A bright red, digital clock counts down the days, hours and minutes in my Jewish Community Center's main lobby, and at the gym entrance. Supersized lettering in washable white paint shouts, “Less than 100 days left!” on outside windows, and inside mirrored halls. The brochures and cards are everywhere — asking for donations, for assistance, for participation and volunteers.
One would think the Olympics were coming to South Florida this summer. At least the Jewish Olympics — as reflected by a ginormous “The World of Maccabi” map that hangs alongside the tall painted lettering in the front lobby. But what the map actually illustrates is the world of Maccabiah, the officially recognized regional Olympics event held in Israel every four years since 1932. Today it is the third largest sporting event in the world (after the Pan Asian Games and the Olympics itself).
This map also cites the year many countries first joined Maccabiah, alongside the number of Jews currently living there compared to the general population (at least as of two years ago, when the map was first created). It's striking, and sad, to see how areas with once flourishing Jewish populations have dwindled, particularly in the Middle East. (Egypt and Syria, both First Maccabiah participants, currently have fewer than 100 Jews.) And did you know that when it comes to the numbers, Israel barely outranks the U.S.'s 5.4-million Jewish residents?
But I digress. Our little JCC Maccabi Games & ArtsFest (not so little, actually, as you'll soon see) may have a similar-sounding name and involve some competitive sports (the non-competitive “ArtsFest” is a recent add-on), but they are a far cry from Olympic-sports caliber. Participants need show some skill in their fields, to be sure — there are local tryouts and music and arts reviewing committees. But we're talking about 13-16- (or for “Arts” 17-) year-old-kids who've also been tasked in exhibiting rachmanus whose official translation is “sportsmanship,” but any Yiddish speaker knows to mean “sympathy for the downtrodden.” So I'd guess gloating after a win is out.
This junior knockoff of the Jewish Olympics would appear to be a much kinder and gentler competition geared toward giving some 1,500 lucky Jewish-only youngsters from six countries a positive, even life-changing experience. Our international visitor roster includes Israel, Canada and Great Britain (no surprises there), but also Panama (with growing Jewish communities) and Poland (with a resurgent Jewish population of 25,000 and a JCC in Krakow and Warsaw).
Since its inception in 1982, the JCC Maccabi Games has grown to become the largest organized sports program for Jewish teenagers in the world. (And, depending on which flyer you read, also the “largest” or “second-largest” Jewish youth event overall.) Unlike its Olympic namesake, the youth Games are held annually, and hosted simultaneously (or almost so) by several North American JCC chapters each summer. In addition to my Fort Lauderdale JCC (actually located within the bedroom communities of Davie-Cooper City), five-day Maccabi events are also being hosted this August by JCCs in Dallas and Milwaukee.
Event organizers cite laudable goals such as reinforcing Jewish pride, developing talent, presenting opportunities for personal and social growth, as well as fostering lifelong bonds of friendship among participants from far-flung Jewish communities. If you ask the kids, they get some of that, but mostly it's a super-exciting week of great fun!
Throughout Maccabi week, volunteer professionals hold workshops in sports and the arts and encourage teamwork. When not competing in their special events, the young participants also spend a little time doing community service — working in soup kitchens or helping kids with special needs — which can be credited as “volunteer hours” in future college applications. Nights are filled with parties, organized socials, and the host family's special night out. Activity-packed days are spent among peers with similar interests, while attentive adults mentor each participant's special passion — be it basketball, soccer, song or dance — and they are cheered on every step of the way. From a kid's point of view, what's not to love?
What gives me pause is the incredible amount of time and energy spent by grown-ups preparing for this event. (It's my JCC's first hosting opportunity, and they claim to have begun work about two years ago.) But what concerns me the most are the DOLLARS involved in organizing (counting Opening Ceremonies night) what's barely a five-day production. To participate, our JJC-member kids pay $795; non-members, $895. Out-of-towners are charged about double. The Springfield, Mass., contingent, for example, has their JCC members paying $1,850; $2,050 for the general Jewish public. All participants must have been registered by December 2014, which allows for at least eight months to raise some of these fees through area sponsorship and fund-raising programs.
