Maccabi Games coming here in 2016

Members of the St. Louis delegation pose for a photo during this year’s Maccabi Games. (Photos courtesy: JCC)

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

For the first time in more than a decade, St. Louis has snagged a spot as a host city for the 2016 JCC Maccabi Games.

“I am thrilled that we will be bringing the JCC Maccabi Games back to St. Louis,” said Lynn Wittels, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis.

The Gateway City previously hosted the event in 2003, 1996 and 1993.

“Each of those years, we had an outstanding experience,” Wittels said. “We wanted to host again for lots of reasons. First and foremost, it’s all about the kids. This is a great experience for Jewish teens that will last them a lifetime. We have so many examples of how these kids have stayed connected and built lifelong friendships because of the JCC Maccabi Games.” 


The Olympic-style sporting competition is held each summer in North America and features more than 6,000 teens ages 13 to 16 competing in individual sports such as bowling, tennis, track, dance, golf and swimming, as well as in team sports including basketball, flag football, soccer, lacrosse, softball, volleyball and baseball.

“The games also will make a significant economic impact on the St. Louis region. That’s the icing on the cake,” Wittels said. “But I think about the new leaders we can develop from this and the young adults we can engage who may have participated as a teen and now want to be a volunteer. It’s very exciting.”

Fanchon Auman, director of sports, recreation and aquatics at the St. Louis JCC, knows that excitement well. This year, she’ll be director of the games, but she started in 1993 as a volunteer and has served in roles ranging from coach to delegation head.

“It spotlights St. Louis and shows what a wonderful place St. Louis is. It also brings our Jewish community together,” Auman said. “It is one thing where it doesn’t matter how you observe Judaism, whether you are Orthodox, Traditional, Conservative or Reform. They are one.”

Part of the impetus for St. Louis to host the games came from the results of a nationwide 

Pew study that raised  many questions about  ways to promote Jewish engagement. Athletics can be one of those modes of connection. Auman said that 46 percent of the athletes who compete don’t belong to a synagogue.

Interaction won’t take place only on the field of competition.

“You also have social events,” said Auman, who one year hosted the Israeli dance team in her home. “When it was here before, we went to the zoo. This time, we’re thinking of maybe City Museum.”

There will also be a service project with a focus yet to be determined. Auman said that last time, the kids helped clean and plant trees in Forest Park.

Auman said a capital campaign is being introduced with a goal of raising $700,000, but some of that total can include in-kind contributions. Naming and sponsorship opportunities also are available.

Mark and Nancy Kodner co-chaired the games in 2003.

“It is a great situation for all these kids from all over the country to meet each other,” Mark Kodner said. “We still hear about kids who met at the Maccabi Games years ago, who will run into each other in New York or San Francisco and have the games in common.” 

He said it also serves as a character-building exercise.

“It teaches kids how to be good sportsmen beyond the medals and the wins and losses,” Kodner said. “It shows them how to deal with each other. They show a lot of compassion toward each other, a lot of courtesy, a lot of respect.”

Kodner believes the games will focus positive attention on St. Louis.

“It brings recognition of the Jewish community and our youth to the whole St. Louis community and beyond,” he said. “Every aspect of it is fantastic.”

Wittels said she expects 1,200 to 1,300 teenagers to compete in St. Louis. 

Most of the competitions will take place away from the JCC facility so that members would not be affected. 

“We will start immediately to identify venues for the various competitions,” Wittels said.

Wherever those venues are, Corey Wallis of Chesterfield plans to be at one of them. 

“Maccabi has been a big part of our lives,” said Wallis, who has regularly coached basketball since his introduction to the competition in 1996.

His daughter Zoe was on one of those earlier teams and now plays college hoops. Her younger sister Paige has also been a regular on the Maccabi court and, by the time the 2016 games come to town, a third Wallis sister, Jadyn, will be old enough to compete.

In addition, Wallis has two brothers who coach the games,  and their kids have been involved as athletes.

“It’s a family affair,” he said.

And it is something larger.

 “It really is an opportunity for the entire community to pull together,” said Wallis, who was once honored as an outstanding coach by the JCC at the national level. “It creates a huge camaraderie, and it is a ton of fun. You can see childhood friends, high school friends, college friends. Their kids or even grandkids are involved.”

But it’s not just about the kids.

“There are tons of us from around the country that are repeat coaches,” Wallis said. “We’ve got a camaraderie and we look forward to seeing each other as adults. A lot of us communicate throughout the year and stay in touch in St. Louis or on a national level.”

Wallis hopes that the young athletes will learn something about each other, themselves and their cultural identity while having a great time.

“It is like a weeklong bar or bat mitzvah party,” he said.

The St. Louis games will take place July 31 through Aug. 5, 2016. Other host cities are Columbus, Ohio, and Stamford, Conn.

Editor Ellen Futterman contributed to this article.