Former St. Louis Maccabi athletes stay connected with the Games

David Roberts (left) participated in the Maccabi Games first as an athlete and then as a coach. Roberts and his wife, Donelle (right), are competition co-chairs of this year’s JCC Maccabi Games. 

By Hannah Snidman, Staff writer

Given that the JCC Maccabi Games have been around since 1982, several St. Louisans who took part in them as teenagers are now involved as adults in other aspects of the weeklong competition. What follows are the stories of five local individuals who have been impacted by participating in the Games back then, and continue to stay connected to them now.  

David Roberts, 36, played basketball in the Games in 1993 when they were held in St. Louis. He participated as an athlete for a total of four years.

In 2004, the St. Louis Jewish Community Center offered Roberts a basketball coaching job, which he has continued to do most every year thereafter.

“I was sad when [Maccabi] ended and just wanted to find a way to get back involved with the Games as soon as I could,” said Roberts, who belongs to Central Reform Congregation. “I jumped at the opportunity just because it was something very near and dear to my heart, being able to be involved with the delegation and represent St. Louis.”

As a coach, Roberts holds tryouts in December and then leads practices throughout April and the summer. In past years, he has coached older boy’s basketball, younger boys basketball and girls basketball.

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“It’s mostly being a mentor and a leader for the athletes on your team and trying to help them have the best experience possible on and off the court,” Roberts said. “I’ve really enjoyed my experience coaching all the teams individually.”

In addition to participating as a teen, Roberts played basketball as a member of the Maccabi USA team for the 2015 Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile. This experience inspired him to co-chair the 2016 St. Louis JCC Maccabi Games.

“The opportunity to represent USA was something that always excited me and this opportunity came about,” Roberts said. “I had a fantastic experience playing on the Maccabi USA team at the Pan American Games and my experience there added to the great experience of being able to chair the St. Louis delegation for this Games.”

Roberts will now chair the Masters Men’s Basketball Team for Maccabi USA, which will compete in the 2017 World Maccabiah Games, to be held in Israel from July 5-17. He also plans to try out for the team and is hoping to play himself. While the JCC Maccabi Games in St. Louis are just for youngsters ages 12 through 16, Maccabi USA includes adults who represent their countries instead of city delegations.  

“It’s really uplifting to be able to walk into (Maccabi opening) ceremonies and look around and know that everyone at the stations you see is Jewish and they’re just like you and you are one of many in a world where oftentimes you can feel isolated and in the minority,” Roberts said. “[The Games] are a unique cultural event with a highly competitive athletic backbone to it.” 


Billy Rubenstein played basketball in the 1992 Baltimore Games. He now is working as a co-chair of the Athletics Committee for the 2016 Games here.

“I was randomly housed with an alumni from my summer camp in Maine and stayed with my two cousins,” Rubenstein said, referring to the 1992 Games. “I remember what a fun and competitive time we had meeting and playing against other Jews from around the world.”

Rubenstein is working hard with the chairs to organize all of the volunteers, commissioners and coaches when the weeklong Games begin here Sunday, July 31. He believes Maccabi is an amazing experience for both participants and host city adults.

“I am in awe of how well organized, passionate, and thrilled all the professionals and volunteers are to see the games succeed,” said Rubenstein, who is a Temple Israel congregant. “It is a special feeling to work side-by-side with people in your community to maintain this important tradition for Jewish teens.”

Alison Wittels, 25, played soccer in the 2003, 2005, and 2007 Games held in St. Louis, San Antonio, and Houston respectively. Today, she works as the girls’ soccer coach and oversees marketing on the steering committee for the 2016 Games. 

She is the daughter of J President and CEO Lynn Wittels and 2016 Maccabi Co-chair of Operations Bud Wittels.

Alison Wittels had a great time meeting Jewish kids from other delegations. She is still friends with some of them today.

“I think it’s important for Jewish teens to meet other teens just like them from all over the world,” said Wittels, who attends Congregation B’nai Amoona. “These teens share a unique connection and it is important for teens to recognize that.”


Joey Boime, 46, played basketball in the 1986 Toronto Games. This year, he will coach the under-14 boys basketball team for the 2016 Games.

Boime started coaching in 1996 and continued every year through 2008. He decided to work for Maccabi again this year because both of his children will participate in the Games.

“Not only do you get to coach in the Games and be part of the sports, but you get to go to the social events and make sure the kids are having fun and you can have fun, too,” Boime said. “You get to build more intimate relationships with the players.”

Boime also worked as a delegation head in 2003, 2004 and 2005, but says he prefers coaching. He will host athletes this summer at his home and hopes to continue helping with Maccabi in future years.

“[Maccabi] is kind of a surreal feeling and I think it really does have a positive effect on teens and their Jewish identity when they get to interact with kids from all over the world and become friends with them,” Boime said. “Nowadays with social media, there are ways to keep in touch and create a stronger bond. So it’s very powerful.”

Bryan Sanger, 34, Maccabi co-chair of Athletics, played basketball in the 1993 St. Louis Games and in the 1994 Kansas City Games. He coached the boys basketball team in St. Louis in 2003 and in Omaha in 2002. 

“I decided to coach because I had such an impactful Maccabi experience as a player,” Sanger said. “Coaching was a fulfilling experience because I was able to help the kids have a positive and memorable Maccabi experience for them.”

As a chair of athletics, Sanger is responsible for selecting, training and supervising commissioners of various sports. He also creates schedules and oversees competitions during the week.

“I think the Games are important for Jewish teens because it is a great vehicle for teaching important Jewish values… while also allowing the kids to engage in activities with varying degrees of competition,” Sanger said. “It’s also a great way to meet Jewish kids from across the country who share your core religious and cultural values.”