Competing, Connecting Jewishly at Maccabi in O.C.

When the 2013 JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest kicks off Aug. 4 in Orange County, it is expected to attract more than 2,300 Jewish teens from around the world, making it the second-largest iteration of the annual events ever.

Officials expect 62 delegations to compete in 14 sports and eight arts specialties. More than 10,000 people, including athletes, artists, volunteers, host families, coaches and spectators, are anticipated to be on hand.

“We’re very fortunate that the folks at the Orange County JCC have the capacity to host and the willingness to provide [for] so many,” said Dan Deutsch, vice president of the JCC Maccabi Experience, which oversees the planning of the events. 

Among those participating in the events hosted by the Merage Jewish Community Center of Orange County in Irvine will be a delegation of 80 teenagers from the Westside Jewish Community Center, as well as an army of supporters. Another 70 youths are already in Austin, Texas, the other site of this year’s events, Westside JCC officials said. Activities in Austin began July 28.

The Los Angeles area sent only one delegation to this year’s Maccabi Games, unlike in the past when Westside JCC was joined by The JCC at Milken in West Hills. The latter closed at the end of June 2012 after The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles sold the campus on which it was located to New Community Jewish High School. As a result, Westside JCC was asked by the national office to absorb the San Fernando Valley group.

“We’ve got kids from Agoura Hills to the South Bay playing under one delegation,” said Elizabeth Green, coordinator of teen programs at Westside JCC.

The size of this year’s local delegation represents a significant increase from the first year that Westside JCC competed, in 2006, when only 13 athletes participated in boys basketball and swimming. It will send athletes in boys and girls basketball, baseball, boys and girls soccer, softball, girls volleyball, boys and girls swimming, and boys and girls tennis. It also will be sending two artists.

The JCC Maccabi Games — established in 1982 — may be the largest gathering of Jewish teens in the world, but it’s about more than winning, according to Alex Barry, 16, of Calabasas, who will be competing in the games for the third time.

“It’s about sports, but it’s less about sports than it is about making friends, so it’s really fun and it’s a cool experience to have,” he said. 

“I look forward to interacting and getting to know more people with the same interests as me from different places.” — Rachel Dean

The rising junior at Calabasas High School, who will be competing in track in the 200-, 400- and 800-meter events, said he looks forward to seeing the people he met from previous games. He said he has won multiple gold and silver medals in the past.

One purpose of the games is to help build relationships in the Jewish community and bring young people back in touch with their Jewish culture, according to Ronnel Conn, assistant executive director at the Westside JCC. 

“Getting people involved in these games is something that makes people feel good, Jewishly, ” he said. “It’s one of the few programs that I think is truly pluralistic in nature in terms of within the Jewish community across the spectrum. You have secular Jews all the way to Orthodox Jews, and this is a nice meeting point — and the meeting point is sports.” 

Several area athletes said they are eager to meet new people at the Orange County events, which conclude Aug. 9. They are expected to be largest since the games held in 1998 in Detroit, according to Deutsch. Orange County previously hosted the JCC Maccabi Games and a subsequent ArtsFest in 2007.

“I look forward to interacting and getting to know more people with the same interests as me from different places,” said Rachel Dean, 14, who lives in Westwood and will be attending Palisades Charter High School this fall. 

Dean is a swimmer, and this will be her second time competing in the Maccabi Games. She won two gold, a silver and a bronze medal while competing in the 2012 games in Houston, she said.

“I like how they incorporate Judaism into it but it’s not overpowering, and we have a lot of fun with it,” Dean said.

While sports may be the primary nature of the event, it is also about building relationships and bringing kids back to their Jewish roots at an age when they can easily drift away. The opening ceremony is one time where this really hits home with participants, according to Deutsch.

 “They have an epiphany that they are part of something much larger than their own Jewish community and that they’re part of the Jewish people,” Deutsch said.