Let the Games begin!

JCC Maccabi Games coach Jim Greenstein greets athletes during a meeting for players and parents on Sunday at the Jewish Community Center. Photo: Andrew Kerman

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

In 2014, Jonathan Deutsch traveled by himself to Cherry Hill, N.J. to watch the JCC Maccabi Games. 

In most years, the Jewish owner of a manufacturing company would have been joined by hundreds of teenage athletes from St. Louis competing in sports ranging from flag football to swimming. But the local Jewish community did not send a delegation that year because the games took place after most schools in Missouri had already started fall classes. 

That won’t be a problem this year as St. Louis hosts the games for the fourth time, beginning Sunday, July 31, through Aug. 5. 

Missing the 2014 games “was probably most disappointing for the 15- and 16-year-olds who had participated in one or more Maccabi Games and missed their last opportunity to participate,” said Deutsch, events and fundraising co-chair for this year’s games. 

Despite many commonalities among games hosted in different cities and different years, the games have changed over time. Differences include not only the sports played, but also activities unique to the host city and the way in which competition is treated. 

Still, veterans of the games provided similar answers to the Jewish Light about why they continue to compete or volunteer in the games. 

David Roberts, competition co-chair for the games, said: “What I enjoy most is the opportunity that (Maccabi) provides for Jewish teenagers from all over the world to come together, with athletics as the backbone, and see that there are kids just like them that have common interests, common values. And they just get to celebrate their Judaism.”

The games will feature 1,200 athletes, 250 delegation heads and coaches, 2,500 volunteers and an estimate of more than 1,000 spectators. Lynn Wittels, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center St. Louis, estimates that the games will generate almost $5 million for the local economy from hotel rooms, restaurants, retail purchases and rental cars. 

 A gathering place for Jewish teens to connect and compete

Thirty teams of athletes from Portland, Ore., to Birmingham, Ala., as well as from Canada, Israel and Panama, will compete in the games. Competitive events in St. Louis are baseball, basketball, dance, flag football, golf, soccer, softball, swimming, table tennis, track and field, and volleyball. 

Lacrosse and ice hockey are played in other cities. Games also are taking place this year in Columbus, Ohio and Stamford, Conn.

St. Louisan Josh Horwitz, a power forward who will be competing in the basketball bracket for 15- and 16-year-olds, said he is looking forward to building on last year’s success in Milwaukee, when the team surprised others by finishing in fourth place. It upset Israel and narrowly lost against teams from Los Angeles and Chicago.

“They thought they would be able come in and beat us by a lot,” said Josh, who attends Ladue Horton Watkins High School and belongs to Kol Rinah. 

In a victory against Boca Raton, Fla., Josh scored 39 points, making 20 of 23 from the free throw line. 

He said the goal this year is to win the gold medal. But that competitive drive isn’t the only reason he is excited about the games. 

“I’m most looking forward to seeing a lot of my old friends who are coming in to St. Louis, and meeting new people from different places,” Josh said. 

The games have always been centered around Jewish values. But events co-chair Roberts, who has been involved in the games 16 times, says an increased emphasis has been placed on rachmanus (sportsmanship) in the past five years or so. 

“We want to see teams and athletes compete at their highest ability, but not at the expense of the other team,” said Roberts, who is focusing on athletics and marketing the games. “We have stressed it in all of our meetings with sports commissioners, stressed it in a lot of our communications with coaches, and we will continue to emphasize it throughout the week.”

Corey Wallis, a Maccabi coach who has three daughters who have played basketball at a high level, put it this way: 

“If you’re looking at competing just for competing’s sake, just stick with (Amateur Athletic Union) because this is not the place for that.”

Wallis’ daughter Jadyn will compete in the games for the first time this year at age 12, one year younger than the typical ages of 13 to 16 but which she is allowed to do because the games are in St. Louis. But that age disadvantage could be mitigated by her height: She is 5 feet 10 inches tall.

“This sounds bad, but I’m really tall, so a lot of people think I’m older than I am,” Jadyn said. “I’m not that scared. I’m actually excited to be with” the team.  

She has watched her two older sisters compete and said that while she is looking forward to the competition, she is equally excited about meeting teens from other cities and trading gear with them. 

That emphasis on sportsmanship has reached other players as well. Josh said one of the highlights of the games last year in Milwaukee was connecting with members of the Polish basketball team who had limited English and weren’t particularly competitive.

“We just talked and learned about what their lives were like, and they wanted to learn more about what our lives were like in America,” he said. “I don’t think they won a game, but it didn’t matter because of course you want to win, but it’s about representing your city and your country in the right way and meeting new people.”

Andie Stern, a track and field athlete, echoed Josh’s thoughts about friendship trumping that competitive streak. She had significant success at the games last year winning 11 medals, the majority of them silver. And she kept losing to the same person, an athlete from Milwaukee. Despite the disappointment, the two have remained friends, following each other on social media. And fortunately for Andie, the other athlete is doing a different sport this year, she said.

“It’s not too competitive,” said Andie, who will be a freshman at Ladue. “It’s fun to go against people and meet a bunch of people from different places.”

Downtime filled with activities

Players will have the best chance to get to know one another during the downtime between games and at nighttime activities. The games this year will feature Israeli shlichim (emissaries) doing a variety of Israel-related activities, such as pita bread making, a visit to Israel in 3-D and an “IDF (Israel Defense Forces) boot camp.” 

Also planned are evening events at the Dave & Buster’s entertainment restaurant and the City Museum, and an introduction during one afternoon to Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, sponsored by BBYO. Opening ceremonies Sunday will be at Chaifetz Arena. 

“The two Maccabi Games that I have been to, the parade of athletes is the most exciting both for the athletes and for the spectators, seeing the kids enter the venue,” said events co-chair Deutsch, who is responsible for the time between games and nighttime activities, among other things. 

Each person interviewed mentioned the same element when talking about their excitement for the games: friendships. 

“What I really enjoy the most is the camaraderie of the Jewish connections,” said Wallis, a girls basketball coach who will celebrate his 20th anniversary as a Maccabi participant this year. “It’s really rewarding to see these kids bouncing off the walls and interacting with each other. It’s a lot of the same people over and over and over, so it turns into a reunion for (the adults), too.”

Deutsch said he is looking forward to seeing teens making connections.

“It’s similar to summer camp, in that these are relationships that you will have for the rest of your lives,” he said.