The JCC Maccabi Games are typically held in two North American locations. But not since 2011 has the JCC Association of North America held a competition in Israel.
This year though, Israel is back, and Team Philadelphia, organized by the Kaiserman JCC in Wynnewood, is sending a contingent.
Thirty-eight Philadelphia-area teenagers will participate in the JCC Maccabi Games in the Jewish state from July 5-25, according to Barrie Mittica, the JCC’s director of engagement. The delegation includes a boys’ soccer team, most of an ice hockey team and kids competing in tennis, volleyball and basketball.
Athletes who do not have full teams from the Philadelphia area will combine with teens from other countries. The volleyball team, for instance, includes four girls from Philadelphia, three from Hungary and one from Romania. The hockey squad has 11 kids from Philadelphia, one from Washington, D.C., one from Atlanta and one from Slovakia.
“They do that in the continental games, too. Each delegation doesn’t have to build a full team,” Mittica said. “A lot of people who participate in these games rave about it because they’re making friends from all over the country and world.”
There is a Philadelphia delegation of 62 athletes going to the other competition in Fort Lauderdale, from Aug. 6-11, this year as well. And that trip will also include networking with Jews from other areas and connecting with one’s Jewish identity.
But the Israel trip will take that experience to another level. The JCC Association is bringing the games back to the Jewish state to commemorate Israel’s 75th anniversary this year.
“To be returning to Israel as part of the ongoing celebration of the country’s 75th anniversary year and the enduring fulfillment of the dream of the modern Zionist movement is a source of enormous pride for all of us,” said Doron Krakow, the president of the JCC Association, in a news release.
As part of the games, Philadelphia-area teens will be able to meet athletes from Israel, European countries, Morocco, which is participating for the first time thanks to the Abraham Accords, and Ukraine. That will be the first week.
The second and third weeks will consist of a tour of the country. In Israel, the young athletes will see the “most culturally, religiously and historically significant sites,” according to jccmaccabi.org. Those experiences will include ascending the Golan Heights, observing Shabbat in Jerusalem and touring the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center.
On its website, Kaiserman lists the price of the trip as $7,500. But 37 of the 38 Philadelphia-area athletes are taking advantage of the RootOne scholarship program, which helps Jewish teens travel to Israel, and shaving $3,000 off that price, according to Mittica.
“It’s the value of getting to experience the sites, getting to create a connection to Israel, getting to connect with teens who are like them but also different from them,” Mittica said.
Julian Contract, a Lower Merion resident and rising senior at Harriton High School, is going to Israel as part of the boys’ soccer team. The 17-year-old wants to go back to the Jewish state after traveling there last year to study for two months at Alexander Muss High School in its study abroad program.
Contract’s family belongs to Adath Israel on the Main Line. It sits for Shabbat dinner each Friday night. The teen himself says the Shema before every soccer game he plays. So even before he went to Muss, he was committed.
But during his time in Israel, he went to services on his own and talked at length with his Jewish studies teacher. The experience inspired him to read more of his Tanakh, to think more deeply about what the holidays mean to him and to believe more deeply in God.
That’s why he wants to go back.
“Going into Israel, I thought I knew everything there was to Judaism. And when I got there, I was in complete shock. There was so much more to learn,” Contract said. “Everything you learned in Israel kind of went into more depth.”
In the future, Contract wants to raise his children as part of the Jewish culture. But he especially wants them to have a connection with Israel.
“I went them to be able to have some of the same connections as me with Israel,” he said.