For Texas teen, traveling to Maccabi Games here had special significance

For teen Jared Steele (center) of Texas City, Texas, coming to the Maccabi  Games marked the first time he had left his home state and a rare opportunity to be surrounded by Jewish peers. Photo: Eric Berger

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Before traveling to the JCC Maccabi Games in St. Louis, Jared Steele, 15, had more experience in the water than in the clouds. 

A swimmer from Texas City, a port and refinery city about an hour south of Houston, Jared had never before left Texas. It was only his second time on a plane. 

In contrast to cities with large Jewish communities, such as Houston, Texas City has no synagogues. And Jared said teens there have to deal with “a lot of gangs, and a lot of bad things.” 

Still, once he arrived at the games as part of the Houston delegation, Jared was suddenly surrounded by Jews who welcomed him. 

“It’s very different, but when you’re here, you have a very good time and all the people are very friendly so they take you in as another one of their friends,” he said. “If you don’t know them, all you have to do is go up to them and talk to them.”

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Jared comes from a family of swimmers, said his mom, Michelle White. 

White swims. Her mother swims. Jared’s uncle and aunt swim. 

“It’s what we like to do,” White, who doesn’t like to fly, said by phone from Texas.

The family is comfortable in the pool, but not always comfortable in Jared’s neighborhood, where gunshots are sometimes heard at night And because of the gangs, at night, they will sometimes go outside to make sure no one has damaged or stolen their trucks. 

Fortunately, the family lives diagonally across from Jared’s high school, so “nothing much happens unless you’re another block down,” he said. 

Marianne Chervitz of Chesterfield hosted Jared and another Houston athlete at her home. Chervitz has a teenage son and daughter and said she is glad they were able to interact with Jared. 

“It’s been nice to get to know him,” said Chervitz, a coordinator at the Family Center at the Jewish Community Center in Chesterfield. 

“And it’s nice to hear his story and how he’s grown up. It’s different than how my children have grown up, and it’s good for them to see, too. I think people tend to stick with people who are a lot like them, so this has been a really good opportunity.”

Jared also made a positive impact on behalf of his delegation in the lap lanes at the Chesterfield J. He captured two silver and two bronze medals. On the last day of the games, he thought his team would be able to medal in a relay, but that didn’t happen. 

Still, Maccabi organizers have tried over the past decade to shift the focus of the games away from result-oriented  competitions and toward Jewish values and rachmanus (sportsmanship). That message appears to have reached Jared, who also swam at the games last year in Dallas.

“Even though you’re here to compete in your sport, you’re also here to make friends, make memories and have the fun experiences,” he said.