Thousands of Jewish teens from across the United States descended on Atlanta last weekend for another edition of the Maccabi Games.
Next weekend, thousands more will head to Detroit, a second site for the games; such is the size of the games these days, a long way from the first iteration in 1982.
For several adult members of the Philadelphia delegation, both alumni of their own Maccabi teams of yore, the games are a special time, too. It’s a time to compete, reminisce and, most importantly, give the teams they coach the same experiences that they were able to have.
“This is my favorite week of the year,” Michael Keitz said.
Keitz is the coach of the 16U girl’s soccer team, already down in Atlanta. Keitz, a Cheltenham High School graduate, has coached soccer for more than two decades at the club level, and today he coaches year-round. Many of his players have gone on to play at the collegiate level, and some have even played professionally in Europe.
Soccer wasn’t always his focus; in high school and college, he was a serious lacrosse player, and played quite a bit of basketball, too. But something about soccer — a group with a common goal, with each member working toward individual goals — really appeals to him.
Keitz coached in the Mid-Atlantic Junior Maccabi Games for about a decade. About four years ago, the coach of the 16U girl’s soccer team for the Philadelphia delegation to the Maccabi Games dropped out in late May — the last minute, in Maccabi time. Keitz stepped in, and has relished his role ever since.
Coaching Maccabi, said Keitz, is a very particular beast. Unlike his club teams, which practice together most of the year, Maccabi athletes are usually flung to the corners of the earth during the summer, right when practice should be ratcheting up before the games. In fact, this team had just one practice together before its first match in Atlanta. So how can a team plan for success at Maccabi?
“The key to this for me is making sure they want to be with each other and want to play for each other,” Keitz said. “That’s ultimately the way you win in this.”
And that effort to create some cohesion isn’t just about winning. It’s about ensuring that the girls who participate can form lasting friendships. Keitz’s oldest daughter played for the team in 2017 and, as many of those former teammates head off for college, Keitz is pleased to see his daughter is still in contact with them. For that reason alone, the Maccabi Games are a valuable time for him.
“This is my week when I can give of my time, give of myself, to make sure they have a great time,” he said.
Marc Swarbrick knows the feeling. The U16 boy’s soccer coach hasn’t yet embarked for Detroit, where his team will compete, but in many ways, he never left the Maccabi Games he competed in when he was their age.
Making the team had been a long road for Swarbrick. His mother found an advertisement in the Jewish Exponent when he was 12, and he went out for tryouts when he was 12, 13 and 14 — unsuccessfully. Finally, at 15 and 16, after he’d gotten some seasoning playing for the William Penn Charter School varsity team, he made the cut.
It was at Penn Charter that he developed his love for coaching. As a freshman on the varsity team, he knew he wasn’t going to play much. So when the coaches sat everyone down and asked for volunteers to assistant coach the middle school teams, he jumped at the chance.
“It felt like it was the right thing to do,” he said. “It made sense.”
He went to the University of Colorado, where he decided to take a break from sports. But sports weren’t quite done with him yet. Early in his freshman year, he walked into the Hillel for Rosh Hashanah, and found himself in conversation with five other students, all of whom had played in the Maccabi Games. Even now, the experience astounds Swarbrick.
“I still talk to those kids because of this event,” he said.
Swarbrick has coached Maccabi since 2002. He feels good about his team’s prospects this year — they should at least be among the final eight of the bracket, he believes — but his ambitions are broader. For the members of his team to meet and develop relationships with other Jewish kids would mirror the best of what he got out of Maccabi.
“It just had a Jewish connection that I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else,” he said.