January 27, 2020

Westside JCC Maccabi Teens Bring Home Gold From Atlanta

JCC Maccabi Games girls soccer team. Photo courtesy National Geographic

Both the Westside Jewish Community Center (JCC) under-16 girls’ and under-16 boys’ soccer teams brought home the gold from the recently completed JCC Maccabi Games in Atlanta. The girls defeated the host team, 4-2, in the final, while the boys also beat the Atlanta team in the finals in a 3-1 penalty shootout after a 2-2 tie. 

The annual games were held in Atlanta from July 26-Aug. 2 and in Detroit from Aug. 2-9. One hundred and seventy five Westside JCC athletes from ages of 12 to 16 participated, thanks to the JCC and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which also sent 30 volunteer coaches to the games. A total of 3,000 participants attended the games from throughout the United States, as well as Israel, Hungary, England, Mexico, Panama and parts of Canada. 

After the under-16 boys’ win, JCC Maccabi Games Head Soccer Coach Lee Turnbull told the Journal, “The reason I volunteer for Maccabi is because I want to be an influence in these kids’ lives. I was a much worse kid than these kids are [when I was their age] and [because of] a sprinkle of good influences that I luckily found, I turned out OK. I want to give [my players] incredible memories. I want them to not get so stressed about schoolwork and realize it’s OK just to take a break here and there and breathe. I try and help the kids to be critical thinkers.” 

Los Angeles Westside JCC Director of Experiential Learning and Maccabi Games Delegation Head Ari Cohen the Journal, “As a program, our goal is to [create] an impactful Jewish experience for our teens by being connected to Jews from across the religious spectrum, denominational spectrum, socioeconomic and geographical boundaries of Los Angeles, as well [as] the world. By connecting them to all these different types of Jews and the global Jewish world, we see that our kids have a greater desire to stay connected to the Jewish community for their teen years and beyond.” 

Turnbull, a former animal behaviorist, said receiving Instagram messages from his players about how he’s “influenced them and given them a new perspective on life, [makes me] want to scream from the rooftops because I feel like I’ve already achieved everything I’ve ever wanted to achieve in this world. It’s all I yearn to do.”

As a program, our goal is to [create] an impactful Jewish experience for our teens by being connected to Jews from across the religious spectrum, denominational spectrum, socioeconomic and geographical boundaries of Los Angeles, as well [as] the world.”

 — Ari Cohen

As a values-based program, JCC Maccabi stresses principles of community, learning, friendship, health and wellness, inclusiveness, family and repairing the world, Cohen added. The games, he said, replicated an Olympic-style “opening ceremony and serious competitive structure. Beyond that, the things that make it special are that our opening ceremony always [includes] a tribute to the Israeli athletes who were killed at the Munich Olympics in 1972 [and] we have an athlete and spectator pledge to uphold the values of the JCC Maccabi Games.”

The Munich tribute is so impactful because the participants “connect immediately to these athletes, and therefore Israel, global Judaism and the Jewish world,” Cohen said. “We see a lot of tears at [the] opening ceremonies every single year.”

Aside from the opening ceremony and competitive sports, other activities, workshops and icebreakers were offered throughout the week to encourage participants to meet new people and learn about Israel and Jewish values. 

“Every day our kids [participate in] a huge activity together, which is something that’s different than most athletic experiences,” Cohen said. “Kids who are playing against each other at one moment really intensely are the same kids that are hanging out at the night activity,” he said. “We also make sure [that] every team is involved in a tikkun olam experience to give back to the community that is hosting us.”

Indeed, 13-year-old Ben Escobar, who played on the Westside JCC’s under-14 baseball team in Atlanta, said, “I enjoyed the nighttime activities and having fun with my teammates. I also loved hanging out with four other baseball players from all over the country at my host family’s house. We played lots of pingpong and watched baseball together. The opening ceremonies were very welcoming and made me feel like I was part of a greater Jewish community. It also made me excited for the week.”

Cohen said he hoped the teens had an “exposure to the greater Jewish world and the increased pride they have in their own Jewish identity. The other thing that’s very important to us is to give them a really great athletic experience and have high-quality coaching … and at the same time, to be great Jewish mentors so they begin to understand and reconnect with the fact that sports can be something that gives them a stronger sense of self and teaches [them] positive human values. 

“Maccabi,” he said, “creates a community. Once you’re in it [you’ll] do whatever [you] can to [expand] that community.”

Melissa Simon is a senior studying journalism at University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Jewish Journal summer intern.