St. Louis kicks off Maccabi Games in style

At opening ceremonies on Sunday, the Israeli dele-gation sang Jewish songs and cheered in the corridor of the Chaifetz Arena before athletes paraded onto the court.  

By Hannah Snidman, Staff Writer

A sea of blue “Host Family” T-shirts swarmed into Chaifetz Arena Sunday night in anticipation of the 2016 JCC Maccabi Games Opening Ceremony. The crowd numbered between 4,500 and 5,000 people, according to organizers. 

The host families and spectators modeled lanyards with blue papers around their necks, while athletes displayed neon green ones. I felt lucky to have obtained a rare red credential, worn only by organizing committee and VIP members as well as the press.

This golden ticket allowed me to stand inside the building as crowds hustled through the entry gates, athletes departing in one direction and spectators ushered in another. Adult volunteers worked to keep everyone organized before the 7 p.m. ceremonies began.

Teen athletes, ranging in age from 12 to 16, needed to arrive early at 5:30 p.m. for photos and a meet-and-greet. In addition to eating dinner, the athletes were able to mix and mingle in a creative way.

“We came in and everyone was all together and we met each other,” said Jonah Krell, 14-year-old basketball player from the Phoenix delegation. “There was food and we traded pins. I’d say the trading pins part was my favorite because you get to see what the city’s all about, what they’re known for, and get to know them a little bit more.”

Trading pins serves as a tradition every year for Maccabi. Each participant brings a large set of pins to trade from his or her own city in exchange for dozens of pins from other delegations.

Lindsay Rich, a 16-year-old dancer for the St. Louis delegation, is competing for the second time in the Games. She said her favorite part of opening ceremonies last year was “trading pins with everyone and meeting everyone from different places.”

While the teens were getting to know each other, families eagerly rushed to claim the best seats for the ceremony. Maccabi provided entertainment for spectators while they waited, which included the NiMoLi Chesterfield Dance Studio a hip-hop dance performance and Jewish rock musician Rick Recht, backed by a band and vocalists. He sang a mix of Hebrew songs, such as “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu” and “Am Yisrael Chai,” and English songs, including “Best Day Of My Life” by American Authors.

“Rick Recht is a really amazing performer because he brings so much passion to his work and it brings out the best in everyone,” said Zoey Fleisher, one of Recht’s backup singers and a Central Reform Congregation member. “There was so much energy on stage and in the audience and it was exhilarating to be able to witness everything up close and participate in it all.”

After Recht’s performance, KMOX sports director Tom Ackerman took the stage as emcee for the night and introduced Lynn Wittels, President and CEO of the Jewish Community Center. She delivered an enthusiastic welcoming speech with the Maccabi co-chairs flanking her.

Junior Maccabi athletes —  kids too young to participate themselves —  escorted the athletes by delegation across the arena floor in front of cheering crowds. Many teenagers commented that walking in was their favorite aspect of the opening ceremonies because it felt like the real Olympics.

“I love walking through the building and seeing all the fans from the other delegations,” said Alex Chapman, a 17-year-old baseball player for Chicago and third time Maccabi participant. “It’s a great experience.”

The procession began with Atlanta and ended with standing ovations for the Israel and St. Louis teams. Each of the 30 delegations ran out with athletes dancing, giving and receiving piggyback rides, and taking videos on their cell phones. Snapchat, an app for sending pictures and videos, even had a geofilter specifically for the event.

After players filed into their seats, Chaifetz’s Jumbotrons showed a video for St. Louis’ biggest attractions and then clips advertising the highlights of the Games. Recht returned to perform the American and Canadian national anthems, and rabbis from around St. Louis led the Hatikvah.

The ceremonies took a more solemn turn in paying tribute to the 11 Israeli Olympians killed in Munich in 1972. Every person received a flashlight with one of the Israelis’ names and was instructed to stand and turn on the flashlight when that name was called.

“For a school project, I did a report on Munich 11 at the Munich Games,” Krell said. “So it felt a little bit more meaningful to me because I researched that and learned more about it.”

After philanthropists Carol and Michael Staenberg marched across the arena with a torch to light the Maccabi flame, signifying the Games’ official start, a DJ and dancers from Utopia Studios hosted a dance party for the athletes on the arena floor. Spectators soon joined the teens.

“I thought [the ceremony] was full of energy and all the kids looked like they were having a good time,” said volunteer and host family dad William Goldstein. “We have three kids, but two of them are on the verge of being able to compete in the Maccabi Games someday, and it makes me very much look forward to the day when they are able to participate.”

Before the opening ceremonies began, a VIP reception for more than 200 guests took place in the private room at the arena. It featured a lavish dinner buffet and several speakers, including Wittels, Missouri Senator Jill Schupp, St. Louis Jewish Federation President and CEO Andrew Rehfeld, Maryville University President Mark Lombardi (Maryville was to host several of the competitions and serve as a hub for the athletes) and Jeb Margolis, executive director of Maccabi USA.