Chasing Maccabi

JCC looks to bring youth games to Rockland

by Marla Cohen

For four years, Marcie Schlanger, 19, participated in JCC Maccabi Games, playing basketball for the Rockland delegation. She traveled to Houston, the Washington D.C. area, St. Paul, Minn. and Stanford, Conn., competed against Jewish teens from across the globe, and made lasting friendships with some of her teammates.

Basically she had a blast.

JCC Maccabi Games medals“It was such a great experience,” says Schlanger, a Clarkstown South graduate just completing her sophomore year at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “I’d go back and do it now.”

For Schlanger, the experience allowed her to play a sport she loved in a competitive but not cut-throat setting while meeting Jewish kids from all over the world. She made friends, and through the host families she stayed with while at the games, she discovered a window into diverse Jewish worlds.

“I felt I got to connect to people who shared the same religion as me,” says Schlanger, a member of Nanuet Hebrew Center, a Conservative congregation. “And I got to see the different degrees of how people experience their religion. The first family I stayed with was more religious than I and that was interesting and another family was more Reform.”

The JCC Maccabi Games, now in its 27th year, were designed do all those things that Schlanger experienced — bring Jewish youth together to explore their Jewish identities while at the same time having fun participating in something they love. What began in Memphis in 1982 with a few hundred kids has evolved into a massive annual operation, often with several communities each year hosting thousands of teen athletes who participate in a variety of sports including soccer, baseball, basketball, volleyball, swimming and tennis among others.


“Even though I’m an enormous sports fan and love to play sports, the interesting thing about Maccabi is that the sports is the canvas to the underlying thing that is going on,” says Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg of Congregation Sons of Israel in Nyack. Gruenberg played basketball at JCC Maccabi in Detroit in 1990 and, for him, it was an experience with real staying power.

“Young Jewish kids, of all denominations, building community,” sums up Gruenberg’s experience. “There were kids barely affiliated and an Orthodox kid on my team… And it can be an enormous energy boost for the host community.”

He would not be the only religious leader who feels that way. For Rabbi Brian Beal of Temple Beth Torah in Upper Nyack, the games would be great for the community, something that would excite not only his own congregants, but unite the wider county, even those looking to relocate here.

“I would be happy to give my own time to this,” says Beal. “Jewish values have something to say about sports and that sports can inform our Jewish living, that’s important to show our kids… This can be a galvanizing force, a unifying force to bring Rockland together and see itself as part of the greater Jewish community and really bring the JCC to the forefront of the Jewish community.”

And repeatedly, supporters say that what is good for the kids is good for the community. Despite the enormity of the undertaking, both in cost and manpower, they vow that it is one of the most energizing, inclusive and positive programs that their Jewish communities have undertaken.

And now –or rather in 2012 –is the time to bring the games to Rockland County, according to David Kirschtel, chief executive officer for JCC Rockland. The process begins on Monday, June 22 at 6 p.m. with a one-hour presentation at the JCC, 450 West Nyack Road, West Nyack, for those interested to learn about the games and what it takes to host 1,800 kids, 300 of them from Rockland alone.

To date, 17 donors have committed almost $200,000 to the effort. The price tag for hosting will come to approximately $1.2 million by the end of the two-year process, according to Kirschtel, who wants to raise $360,000 before seeking JCC board approval this fall.
Although he faces the pressing demand to retire the $6 million debt on the campus, the desire to raise funds for swimming pools at the JCC, and the need to create endowment and scholarship funds — while in the midst of the deepest economic downturn in decades — Kirschtel insists the time is right for bringing the games to Rockland.

“Those people who have already made commitments to the building or to the JCC, have done so,” he said. “Some might give more, but most have said this is what they’re going to give to those projects. This is something new, it’s exciting and I don’t believe it will take away from other fundraising.”

Talk of bringing the games has been scuttling around for at least four years, with it becoming more serious in the past two, he says, though “it’s never been the right time.
“If you keep looking at it that way, it would never be the right time. We need to do this. It will bring new people on board, excite people already involved and give all the Jewish organizations in the county a boost we can’t even begin to calculate.

“Why now? If not now, when?”

The JCC of Mid-Westchester, which straddles Scarsdale and New Rochelle, is in the thick of preparing for the games this year, which open at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Aug. 16. The community is expecting an influx of 1,400 teens from 45 delegations across the country, as well as Canada, Venezuela and Israel. Another 400 Westchester teens will also participate.


Selling the idea of hosting the games to the board and the community was not difficult, according to Stephen Young, executive director of the JCC of Mid-Westchester, which is the host agency, along with the JCC on the Hudson and the Rosenthal JCC of Northern Westchester. Although there were some initial concerns, nobody in the community, at this point, is sorry that they committed to hosting the games.

“It certainly pulls the community together and gives us an opportunity to do something collectively,” says Young. “All the synagogues are involved. All the Jewish organizations are involved. It brings together all the Jewish leadership in Westchester, and that’s unique. “And it engages teenagers in big number, some who might never be engaged….They meet other kids, they get to know each other and have a connection to other Jewish kids in other communities.”

The games have involved 50 to 70 regular volunteers on an ongoing basis now for the better part of a year, according to Young. By August, he expects more than 1,000 volunteers on board to help with hosting the visiting athletes. In dollar, he expects the final cost will weigh in at $2 million to $2.5 million, though some of that will come back in fees.
However not every community is going to open at Madison Square Garden. JCC Stamford, in Connecticut, hosted the games in 2006. It was the smallest community that had hosted them at that point, and the community raised $1.5 million and opened at the Arena at Harbor Yard.

