‘Team St. Louis’ gears up for Maccabi Games

Adam Goldmeier, 14, heads down court during a practice at the Jewish Community Center on Sunday. Adam is one of 85 local teens who will head to Omaha for this year’s Maccabi Games.

By Susan Fadem, Special to the Light

Though their regulation black bags, with Team St. Louis in green lettering, may contain mostly team T-shirts and shorts, 85 area-wide Jewish teens ought to leave plenty of room for the emotional wallop that the Jewish Community Center Maccabi Games invariably deliver. Billed as “a life- and personality-shaping experience” for 13- to 16-year-olds, the Maccabi Games, which began in 1982, are something of a Jewish mini-Olympiad. 

A total of nearly 4,000 Jewish teens from across the United States, Canada, Israel, Mexico, Hungary and Great Britain will compete in August in one of 15 sporting events, from baseball and dance to basketball, bowling, tennis, soccer and swimming. Competitions will take place in four cities – Omaha, Neb. and Richmond, Va., as well as Denver and Baltimore. St. Louis was among competition sites in 1993, 1996 and 2003.

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This year’s local delegation of 85 Omaha-bound teens will depart by bus at 6 a.m. on Aug. 1 from the JCC’s Marilyn Fox Building in Chesterfield. They will be accompanied by local delegation heads Fanchon Auman and Phil Ruben, plus 14 coaches, and will return Aug. 6.

Arguably one of the area’s most thrilled Maccabi Game-goers is first-timer Adam Goldmeier, a 14-year-old basketball player from Clayton. Interviewed during a break in his own three-hour-plus shooting-hoops practice on Sunday, prior to the Maccabi-wide team practices and farewell picnic later that day, he breathlessly shared: “I’m really, really excited. I’ve been at the J all my life and played on the J basketball league since kindergarten.”

A graduate of Epstein Hebrew Academy, Adam will be a freshman at Clayton High School this fall. Other districts and schools represented by this year’s delegation include Rockwood, Parkway, Kirkwood, Ladue, Pattonville and Solomon Schechter Day School.

During the 2003 Maccabi Games here, Adam’s family hosted eight athletes. “They looked like they were having an amazing time,” he recalls. Also in 2003, the Esstman family, of Chesterfield, hosted two Israeli athletes. Andrew Esstman, now 19, is a former Maccabi baseball player. His brother, Joe, 16, a junior at Parkway Central High School, is playing on his fourth St. Louis’ Maccabi basketball team. The Maccabi experience, which promotes “pride in being Jewish,” mandates that visiting athletes stay with Jewish families. Home hospitality represents the extended Jewish family and the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger, according to Maccabi officials.

Besides the over-the-top fun of getting to “roam around and dance on” the field at the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park, rented by the Maccabi Games for last year’s closing ceremonies in San Francisco, four-time Maccabi basketball player Tori Grosz, 16, extols the California family that hosted her and two other girls. “They really wanted to get to know us,” says Tori, a junior at Parkway Central. “We swam in their pool. They really spent time with us.” Tori’s older sisters – Ashley, now 21, and Heather, 23 – both participated in the Maccabi Games. Their dad, all-around athlete Keith, has coached local Maccabi girls basketball teams for “eight or nine years,” he says.

Potential Maccabi-goers here tried out in January and February for the J teams, from which the Maccabi delegation was selected in February. Various teams had their own practice schedules. Dancers, in order to master new choreography, assembled more often than, say, tennis players, who were already involved in individual and team matches.

Yet despite its reputation as a world-famous Olympic-style event for Jewish teens, Maccabi is “not all about winning,” coach Grosz says. During the Maccabi Games’ “Days of Caring and Sharing,” athletes join local community organizations in social-action projects. In the past, athletes have helped build homes for the poor, staged carnivals for kids with disabilities, cleaned parks and packaged food for the hungry. Such events bring out “a lot of ‘the softer side’ of our athletes,” Grosz adds. The purpose of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, is to set an example for teens to incorporate in their daily lives, Maccabi organizers note.

For coaches, at least, thought-provoking moments come regularly. Auman, earlier a Maccabi swim coach, had what she calls an “ah-ha experience” while watching local Maccabi dancers perform a couple of years ago. These were some of the same girls who had attended the J’s early childhood programs and J camps. Auman had taught them to swim. They had competed on the J’s swim teams and also helped the younger kids. As she watched them dance in the presence of hundreds of other Jewish teens, Auman felt awestruck.

Coach Grosz recalls the impact of his first Maccabi opening ceremony. Here were kids from all over the country and part of the world, Jewish kids, some of them elite athletes, others who simply enjoyed participating. In sportsmanship and Judaism, they already had a common bond. And they were soon to share what could be a life-broadening experience.

Sure, sure, first-time competitor Adam Goldmeier might say. He has his own reasons for participating: “I hope to bring home a gold medal. We hope to. Our team wants to.” And then he was back to shooting hoops.