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Games Score Big With Teen Athletes

August 17, 2011 By:
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The Mexican JCC Maccabi delegation says "hola" to Philadelphia. Photo by Sergio Rojstaczer

The 2011 Philadelphia JCC Maccabi Games had just gotten under way Monday morning, but Harry Cohen, a 14-year-old baseball player from northern New Jersey had already been knocked out of competition.

The art competition, that is.

The wet weather had put a damper on the baseball tournament, delaying the start by a day. Rather than racing out to the field as scheduled, the boys were gathered beneath a tent on the grounds of the Kaiserman JCC, making Rosh Hashanah cards for clients of the Jewish Relief Agency.

That was just one of the half dozen service projects undertaken by the 1,250 athletes during the competition this week.

The team's coaches had decided to inject a little competitive flavor into the crafts project. Cohen, who plays third base and pitches, said he took the task seriously, but the judges ruled him out. "I came here to play baseball, but it's always nice to give back to the community," said Cohen, who confessed that he was anxious to play.

The episode served to highlight the complexity of staging an event of this magnitude -- with competitions held at nearly 20 venues, indoors and out, and a compressed, four-day schedule. It also provided a reminder that the Maccabi Games aren't just an athletic competition, but an opportunity for Jewish teenagers to come together, forge bonds and engage in community service.

The 30th JCC Maccabi Games officially kicked off with the Aug. 14 opening ceremonies at Villanova University's basketball stadium, with about 5,000 people in attendance. Philadelphia, which last hosted the games 10 years ago, was one of three venues for the international competition this year. The other two were Springfield, Mass., and Israel, which hosted teen games for the first time.

"Can I can get a shalom from the congregation?" master of ceremonies Michael Barkann of Comcast SportsNet, asked the crowd, the first of many quips. "I was going to start with my haftorah portion, but I didn't think it was appropriate."

The evening spectacle managed to invoke both the City of Brotherly Love and Jewish peoplehood. On the Philly end, the program featured references to soft pretzels -- and yes, the treif cheesesteak -- a rendition of the Rocky theme song by a Mummer's brigade and even a Ben Franklin impersonator.

On the Jewish end, the evening concluded with a performance by the Israel Scouts Friendship Caravan. Most poignantly, the ceremony included a tribute to the 11 Israeli athletes and coaches killed by terrorists at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

Alon Howard, an Israeli native and now Philadelphia-area resident who was a junior member of that team as a wrestler, recited the names of the fallen as two kites flew high in the arena, evoking the specter of soaring spirits.

"I was in exactly the same position that you are in more than 40 years ago," Howard told the gathered participants, recalling his own, international Maccabiah experience in Israel. Howard's son, Gabe Howard, is now one of the coaches for the local in-line hockey team.

"This is a special opportunity for young people to develop camaraderie, respect and sense of unity."

During the ceremonies, athletes from 41 delegations and seven countries-- including Great Britain, Canada, Panama, Venezuela, Mexico and Israel -- marched around the arena, some teams moving slowly and taking it all in and others jogging. Some athletes carried teammates on their shoulders, one even performed a "worm" breakdance move on the floor.

The Israeli delegation received a standing ovation. The Philadelphia team, the last to enter, had nearly 300 members and it took about five minutes for the entire contingent to circle the arena as family and friends cheered.

Andrew Harris and Andrew Lipton had just gotten off a flight from London a few hours before the start of the ceremony and were racing to get their seats. Both had sons representing Great Britain in tennis.

Lipton said that participating in an international Jewish sporting event was an invaluable experience for his son. Alluding to the high cost of participation, he also joked that he's "looking forward to seeing where all our money has been spent."

For Philadelphia athletes, the base cost was a little more than $1,000.

Awaiting their first game the next morning, teen soccer players Shannon Saffer and Shana Weisman, both from San Diego, seemed overwhelmed by the opening ceremony experience.

"It's been really cool to see all these kids. There are so many people. It's been really special because we all have one thing in common, we are all Jewish," said Saffer.

Each recalled visiting a different part of the region with their respective host family.

Weather threw a slight curve ball into the proceedings, though it improved as the week went on. The first day of baseball was canceled. Soccer matches were pushed back and lacrosse was moved indoors.

But other indoor sports went off without a hitch. Over at the smaller gym at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, spectators squeezed in to watch the Philadelphia girls' opening basketball game against the Samuel Field Y in Queens.

Philly jumped out to a 19-5 lead. Sharie Linder, of Port Washington, N.Y., winced as her daughter Allie missed a free throw. Cheering on her daughter is fun, win or lose, she said.

But the family had a bit of a conundrum. Her son, Noah, also a Maccabi athlete, had a basketball game at the same time. So her husband and mother went to the other game and the couple texted one another updates throughout. The following day, they planned to switch things up. (The Philly girls won that contest 46-11.)

Back at the Kaiserman hub, where athletes in-between competitions gathered throughout each day, the place buzzed as players, coaches and volunteers moved about.

Dan Deutsch, a Maccabi official involved in overseeing the games in Israel, Massachusetts and Philadelphia, took a break from the frenetic activity to marvel at "how everything has come together, especially for such a big event. Philadelphia has done a really great job."

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