After an inspiring opening ceremony held at Sun National Bank Center in Trenton on Sunday, the 1,200 athletes participating in the JCC Maccabi Games at Cherry Hill’s Betty and Milton Katz Jewish Community Center took to South Jersey’s courts and fields for several days of competition.
Spread over six venues, teens representing 30 delegations from the East Coast, Midwest, Rocky Mountains and California, as well as Israel, Mexico and Great Britain, competed in baseball, basketball, swimming, soccer, table tennis, tennis, track and field, lacrosse and dance. Taking advantage of playing at home, South Jersey’s team alone has 200 athletes participating in the Olympics-style events.
The spirit of the games, designed to bring together Jewish youth for sport, friendship and tikkun olam, was nowhere as evident as at Cherokee High School in Evesham on Monday morning, as Israel and Philadelphia met on the girls’ basketball court.
The game ended with Philadelphia winning, 52-31. Normally, it would have been a much closer game, Israeli coaches said, but this year, their players came straight from a war zone.
Most of the girls on Israel’s basketball team are from Ashdod, a city on the Mediterranean coast just north of Gaza, where Israeli forces have been engaged in battle with Hamas-controlled Palestinians in continuing rounds of airstrikes and rocket fire punctuated by short cease-fires.
“We didn’t practice in the last two months because of the war,” said coach Rebecca Ross, a Jerusalem resident whose family made aliyah from North Miami Beach when she was 9. “The city has been bombed 15 times and their parents wouldn’t let them leave their houses.”
Tali Vasylevsky, 14, said she is very concerned about her family back in Ashdod. “But we talk every day,” she said.
Ross, a first-year coach with the team, participated in the games as a teen and played in Israel’s Women’s Professional League. She said she knows how her team feels, noting that preoccupation with the war and lack of practice has taken a toll.
“We’re a very good team, but this is part of their reality,” she said. “Basketball is very healthy for them. It gives them something to hold on to.”
Her team was thankful for the respite. “It’s great here,” said Chen Bensimon, 14. “They are really taking care of us.”
The JCC Maccabi Games, which happen annually in North America for 13-16 year-olds and feature teams representing a city, rather than a country, were founded in 1982. They usually take place in two or three cities, with distinct sports or arts competitions held in separate locations to avoid overlap. Boca Raton, Fla., is also hosting games this week and more will be held next week in Detroit.
The Cherry Hill Katz JCC last hosted the Maccabi Games in 1999 and was expecting at least 5,000 visitors throughout the four days of competition this month. More than 1,000 volunteers have stepped in as well, with 400 families hosting visiting athletes.
In addition to the large South Jersey contingent, 36 athletes are representing Team Philadelphia in girls’ basketball, soccer, track and field, tennis and lacrosse. Another 84 local competitors will be traveling over the weekend to the Detroit games for boys basketball, hockey, softball, arts and other competitions, according to Marti Berk, head of the Philadelphia delegation.
Team Philadelphia’s girls’ basketball team has practiced monthly since the March trials. Last year, they lost in the gold-medal round to Boca Raton by one point, and were determined to take it all this time, said coach Lindsay Krasna.
Point guard Hannah Fox, 16, a Plymouth Meeting resident and rising junior at Penn Charter, said it’s fun to play against other teams during the day and get to know them at night during homestays and social events.
Added teammate Rachael Millan, 15, a Huntingdon Valley resident and rising sophomore at Lower Moreland High School, “It’s fun interacting, and I took a selfie with the Israeli girls after the game.”
Security was tight at the games, which end Thursday night. All visitors must wear passes, and no bags are allowed. Police are present everywhere, both indoors and out, along with Maccabi Games security. Yellow school buses continuously shuttle teams to and from venues.
Mark K. Chase, first assistant prosecutor for the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office, said security coordination for the JCC Maccabi Games has been in the works for over a year.
“It has been a major effort on behalf of local, state and federal agencies,” he said. “While our plan is solid, our comprehensive team continues to receive updates and monitor the world situation every day.”
The JCC’s million-dollar undertaking is designed to emphasize the community spirit of the games while helping visitors feel secure. At Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees, known as “Games Central,” the main lobby has been reconfigured into a kind of shuk, or marketplace, where teens mingle, trade pins and can have their pictures taken in front of a mock backdrop of the Western Wall.
Tennis player Tamara Kiewe, 15, of Baltimore, said she had 24 pins so far.
“My goal is to get one from each delegation and all the variations,” Kiewe said as she traded with Jared Selkow, 14, an Evesham resident who plays baseball for the South Jersey Delegation.
In Eastern’s cafeteria, athletes can get to know each other while loading up on kosher carbs — pasta was featured Monday, along with Jersey tomatoes in a mozzarella salad, with a variety of cakes from a well-known local bakery for dessert.
Outside at Eastern on Monday, the South Jersey “B” boys’ baseball team of 15- and 16-year-olds was trouncing the East Bay, Calif., team by a score of 14-1 in its first game — a major improvement for a team that came away without a victory in last year’s games.
“We opened up good, played good defense, pitched well and fielded good,” said first baseman/outfielder Skyler Colton, 15, a rising sophomore at Cherry Hill High School East.
Back at the equipment area, Londoners James Gibbor, 24, who coaches tennis, and Matt Travers, 29, who coaches soccer, were sizing up how the day went for England’s 84-athlete delegation.
“We played 20 tennis matches and won 15 today,” said Gibbor, who played in the Maccabi Games held in Boston and Washington, D.C. “I’m happy. The kids are happy. No complaints.”
Said Travers, “It’s always great to see so many Jewish people from around the world.”
It was a sentiment repeated throughout the event. “For me, Maccabi is one of the most exhausting and most rewarding things I get to do as a Jewish communal professional,” Team Philadelphia’s Berk said. “You can play soccer anywhere. But to play on a field where everyone is a Jew — it’s a celebration of Judaism and that’s what makes it very cool.”