Community carries the torch to plan, welcome Maccabi Games

St. Louis’ Circus Harmony and the Galilee Circus from Israel perform at the closing event of the 2016 JCC Maccabi Games, held on the Millstone Campus. The Games brought together 1,200  young Jewish athletes for competitions and camaraderie July 31 through Aug. 5. Photo: Andrew Kerman

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

A week of intermittent rainy weather didn’t dampen spirits at this year’s Maccabi Games. The six-day-long event wrapped up Friday after a Thursday night celebration to close out the competition with festivities for participants and the traditional passing of the torch. 

“I am so thrilled with how they went,” said Lynn Wittels, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center, as music blared across the Millstone Campus to entertain hundreds of young athletes. “The community really stepped up. They put on a great set of Maccabi Games.”

Those taking part in the Thursday evening festivities enjoyed games, balloon animals, snacks, sno-cones and even selfies with a live camel. A mainstage set-up played pop hits while Israeli music blasted from the other end of the grounds. Many danced to both.

Nearly 1,200 athletes ranging in age from 12 to 16 were in town for the competition, which kicked off July 31. Representing 30 delegations from cities and regions around the United States and abroad, the Jewish youth arrived with another 300 or so coaches and chaperones who were on hand as the athletes showed their stuff at events ranging from baseball to tennis to golf.

“I think the kids really get a sense of Jewish peoplehood,” Wittels said. “They see 1,200 other Jewish teens doing the stuff that they are doing, they make connections, make friends, share experiences that quite honestly will stay with them for a lifetime.”

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The last time Maccabi came to St. Louis was in 2003. That was before Wittels was on staff at the J but she and her husband, Bud Wittels, served as volunteer co-chairs for the delegation. 

“It was great. That’s why we wanted to do it again,” she said. “We saw how great it was for the kids. We saw how great it was for the community. We saw how much it did to inspire people to get involved and we thought it was time we do it again.”

She said event planning and security went off without hitch.

“It was a very comprehensive security plan and everything went as we hoped it would,” she said.

Unfortunately, the weather was a bit of a challenge this time with rain plaguing the competitions for the first three days. Soccer games were moved to the Soccer Park in Fenton while flag-football was relocated to Maryville University. Both played the full set of games scheduled. 

Baseball suffered a few cancelled games, however, as no artificial turf field existed to replace the dampened grass and dirt diamond. Still, everyone remained upbeat.

“Even the kids who got rained out for games, we got emails from a number of them and their families saying this was the best week of their lives in spite of the fact that they didn’t get to play all of the games they hoped to play,” Wittels said.

A delegation from Israel was one of three international teams competing in the games. Ori Sharon, whose basketball squad picked up a silver medal, said he had enjoyed his first visit to St. Louis.

“I couldn’t believe that the Jewish community from all around the world could be so united so I think it is pretty great,” said the 14-year-old. “I loved being here.”

Ori and his teammates weren’t the only Israelis to participate. Wittels said the local hosting delegation included 10 residents of St. Louis’s Israeli sister city Yokeneam Megiddo, who competed as teammates with their Gateway City brethren.

Other Jewish squads came from areas ranging from Los Angeles to Miami.

Grant Krain-Einhorn, a competitor from the South New Jersey squad, said he’d grown closer to his soccer teammates during the experience.

“At the beginning of last year, we were just friends,” said the 15-year-old whose team won one game, lost two and tied once. “We came out as family.”

Fellow Garden State resident Jed Friedman agreed.

“I gained a lot of skill from these games and made a lot of friends I’m excited to keep in touch with,” said Jed, who is marking his third time participating in the Games. “Next year, it’ll be my last. It’ll be sad but I’m really looking forward to it.”

Not all of the fun was reserved for out-of-towners. Grace Morris, an incoming junior at Clayton High School, said she loved showing off her swimming skills. 

“It is really cool to see a big group of Jews together all having fun and supporting each other in competition,” said the Shaare Emeth congregant who marked her first year at Maccabi.

Temple Israel congregant Riley Deutsch of Ladue Horton Watkins High School was also a swimmer, but the 16-year-old said she had competed before in Milwaukee.

“You get especially close with the athletes of your own sport. I met people from all over competing in all different events,” she said, noting she hopes to stay in contact with many of them. “Social media helps you be able to do that a little bit easier. Hopefully, I’ll have some new lifelong friends.”

Another veteran of last year’s Milwaukee games, 16-year-old basketball player Carly Rich, said she liked both competing against other teams and meeting them off the court socially.

“I got closer with my teammates but also I got closer with some other basketball girls in different cities,” she said. “I would highly recommend it.”

For Spencer Lynch, delegation head of the Birmingham, Ala. team, the trip to St. Louis wasn’t just for fun. He’ll be in charge of the games next year when Maccabi visits his city.

“Not only am I getting a preview, we actually brought three board members and eight staff members to witness what a fantastic event St. Louis has put on,” he said. 

Lynch noted that the kids weren’t just making friends with their peers but also the St. Louis families hosting them for the week.

“Our kids who are staying with host families, those families are saying they need to stay connected for a lifetime,” he said.

About 400 local households acted as host families, according to Wittels, who noted an additional 1,000 or so volunteers made it out to help with events.

Shamus Crimmins, now in his second year as a volleyball coach for Dallas, said his squad hadn’t won any games during the competition but they had had a great time in St. Louis. Even the downpours that made life challenging for outdoor sports had a silver lining.

“The rain actually brought everybody inside so they could cheer for us,” he chuckled noting the warmth of all the fans. “Different cities. Different countries. But you would have thought we were the home team.”

St. Louis’ competition followed on the heels of Columbus, Ohio’s games late last month, and will be followed by Maccabi Games in Stamford, Conn., which kick off this week.