My local JCC is so excited at having finally been chosen that it has given the facilities a major facelift and dedicated an entire office, with some half-dozen staff, toward producing the event. Thus far, they've managed to raise $2 million of their $3 million target goal. $1.3 million of those dollars are budgeted specifically for the Games, and includes transportation costs (over two dozen 55-passenger buses), kosher meals and snacks for 2,000 people, specialty garb, sports gear, paid umpires and referees, not to mention $200,000 for security. These expenses are in addition to help from major sponsors like Coca-Cola who is contributing 80,000 bottles of Powerade and Desani water.
About 60% of the needed 500 host families for 1,200 out-of-town teenagers have been found (at least as presented on the large display board near the electronic countdown clock, where little house-shapes are filled-in with names as soon as a new host family signs up). They'll also be utilizing 1,000 volunteers at various event sites as chaperones, ushers, help with deliveries, etc.
I'm still having a hard time wrapping my head around the numbers. Three hundred local kids are involved (I've been assured that any Jewish teen who wanted to, no matter their economic situation, has been able to join). Each participant's family is required to host at least two out-of-town visitors. The rather high registration fees (for out-of-towners sent directly to the JCC umbrella association) also help cover uniforms, party food and inter-site transportation. The rest of the kids' breakfasts, some dinners, snacks and daily travel to-and-from centralized pick-up locations are all provided gratis by their hosting families. Eleven area gyms and pools, indoor performance stages, even our major sports arena — the BB&T Center (home of the Florida Panthers hockey team and site of JCC Maccabi Opening Ceremonies) — have been either sponsored (the latter by the Jewish Federation of Broward County and Broward Convention & Visitors Bureau) or comped.
In addition to Coca-Cola, major corporate sponsors include national names like Whole Foods and Adidas and local institutions like Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital and Nova Southeastern University. The per-person charge to attend “Maccabi Madness,” the annual gala (and major fundraiser) held this past March, was $136, and while being wined and dined, guests were encouraged to participate in a fund-raising auction. Program guides to the various sports competitions and performances sell the typical ads, but members of the “Winner's Circle” — who commit $500 to $3,600 — receive perqs ranging from reserved seating at the Opening Ceremonies (free to the local public) and various levels of Program recognition, culminating in tickets for two to a VIP reception exclusive to benefactors at the highest level.
Along with athletic coaches, ten professional “Artists-in-Residence” volunteer their expertise to ArtsFest participants in everything from vocals to reportage to baking (ahem “culinary arts”). Some families will travel to cheer on their kids and paying for hotels and car rentals (along with vacation activities) may add somewhat to our local economy, but I'd hardly consider it a chamber of commerce windfall. From the rates designated hotels are offering (not much of a bargain, considering August falls in the midst of low-season, hurricane-prone summer), they are also not subsidizing attendees. Nevertheless, the Games are listed as an official “Broward 100” event (celebrating our county's centennial year) and, based on statistics from earlier Maccabi Games in other cities, visiting families and friends “are expected to pour $1.8 million back into the Broward County economy.”
I'm still not convinced. I've lived here too long and it's just too darn hot in the summer; I don't think many families will decide to extend their stay. While most athletic competitions — and even the last day's Arts Showcase — is being promoted as free to Broward County residents, who except for family, friends and, maybe, some hosts would want to sit out in 90-degree weather to watch what's essentially a kids' game? Non-residents, even participants' families, depending on when they register, must pay a $40 to $60 fee to watch all matches and shows.
Making the spectator situation even less inviting is the fact that all attendees must first be cleared through National Security Registration. The circa-10-minute online process generates personalized credentials that must be worn by every person at all events. What a sad reflection on our times when ordinary Jews in America are considered targets who require that extra level of protection. For the Opening Ceremonies at the BB&T Center, there's also a note stating not to bring handbags or backpacks measuring more than 1 foot x 1 foot.
