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The Name of the Game: Sports, With Some Culture Thrown In

May 20, 2010 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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Members of the Harrisburg JCC delegation file into the opening ceremonies of the Maccabi-style games. Photo by Greg Bezanis

If you spent this past Sunday gearing up for the Flyers' 6-0 rout of the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, then you were focused on perhaps the weekend's second most competitive athletic competition.

The top slot?

The honor goes to a much younger bunch -- more than 500 strong -- between the ages of 10 and 12, all of whom battled it out for nothing less than a gold medal.

The Stanley Cup's got nothin' on this competition.

The Mid-Atlantic Junior Games, modeled after the Maccabi games, took place last Sunday at the Kaiserman JCC in Wynnewood, drawing 550 athletes and 93 coaches from Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C. Contestants went head to head in soccer, basketball, baseball, swimming and tennis (some split into separate boys and girls divisions).

The day served as a chance not just to enjoy the fresh air and get a little exercise, but as an unobtrusive entry point into Jewish life for some youngsters.

Things kicked off early, with Comcast Sports-Net host Michael Barkann emceeing an opening ceremony featuring a parade of athletes from each of the 15 different delegations, remarks from local political leaders, and the playing of the U.S. and Israeli national anthems, both set to electric guitar.

"Nowhere else in the country is there a gathering of young Jewish teens like this one," said Barkann.

After a few words about good sportsmanship -- aimed at parents and spectators as much as at the players themselves -- the "Rocky" theme blasted out of the speakers, and the kids hustled off to what many hoped would be a day of victory. The various contests were split among the Kaiserman's grounds, nearby Friends Central School and South Ardmore Park.

Out on the Kaiserman's soccer field, Temple University student Talia Katz prepped the Kaiserman girls' soccer team for a bout against the Mid-Westchester JCC of New York.

Katz, 21, got her start in soccer playing on Maccabi teams between 1999 and 2005, and said that "it was such a good experience for me that I figured I might as well let them have the same."

Her players -- some of whom seemed a bit more interested in being interviewed than warming up for the match -- agreed, saying that they signed up because their families are JCC members or because their friends were involved.

That was the case for 12-year-old Marissa Shandler. The Wynnewood resident and member of Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim plays on lots of soccer teams, but her mother, Cheryl Shandler, said that part of the appeal of the games is that Marissa gets the soccer, but "it also keeps her in the Jewish circle."

Seated in lawn chairs, Marissa's parents watched as the evenly matched teams battled it out until the Kaiserman club eventually pulled out a 2-0 win.

Later, down the road at Friends Central School, Anthony Calligaro was bouncing a basketball around between games, alongside his sixth-grade buddies Matthew Leff and Jake Rothschild.

"It's just basketball, so I wanted to do it," said Calligaro, 12, adding that the Jewish element of it was what intrigued his mother about the day.

Calligaro doesn't go to Hebrew school and isn't actively involved in Jewish life the way his two friends are, but the Narberth resident said that the good time he was having might make him more interested in that kind of activity as well.

Said Calligaro: "Maybe -- it depends what it is."

For others, it was both a Jewish thing and a family thing. Take, for example, Alex Woods, an 11-year-old tennis competitor from Gladwyne. His eldest brother won the gold in tennis a few years back, noted his mother, Marsha Woods, and "it's funny, because he does feel some pressure because of that."

Alex was unfazed by it all, according to his mother, and able to take a moment to marvel at all the Jewish athletes assembled.

As the family arrived for the opening ceremonies on the Kaiserman field, she recalled that Alex said: " 'Everybody here is Jewish -- isn't that something?' I'm glad he appreciated that." 

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