July 31 marks the beginning of the JCC Maccabi Games, an annual summer event where more than 1,500 Jewish teens aged 12-16 will travel to San Diego to participate in the weeklong Olympic-style event.
For many of the athletes, even the older ones, this summer will be the first time participating in the event which, since 2020, was canceled due to the pandemic. The San Diego JCC Maccabi Games will be the first in three years, and though things have changed, athletes and coaches hope it will be a fresh start and an opportunity to reprioritize what they believe the games are
In addition to the games’ 12 events and the added JCC Maccabi Access Games for athletes with disabilities, the Maccabi Games has grown from a sporting spectacle to a week of cultural immersion, with many athletes staying with local host families, participating in weekly tikkun olam projects and visiting local tourist attractions.
But in the years before COVID, the Maccabi Games began to expand too much, a couple of area coaches believe. The 2019 event’s opening and closing ceremonies in Atlanta took place in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium and hosted an AJR concert.
“The purpose of the games is to get all these kids in one place, who can start to build a bigger community rather than just what they know locally,” Philadelphia girls’ soccer coach Michael Keitz said. “So along with that came events, came sponsorships, came dollars, quite frankly.”
Though Keitz said that the games keep to its core goal of building Jewish community, its messaging has become less potent. This year, the games have shrunk, with delegations bringing fewer athletes than in years past. Keitz hopes this will show that bigger isn’t always better.
“Maybe this will prove, so-to-speak, that you don’t need the monstrosities, you don’t need the, ‘All right, this is the biggest event ever held,’” he said.
Philadelphia’s delegation will feel its diminished size this year. The city is well represented in the Maccabi Games, as it has one of the oldest delegations, having sent teams for 33 years. This year, 60 athletes will compete across nine events. All of the delegation’s spots were filled, with 30 teams attending tryouts for boys’ soccer and ice hockey, making the process fairly competitive.
“We have coaches who’ve been in the program for years supporting our teams, as well as many of them who played in the games,” said Team Philadelphia Delegation Head Barrie Mittica. “We really understand the importance of what Maccabi can do for Jewish teens — giving them an outlet that’s different than a youth movement — who may have not found a spot somewhere else in Jewish teen life.”
As the athletes gear up for the games, the desire to stick to the spirit of the event is front-and-center.
“Everyone practices Judaism in a different way, but we all have this great thing connecting us, which is an amazing feeling, to look around and see all of these Jewish athletes and think to yourself, ‘We have this major thing that holds us together,’” said Rachel Kohler, dance coach and assistant delegation head.
Kohler’s parents started the Philadelphia delegation in 1984, and she grew up attending the games as a child, competing in her first games at 13, 20 years ago.
“That is my first real memory of being an athlete,” she said.
Daniel Weiss, the boys’ soccer coach, is another seasoned coach, having been a Maccabi athlete as a teen before becoming a coach ten years ago. He’s also the co-founder of the Kaiserman JCC’s Philly JCC Maccabi Sports Hall of Fame.
Weiss agreed with Keitz that this year’s Maccabi Games is an opportunity to refocus after a three-year break.
“I completely agree with the notion of a reset and focusing on what’s really important,” he said.
Building a cohesive team with a strong bond is the key to both winning medals and getting the most out
of the experience.
“I always want to make sure that they go in with the right mindset of: The second you step on the field, we’re there to win,” Weiss said. “The second you step off the field, it’s Maccabi experience time.”
The previous games in 2019 were disappointing to the team, goalie Zachary Brunell said. In 2019, the team didn’t medal, leaving Brunell, 16, feeling like he has “unfinished business” for the 2022 games.
But the part of the experience Brunell is most looking forward to is not playing on the pitch. He’s excited to meet his host family and spend time with more Jews. Brunell sometimes feels awkward about keeping kosher and having to tell his friends why he can’t eat certain things. He’s looking forward to being around people who just get it.
“There’s just certain things that don’t have to be explained,” he said. “It’s like you feel more accepted.”