O.C. Center welcomes Maccabi teens, coaches

Nearly 2,500 Jewish youth and 450 coaches from 62 delegations from around the world converged Aug. 4 on the Merage Jewish Community Center in Irvine for the annual JCC Maccabi Games & ArtsFest, held Aug. 4-9.

Sunday’s opening ceremonies at Santa Ana Stadium offered a majestic display of what is essentially a teenage Jewish Olympics. Doug Gottlieb, an Orange County native, former ESPN analyst and current CBS Sports analyst, welcomed the athletes, coaches, volunteers and spectators. The Los Angeles Clippers dance team performed, and gymnasts and acrobats entertained the crowd.

Then, the athletes entered the football field to cheers — all with pomp, many with a trick up their sleeve. 

The Kansas City delegation played a game of bowling. The first athlete out, using his teammate as a bowling ball, “rolled” him on the ground until he collided with the rest of the delegation, who then all proceeded to fall. The bowler celebrated the strike, raising his hands in celebration.

Mexico’s delegation, with a handful of its teens wearing sombreros, entered the field dancing. And the Miami delegation made sure to remind the crowd, twice, about the recent Miami Heat championship victory — they had the PA announcer say it loud and clear.

Hailing from the Westside JCC in Los Angeles, 80 athletes and their coaches walked through the gates with the calm confidence of a team with home-field advantage, looking up and waving at the cheering crowd.

As the youth and their coaches, all dressed in various-colored athletic jackets, filled the thousands of seats on the field, four national anthems were sung — American, Israeli, Canadian and Mexican. Then the athletes and coaches recited their respective “oaths,” and a tribute was made to the “Munich 11,” the 11 Israeli Olympic athletes murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. 

While the opening ceremonies at Santa Ana Stadium provided much of the flash and glitz, it was the Sunday afternoon scene at the Merage JCC that gave a real glimpse into how the JCC Maccabi Games impact the communities in which they are held in any given year.

Thousands, of (mostly jetlagged) teenagers and adults hurried through the sleek, massive JCC. Athletes, arriving straight from the airport, were quickly herded by volunteers to outdoor check-in tents, then to goodie-bag-pickup place in the gym, then back outdoors for a group photo, and finally to meet the people who can make or break any athlete’s Maccabi experience — the host family.

Ezra Remer and Raphael Walker, hometown friends in the New Orleans delegation, stayed side-by-side as they went from start to finish at the check-in process Sunday afternoon. As the delegation walked indoors to escape the Irvine summer heat, Remer — dressed in blue athletic shorts and a gray T-shirt that read “Team Nola” — explained why he switched to soccer from table tennis, which he played last year in the Memphis games.

“Table tennis was just lonely and kind of boring,” Remer, 15, said. Playing soccer this week would be less “socially isolating,” as Remer put it. 

As the New Orleans delegation took goodie bags and T-shirts from volunteers manning impeccably organized tables in the gym, Austin Carr, the delegation’s head and former director at last year’s Memphis games, described why he’s participating in what is his seventh Maccabi games.

“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like to lose, [but] at the end of the day, if they win every game but make no new friends, it would feel like a waste of our time,” Carr said, as Yael Brudner, a JCC volunteer, held up a big “New Orleans” sign to regroup the youngsters for a team photo.

The week, which is filled with sporting events (including lacrosse, volleyball, and dance) and arts activities (music, theater, improv and more), would see Jewish teenagers from different cities and different backgrounds competing fiercely for hours each day at different venues across Orange County, fighting to win either gold, silver or bronze. (Results will be posted at jewishjournal.com)

In the middle of the chaos, it is the host families who have to ensure that the athletes get at least some sleep, eat breakfast and, of course, arrive at the JCC or another venue each morning, well in advance of the first pitch or tip-off. This week, 800 families from across Orange County opened their homes and pantries for the thousands of teenagers.

After the New Orleans delegation’s photo at the Merage JCC, the 19-athlete-strong group walked up a hill to another part of the facility, where the host families, in what was a somewhat chaotic scene, waited to meet the athletes for whom they volunteered to provide room and board for the week. Walker, Remer’s friend, said as he approached the hosts’ gathering that he was “not nervous.” Earlier, Remer had said that his hosts, the Koff family “seem[ed] like nice people” in their e-mail prior to his arrival.

After meeting, Valerie Koff helped Remer and Walker find their luggage. Koff and her husband have two children home from college right now. Asked how she was going to fit the two athletes into her home, she said she “took one out of his bedroom.”

“We are using his bedroom, and he’s sleeping on the couch.”