JCC kicks off countdown to St. Louis-hosted 2016 Maccabi Games

Teens take part in the Maccabi Games showcase, kicking off the year leading up to the 2016 games, which will be held in St. Louis. Photo: Andrew Kerman 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

The world is coming to St. Louis in 2016 and the Jewish Community Center is getting a bit of a head start.

“Now it is our turn,” said Fanchon Auman. “We are shouting out that this is the gateway to the games and it all starts tonight.”

Auman will be director of next year’s JCC Maccabi Games, which are set for July 31-Aug. 5, an event that could bring a thousand or so teenage athletes to the area to compete in a wide variety of sports while celebrating Jewish peoplehood and Judaic values.

St. Louis officially kicked off its hosting duties with a Sunday afternoon gathering. It attracted hundreds to the JCC’s Arts and Education building where they could sample fare from food trucks, dance to DJ-led tunes in the auditorium or simply talk with friends and family. 

The idea was to start building preliminary lists of potential competitors as well as the roughly 1,000 volunteers and 450 host families, which will be needed next year.

“People will be able to sign up to volunteer, to host, to compete,” said Auman. “Anything they want to do in the games, they can find out about it. We’re collecting names and we’re starting now.”

In fact, Lynn Wittels, president and CEO of the JCC, said the agency had begun preparing as early as a year ago. It will be the fourth time St. Louis has hosted the athletic competition. The last such event here was in 2003.

“The Maccabi Games are all about bringing Jewish kids together but it is a wonderful way to engage the entire Jewish community in St. Louis,” said Wittels.

She said those who signed up Sunday will be contacted by about tryouts for athletes, who range in age from 13 to 16, starting in November. Host families will probably get assignments by spring.

This weekend’s celebration wasn’t just about the future. It also honored competitors from St. Louis’s delegation of about 70 young athletes who were just returning from this year’s Maccabi Games in Milwaukee. Four of them were even surprised with the Martin Kodner Award honoring sportsmanship.

Interviewed just before she won the award, soccer player Rachel Bernstein said she was happy to participate in all of the last three years of Maccabi. 

“I met a lot of new people and made a lot of new friends. I was super close to my team and had a lot of fun playing soccer and doing the activities,” said the 16-year-old Chesterfield resident, who will switch from athlete to volunteer at next year’s games.

Auman said everyone had a good time in Wisconsin and there were even some touching moments such as when the St. Louisans met the Polish basketball team on the court.

“Even though [the Polish team] didn’t win, they had a really fun game and they all felt really good about the game,” she said. “When the game was over, the Polish team looked over and said next year we’re coming to St. Louis.”

Lisa Deutsch, a co-chair of the 2016 delegation, said her teenager Ryan, who was also one of the honorees, always looked forward to the event.

“Our son loves it,” she said. “He’s been a million places. He’s been to camp. He’s been to Israel. He’s been at a lot of opportunities and he says going to the Maccabi Games has been one of his all-time favorites.”

Games co-chair David Roberts told the group that he was marking his 17th year with the event. He said he served in every capacity from coach to host family.

Rachel Bernstein’s father, Lewis, said he became involved as a boys basketball coach at the games long ago and was still in that role for this year’s competitions.

“It evolved over many years that we had an opportunity to turn it from just an athletic experience into an overall Jewish experience,” he said.

United Hebrew congregant Joey Boime will see both his children compete this year. He has great memories of Maccabi. He was an athlete in 1986 when he traveled to Toronto to compete. A decade later, he volunteered as a coach when the event came to St. Louis for the second time, a choice that led to a 16-year career at the JCC.

He recalls his parents acting as a host family.

“People look forward to that – being able to show people from other parts of the country our hometown,” he said.

His son Mason, 15, is already looking forward to next year.

“I want to be part of this Maccabi event because my dad did it when he was young and it seems really fun,” Mason said. 

Phone 314-442-3420 for more information or email [email protected].