But the community got back much more than it put into it, according to Gary S. Lipman, chief executive officer.

“I think it was transformational. It changed my community,” says Lipman. “The period leading up to it, the planning and the period after … engaged more people than had ever been engaged in anything in past. It connected them to the JCC and to the Jewish community in ways they had not been engaged previously.”

From the experience, he says, the JCC has been able to develop new donors, people whom through the JCC Maccabi games found their “cause or passion.” These are people have come to the table, eager now to participate, and, as every Jewish organization wants to hear, fund new projects.

“It’s given us the opportunity since we’ve made that connection to tap into them,” says Lipman.

The games attracted 1,100 kids, of which 259 were Stamford teens. Prior to those games, the largest delegation that Stamford had sent to any Maccabi game was 39. This year, though, 59 will participate in Westchester. And those are numbers that have been sustained in the years in between, says Lipman.

And the JCC was not the sole beneficiary. Synagogues that served lunches, organizations that pitched in at the events, and the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien, which made a special allocation of $50,000 to assist with funding the games, all felt their profiles rise in the wake of the games, says Maxine Frielich, a co-chair of Stamford’s games, immediate past-president of JCC Stamford, and a former federation board member.

“It was tremendous, galvanizing particularly because everybody came out, the synagogues, all the unaffiliated Jews, the organizations,” she says. “It was very special.”

“First, it sometimes attracts a different market in terms of sponsors, participants and donors,” he says. “And it’s at a different level. It’s a different target than the normal day-to-day.”JCC Rockland has been participating in the games since 1988, back when the organization was still a “Y without walls” in Spring Valley. At that time, Micki Leader approached the Y’s director, David Whyne, with a deal. She’d bring him members if the YM/YWHA would be the agency that fronted the team.

“Those first 35 kids in 1988 were the first members of the JCC,” recalls Leader, who stopped chairing the delegation in 2001. Since that first year, JCC Rockland has taken more than 1,000 teens to the games as far away as Orange County, Calif. and as close as Tenafly, N.J.

But hosting them would be another matter altogether.

“I think everybody who really started with the Maccabi games has always had the dream of bringing them to Rockland County,” says Leader. “Even when we didn’t have a building.”
During the games, much more than athletics takes place. Participating kids also learn about Israel from Israeli shlichim (emissaries) and participate in community service projects. As part of the opening ceremonies, the Munich 11 — those Israeli athletes who were held hostage and subsequently murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics – are honored.

For Larry Weiss, a JCC board member who would like to see the games come to Rockland, that was a pivotal moment in 2004 at the opening ceremony at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C.

“At the Olympics, they never mention what happened in Munich. And when Jim McKay [the ABC sports anchor who covered the events] came on the Jumbotron and said, “They’re all gone” and the next thing you know they brought Jim McKay out on stage, well it was unbelievable.

Although Weiss no longer lives in Rockland, and his children are long past the age of participating in JCC Maccabi, he’ll be coaching Rockland’s age 13-14 baseball team at the Westchester games.

“I’ve seen it first hand, what it did for Stamford community,” he says of his support. “There was a community with not much participation at the JCC and not many kids went to the games. Whereas we’ve always sent a lot of kids to the games, so I think this will create a bigger awareness of our Jewish Community Center.”

Backing will have to come from more than individuals, however. In most communities the local Jewish federation kicks in funding. But with growing needs in the community, and its own campaign down this year, the Jewish Federation of Rockland County is facing the same funding conundrum that all Jewish organizations are up against. Yet Federation President Carol Blau has seen first-hand how moving and unifying the Maccabi experience can be. In 2001, when Tenafly, N.J. held the games, her family hosted two visiting athletes.

“I was moved to tears when the Israeli delegation entered during the opening ceremony, right after the memorial to the athletes killed in Munich,” she says. It’s incredibly energizing, to see all these young, Jewish athletes playing under the American and Israeli flags.

“The games can bring the entire community together, even those who are less active; and they’ll bring exposure to other organizations housed at the Rockland Jewish Community Campus. As the economy improves, the Jewish Federation hopes to support the JCC in this exciting endeavor by becoming one of the sponsors of the Maccabi games.”

Finding funding and getting creative about sources will be part of the process, according to Arnie Sohinki, JCC Association senior VP from program services. Communities have found ways of piggybacking the fundraising onto capital campaigns for new or upgraded facilities. Interfering with other fundraising, however, is not something that JCCs have seen happen.

Without host communities, however, the games would cease to exist. It takes a home community willing to cobble together the enormous number of soccer fields, baseball diamonds and swimming lanes, along with corporate and individual backers to make them happen. After the medals have been handed out and the teams go home, most communities, according to Sohinki, think it was the best thing they’ve ever done. Several, like Houston and Detroit, become serial hosts, bringing the games every few years.

“For 20 years, other communities have welcomed us,” notes JCC Rockland’s CEO Kirschtel. “It’s really our responsibility to extend that hospitality to them.”

Outgoing JCC President Steve Gold is a supporter of the project. His son, Griffin, 16, has participated twice in tennis and his wife, Helene, has been the coach for individual sports. This year, his son Austin, 13, will be playing table tennis in Westchester.
Gold has already said he’ll chair the opening and closing ceremonies for Rockland. In his eyes, there is no reason not to get on board.

“When people say ‘nay,’ nothing happens. When they say ‘yay,’ – and David [Kirschtel] leads the pack, it gets accomplished,” Gold says. “My father also taught me, never say ‘no.’ Try to work it out….We saw that with the building, the sports program, and if we listened to the nay sayers, I don’t know where the JCC would be.”

June 2009

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