before the Games’ opening ceremony, he turned to me and asked, “Are there really this many Jewish kids in the United States who play sports?” That question was the force that drove me to continue strengthening our commitment to attend future Games. Our youth (especially in smaller Jewish communities) need to be better connected to the Jewish community worldwide.
My older son (now in his late-30s) shared with me that he recently told one of his friends about his experience in the JCC Maccabi Games and how much he valued meeting so many Jewish kids from around the globe.
One of the mistakes I made the first year our JCC participated in the Games was not providing enough delegation pins to our team members. With no experience to draw upon, I didn’t realize the importance of the pins or the team t-shirts. Trading delegation pins, an age-old JCC Maccabi tradition, helped our kids meet and interact with other teams’ participants in an easy non-competitive way, alleviating awkward first-time encounters that are common among teens. Partially because of these exchanges, some participants stayed in touch with other teams’ members well after the Games’ closing ceremonies. After that first year, we provided enough pins and extra t-shirts so our team could trade widely with others at the Games.
During the last year I worked for the JCC Movement, our community made a connection with one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia. We were fortunate to be able to bring a delegation from Tbilisi to Portland several days before the Games. Our team had the opportunity to house the young people and practice with them before we all left for the Games at the JCC in Boca Raton, Fla.
Even though it’s been nearly 20 years since I worked in the Jewish communal world, I still follow various JCCs, Federations, and Jewish organizations on social media. Over time, I have seen many new programs and offerings for Jewish youth, but the JCC Maccabi Games remain the only one that gathers Jewish youth from around the world—whether for sports or the arts—and instills in them a lifelong commitment to Israel and the greater Jewish community. None of this Jewish identity building can be duplicated online or on social media platforms, which makes it critically important that participation in the JCC Maccabi Games be a priority in every JCC community across North America.
Join us in Israel this summer for JCC Maccabi 2023! Sign up and join the games at jccmaccabi.org.
David Unger is a former JCC executive at what is now the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine. After leaving the field in 2003, he was a non-profit consultant and retired in 2018.