September 18, 2019

Local teens to compete for gold at Maccabi Games

At the same time Southland Jewish Olympians like Jason Lezak and Dara Torres medaled in Beijing, the next generation of local athletes was preparing to compete in events of their own.

More than 200 teens with Maccabi teams from the Westside Jewish Community Center, Milken JCC in West Hills and Alpert JCC in Long Beach will join an additional 300 athletes in Detroit to compete in 25 Olympic-style tournaments Aug. 17-22.

The JCC Maccabi Games, held each summer at several locations around the United States, will feature 14 sports categories, including track and field, swimming and tennis. The athletes, ages 13 to 16, will share the field with teens from Canada, Great Britain, Hungary, Israel, Mexico and Venezuela.

While students hope to medal in their respective events, the games also emphasize charitable programming, as well as the importance of teamwork and building strong Jewish identities.

For many adults, including Milken’s girls basketball coach Bruce Lang, these games demonstrate something beyond athletics. Maccabi shows that there’s more to being a Jewish teen after becoming bar or bat mitzvah, Lang said.

“There is a misconception — a lot of people think it’s just a sporting event,” he said. “That’s 40 to 50 percent. The rest is doing what kids want to do: They want to socialize with other kids. They want to play rock music…. This is a wonderful program that keeps kids in touch with their heritage and their culture. Not all kids get it.”

Lang said one player who gets it is Danielle Bush, one of two returning players who took silver medals last year. He said that Danielle uses the games to quench her desire for more Jewish knowledge, asking questions of coaches, athletes and Israelis.

“That was rare,” he said.

During recent team meetings at the Westside and Milken JCCs, parents and teens talked with coaches about what to expect at the games.

For several parents, the concern was how much or little access they’ll have to their children in Detroit. An information packet given out at the Westside meeting revealed several nights devoted to youth-only activities — no parents allowed.

Lang, who has coached at 16 Maccabi Games, said he understands the plight of parents who travel to Detroit and want to spend as much time as possible with their youngsters.

“For the week that they are gone, they are not your children,” he said. “They are my children.”

For the Westside girls basketball team, the meeting meant receiving their uniforms and bag. When 15-year-old guard Shoshanna Seidenfeld saw the matching cardinal-and-gold and blue-and-white jackets, shirts and tops, she shrieked.

“I love these! They are so cool,” she said. “We didn’t have jackets and bags [on other teams], so I feel I’m part of something bigger.”

The Maccabi games were first established in the United States to act as a feeder to the World Maccabiah Games in Israel, with the first North American Youth Maccabi Games taking place in 1982 in Memphis.

Three cities hosted the JCC Maccabi Games this year, including San Diego, Aug. 3-8, and Akron, Ohio, Aug. 10-15.

Given Los Angeles’ proximity to San Diego — and rising travel costs — it left some wondering why the Southland teams are going to Detroit.

Alan Goldberg, vice president of the JCC Association’s Mandel Center for Excellence in Leadership and Management, said several factors, including when school begins, what sports the teams are competing in and where the contingent requests to go determines which team plays in which city.

“It’s a very complex process,” Goldberg said.

Detroit will welcome 60 athletes participating in basketball, soccer, swimming and tennis from Team Westside.

“We’ve gone from zero to a full-fledged program in three years,” said Brian Greene, Westside JCC’s executive director.

But the numbers at Westside JCC and Long Beach JCC, which have less than two dozen athletes this year, are a far cry from Milken’s 140 athletes in baseball, softball, basketball, track and field, tennis and table tennis.

Snejana Evans, Milken’s Team L.A. organizer, said the West Hills center will have the largest delegation in Detroit. It’s likely the team will bring some medals back to Los Angeles.

Lang said the success of his team, which did not win medals on only two occasions, is renowned. During the 2005 games in San Antonio, he recalled, the crowd rooted for the Israeli squad, shouting, “Beat L.A.”

He said there’s nothing like being on the receiving end of such a cheer.