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Sunday, April 18, 2021

JCC Maccabi Coaches Find Jewish Gold on the Diamond

There are parents who volunteer to coach their kids’ Little League baseball teams or AYSO soccer teams, and then there are people like Randy Michel and Peter Waxler, who continue coaching long after their own kids have grown up. 

The two 64-year-olds have coached JCC Maccabi Games baseball teams for a combined 41 years, and for the past dozen or so years they have been doing so together. Most recently, they coached a team for boys 14 and younger from the Westside JCC’s Los Angeles delegation.

The JCC Maccabi Games got its start in 1982 in Memphis, Tenn., with 300 athletes. The games have taken place almost every year since, often in multiple cities concurrently, with local families generously hosting the athletes. 

This year’s event, from Aug. 5–10, was slightly different. The Merage JCC in Irvine and Alpert JCC in Long Beach joined forces to put together this year’s event in Orange County, playing host to 2,500 Jewish teens from all over the United States, as well as from Israel, Canada, Mexico and Great Britain. 

Michel, an accountant who lives in West Hills, first got involved with the Maccabi Games in 1997. Two years earlier, he and his son Jesse, then 11, “kind of accidentally stumbled on Maccabi,” he said. They were playing catch at the West Hills Pony Baseball fields when they noticed an unfamiliar group of teenage boys practicing. They turned out to be a team preparing for the games, which were being held in Los Angeles that year,

Jesse told Michel he wanted to participate in the games when he was old enough, and he followed through when he turned 13. With the exception of one year, Michel has been coaching a local Maccabi baseball team ever since.

It’s about the whole Jewish experience, including the rachmanus rule: “compassion and good sportsmanship, both on and off the playing field.” — Randy Michel

Waxler, who lives in Calabasas and was a pitcher at UCLA, is an attorney in the insurance business. He became involved with the Maccabi Games when his oldest son, Brett, tried out and made the cut for a Maccabi baseball team in 1999. When that happened, Waxler, who had coached Little League for years, was recruited to coach the team. He has been coaching ever since. 

Michel and Waxler have coached some very talented Maccabi athletes over the years, including current Major League Baseball pitcher Max Fried of the Atlanta Braves and outfield Kevin Pillar of the Toronto Blue Jays.

They also have experienced moments of baseball magic. In 2000, “We got to play one of the gold medal games in Tucson in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Triple-A stadium,” Waxler said. “The normal thing is to play at a park or a high school field. All of a sudden, you’re playing in a stadium that is one step below Dodger Stadium.” 

But both men stressed that the JCC Maccabi Games are bigger than baseball. “It’s really about the whole Jewish experience,” Michel said. “That includes the rachmanus rule, defined in official materials as ‘compassion and good sportsmanship, both on and off the playing field.’ ”

“Kids go for the competition,” Michel said, “but [participating in] the nighttime events, when they are socializing with [2,500] Jewish athletes, is like no other experience. I just feel a lot of pride and joy. It’s a way of giving back to the Jewish community. And selfishly,” he added, “I love baseball. There’s really nowhere else I’d rather be than on the field.”

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