So where DOES the balance of $3 million raised actually go . . . or even $2 million? According to Chai-Ways, my JCC's latest spring brochure, “The funds that we receive will not only go to supporting the games, but also toward insuring the future of our JCC.” One specifically listed benefactor is a JCC camp scholarship for young people with special needs. Camp Giborim maintains a wonderful reputation, is unique to our area, and considered a godsend by parents of children and young adults with all sorts of disabilities. But this program also benefits from its own charity drive, and while offering scholarships, many enrolling families can afford, and do, pay the fees (which aren't much higher than those of regular camp).
In short, I'm just not that comfortable with a fundraising drive for one activity whose proceeds are used to subsidize another — no matter how worthy. All the surrounding hoopla has me wondering if, even unwittingly (as has become the case with many large charities), a not insignificant portion of monies raised end up supporting the fundraising infrastructure, in effect creating a self-subsistence circle.
I realize Maccabi youth competitions have been in play now for over three decades. And during that time they've developed a large and enthusiastic following, particularly among communities with active JCCs. But when it comes to providing Jewish identity and bonding experiences for all Jewish kids — particularly those less privileged and connected whose parents don't happen to belong to organized Jewish groups — we might want to reconsider where we direct our greatest efforts, and fund drives.
Consider Tranquillity [sic], a non-profit summer camp in the foothills of New York's Catskill Mountains that's been rescuing fresh-air deprived 7- to 16-year-olds since 1919. Sessions run two to eight weeks; and they too are packed with sports, arts, peer friendships and opportunities for personal growth in a caring Jewish environment . . . and they serve kosher meat. The camp attracts Jewish kids from all over and, thanks to their foundation and alumni donations, costs half of what's charged by similar camps. A typical three-week session actually costs less than what many visitor Maccabi athletes and artists pay for five days! To me, that's a far better deal. Despite fierce alumni support, the camp is often strapped for cash, and so worthy, at least in my humble opinion, of our fundraising efforts. There are also, of course, the Jewish Federation's own five sleepover camps devoted to instilling Jewish values coupled with summer fun — for far longer periods than the Maccabi Games.
I'm not saying there's anything intrinsically wrong or unethical in my or any JCC- sponsored kids' Maccabi event. But do we really need all this Maccabiah-wannabe madness in order to ensure the next generation's Jewish identity? And why do so many feel compelled to furnish a Jewish bonding experience through the lens of an Olympic contest? What are we really teaching our children when we clothe them in matching uniforms and parade them about in “Opening” and “Closing” Ceremonies that even includes an Olympic-style torch? Kindergarteners can play act at being anything they want, with our bemused blessing. But these are late-middle and high-school students who will soon be competing in the real world. Isn't it time we stopped coddling them and pretending their every minor talent is worthy of a crowd's adulation?
And since when have Jews idolized athletics, even the arts, above learning and quiet acts of kindness? As a people, we have, of course, always acknowledged and celebrated true accomplishments. But we know them to be the result of single-minded industry, passion, talent and zeal. Real Olympic athletes have dedicated years of their lives to the struggle. Artists, too, constantly labor to perfect their art. These Maccabi kids should feel free to perform for family and friends in their schools and clubs, if they wish. They can play sports on their home turf, as well. I just don't see the reason to spend all this money and energy on what's basically a pseudo-Olympic fantasy for a select few.
I know. Why not use some of that energy to help fund the Birthright Israel Foundation instead? Taglit-Birthright Israel offers 10-day (double Maccabi time) free trips and guided tours of Israel in friendship-inducing groups of 40 to all Jewish youth aged 18-26 who haven't lived in Israel as teens before. They get to know young Israelis, as well as Jewish young adults from throughout the U.S., and around the world. It is an intense experience of personal and social growth, which also fosters love of Jewish heritage and culture in a land where biblical stories come to life on every corner. In a few years, the JCC Maccabi kids can go on this adventure too. No fundraising and years of preparation necessary. Hopefully, they'll return with a new appreciation for what the original Maccabees were all about.
© 2015 Mindy Leaf