Daniel Weiss, 26, could never get enough of sports. As a high school senior, he was recruited to play college soccer but opted instead to play football and run track for Syracuse University.
But he was never too busy for the JCC Maccabi Games. He first took to the soccer field for the annual JCC Mid-Atlantic Junior Maccabi Games for ages 10-12, then played three years for the annual weeklong JCC games for ages 13-16.
What started out as another avenue to play competitive sports became a way to forge a deeper connection with other Jews. This year, for the second time, he’s coaching boys’ soccer at the JCC Junior Mid-Atlantic Maccabi Games, which will be held May 5 at the Kaiserman JCC and several nearby locales.
“I can’t say the kids will become more religious, but they do gain a better appreciation for the Jewish community,” Weiss said, addressing the Jewish impact of the games.
Organizers are hoping that the nearly 700 athletes — representing 13 delegations coming from Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Virginia —have the kind of experience that serves as a building block to a deeper connection to Jewish life.
Opening ceremonies will be held at the Kaiserman JCC. Michael Barkann of Comcast Sportsnet will serve as master of ceremonies. All parents, coaches and players will be asked to take an oath to exhibit rachmanus, meaning compassion, and good sportsmanship.
The competition will be held over the course of a single, intense day. Teams hoping to take gold will likely have to play, and win, six or seven games.
Girls and boys are vying for medals in soccer, basketball, swimming, baseball and tennis.
The Philadelphia region has some 179 adolescents competing for three teams for each sport, representing the Main Line, Bux-Mont and Bucks County, according to Marti Berk, who works at the Kaiserman and is running the Philadelphia delegation.
She said the junior games were founded as a way to get more kids and families interested in doing sports in a Jewish context so they might later participate in the regular JCC Maccabi Games.
Berk acknowledged that the JCC Junior Maccabi Games have limited Jewish content. But she stressed that the weeklong program for older kids offers a much greater opportunity for expanded Jewish programing. It involves a mitzvah project, spending time with host families and even, if the kids choose, interacting with a Chabad rabbi on site.
JoAnn Malmud, 63, who is chairing the Junior games, said, “We hope to get a good feeling and a good experience with the one-day events.”
Malmud, whose daughter is coaching girls’ soccer, added: The “Maccabi Games are not something you do, they are something you feel.”
Enthusiasts acknowledge that it can be difficult to define just how sports can bolster Jewish involvement — especially since participants in all levels of the games span the religious spectrum — but they insist the connection between organized competition and peoplehood is a powerful one.
“I see it on a couple of different levels,” explained Jed Margolis, executive director of Maccabi USA Sports for Israel, the organization that fields the American delegation to the Maccabiah Games.
“Within the Jewish community, we are always looking for connection, for people to feel pride in who they are,” he said. “Our society puts a lot of value on sports. To see healthy kids involved in such an activity is wonderful.”
The Jewish link to organized games goes back to at least the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Europe, and to a lesser extent in this country, as Jews were barred from joining teams, Jewish athletic clubs sprouted up, Margolis explained. These teams often reflected a particular political worldview.
The movement to create an athletic, “muscular” kind of Jew was strongly linked to the Zionist movement and gave rise to the Maccabiah Games in Israel.
Weiss, the soccer coach, made the U.S. Maccabiah soccer team in 2001, but decided, like many that year, not to go because of a spate of terror attacks. The financial adviser did take part in a Birthright Israel trip several years later. Right now, he sees volunteering and coaching as his primary Jewish connection, though he says he hopes to become more involved in the Jewish community.
One of his players, Alexander Kades, a sixth-grader at Welsh Valley Middle School, said he can’t wait to take the field on Sunday. “It will be fun because you are representing being a Jew,” said Kades, who is studying to become a Bar Mitzvah next May at Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne.
Even though he hasn’t played yet, he’s already looking forward to traveling next year for the JCC games, assuming he makes the team. “I didn’t realize how big this was and how many people do it,” he said.
Lynn Goldberg-Shefsky of Holland in Bucks County is the mother of 12-year-old triplets and a 15-year-old, Jake, who played in the junior games several years ago. She thought the experience was so important that she pushed for her triplets, Cory, Drew and Zach, to take part and skip matches for their club teams, scheduled the same day.
The last few years, she said, have been difficult for the family, involving both divorce and resettling. In adjusting to changed lives, enrolling the triplets in Hebrew school just didn’t happen. They are now studying for their Bar Mitzvahs with a private tutor.
For her, the day is all about her kids having the chance to be around Jews their own age — and for once not being a minority on the field. The games will also unite the three siblings, who currently play on two different club teams.
“It is just showing them who they are,” she said. “It is creating a different bond within their sporting career,” and giving them “the opportunity to play together with their own people.”