As a teenager, Eli Pollack competed in baseball and tennis at the JCC Maccabi Games as a member of Team Philadelphia. Now 25, he leads Team Houston into Atlanta for the 2019 JCC Maccabi Games, which open Sunday night, July 28, with an Olympic-style ceremony at the Ameris Bank Amphitheatre in Alpharetta.
“I am most looking forward to seeing the games form the eyes of a delegation head. I think the JCC Maccabi Games are a great way to blend a love of Judaism and sport in a young person’s life, especially in today’s day and age, where that connection may not always be apparent. I still have friends to this day from my time spent in Maccabi as a teenager and those games are some of the fondest memories I have created so far,” said Pollack, the teen program coordinator at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston.
Team Houston’s 90 athletes will march into the arena with some 1,600 of their 12- to 16-year-old peers, representing nearly three dozen Jewish communities in the United States, Israel, Mexico and Panama, along with a mixed group not attached to a formal delegation (including 14 from Montreal).
Entering last will be the host, Team Atlanta, its 590 competitors and 90 coaches comprising the largest contingent ever at a JCC Maccabi Games.
Monday morning, July 29, will begin a week highlighted by competition in 13 sports, as well as a community service project and other activities designed to promote Jewish values and camaraderie.
A party Thursday night, Aug. 2 (at a location not being disclosed publicly), will bring the JCC Maccabi Games to a close.
Planning for the event has been underway for more than a year. Stacie Francombe, director of the Maccabi Games for the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, and her staff have recruited 400 host families (most from Team Atlanta) and 1,500 volunteers who will be deployed throughout the competition venues.
More than 120,000 Jewish youth have taken part in the annual sports festival since the first JCC Maccabi Games in Memphis in 1982. Atlanta hosted the event in 2001. A planned return in 2007 fell victim to financial issues at the MJCCA. This time around, more than $1.5 million in direct and in-kind contributions have been raised to support the games.
Cities of similar size to Atlanta have reported an economic impact from hosting the JCC Maccabi Games of at least $4 million, according to Lora Sommer, public relations manager for the MJCCA, citing figures from the Jewish Community Center Association of North America.
The games will be centered at two hubs: the Marcus JCC and the Marist School, supplemented by other local venues (which, for security reasons, organizers have asked not be named). A fleet of buses will ferry athletes and coaches between the sites. Dining rooms for lunch and snacks will be set up at the hubs.
Competitions will be held in flag football, basketball, soccer, baseball, volleyball, ultimate Frisbee (making its debut), swimming, dance, golf, tennis, bowling, table tennis, and track and field.
Backed by financial support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, Team Atlanta will include 13 members from Atlanta’s Israeli partnership community of Yokneam-Megiddo, who will compete in dance, baseball, swimming, tennis, soccer, and track and field. Three are members of the Ethiopian emigre community and participate in Yokneam youth programs supported by the Federation.
Yokneam (also known as Yokneam Illit) was founded in 1950 as an Israeli “development town,” one of more than two dozen built to handle an influx of immigration. Located southeast of Haifa, Yokneam today is a city of about 22,000.
The Megiddo Regional Council represents 12,000 people living on nearby kibbutzim (collective settlements, often a farm) and moshavim (a cooperative group of individual farms). “The moshavim have been suffering from socio-economic challenges, high rates of youth at risk and youth crimes, and lack of support systems within the communities,” said Todd Starr, a member of the Federation’s Global Jewish Peoplehood allocations committee.
In preparation for the Games, the Yokneam-Megiddo youth have worked to improve their English language skills, learned about the Jewish community in Atlanta and the United States, and attended workshops on Israel advocacy.
There also will be a separate Israeli delegation of 26 athletes, along with seven chaperones.
The JCC Maccabi Games are designed to be fun, but also to place emphasis on the Jewish values of rachmanus (compassion) and tikkun olam (repairing the world).
The young competitors, their coaches and adult leaders will participate in a JCC Cares program spotlighting the work done by the Shepherd Center in Atlanta and the Israel Sport Center for the Disabled. Athletes from those centers will exhibit their abilities and JCC Maccabi Games participants will create painted canvases to be displayed at Shepherd and the ISCD.
Ari Cohen, delegation head for Team Los Angeles, understands what makes the JCC Maccabi Games effective.
“It meets the teens at their point of interest, bringing them in by way of their love of sports. By starting with the common language of sports/art and shared interest, we are able to create Jewish connections and deep bonds that cross denominational, social, cultural and communal lines like no other experience,” said Cohen, who leads a delegation of 107 athletes and 18 coaches.
“This process is even more effective when it happens in a community that is rich with Jewish culture and community. I have heard wonderful things about the Atlanta community and am most looking forward to seeing how Atlanta helps the Games flourish,” said Cohen, who is director of experiential learning at the Westside Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles.
Team San Jose’s seven athletes will be attached to soccer and basketball teams from other cities. “It is always an amazing experience getting to watch our athletes blend with their ‘mixed teams.’ Mixed teams truly give teens exposure to a different level of teamwork. They meet for the first time on Sunday and then dive into competition the next day,” said Diana Schnabel-Arevalo, director of operations at the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos, Calif.
“Our teens meet lifelong friends in a supportive environment that is fostering mutual respect and sportsmanship. From JCC Cares to Hang Time, our teens are able to reconnect and rediscover a deeper understanding of their Jewish values and identity, along with hundreds of other Jewish teens. While the JCC Maccabi Games is an amazing athletic experience, we look forward to the additional cultural and social opportunities with Jewish teens from around the world that it exposes to our teens,” Schnabel-Arevalo said.
On the sidelines of their events, the young athletes will have the opportunity to compete in eSports, the electronic gaming that is a burgeoning sport professionally, as well as at high school and college level.
Also new at the Atlanta games, a program called Star Reporter will offer participants professional training in photography, videography, interviewing, blogging and other social media skills.
This being an event involving a large number of Jewish youth, along with adult coaches and visiting parents, security will be tight, with a mix of easily-visible uniformed and less-obvious plainclothes personnel, an operation involving local, county, state and federal law enforcement.
Atlanta’s weather is a wild card. The average high temperature in late July to early August is 88 degrees and the chance of rain averages about 40 percent. Water and sports drinks will be available at the venues. Medical personnel will be stationed at the hubs and trainers will be present at the competition sites.
The games are sponsored by the JCC Association of North America, partnering with the Maccabi World Union, Maccabi USA, and Maccabi Canada. There usually are two JCC Maccabi summer events annually. Detroit will host both a combined athletic competition and the JCC Maccabi ArtsFest from Aug. 4-9. ArtsFest events include acting/improv, culinary arts, dance, musical theater, rock band, social media, visual arts, and vocal music.