Area hosts its own ‘Olympics’

Maccabi Games are a first for county

For the first time ever, San Diego is playing host to the JCC Maccabi Games. Since 1982, the games have been held in North America and while they are billed as the Olympics for young Jewish athletes, they represent much more than that. As Jewish people from all over the country and from countries like Israel and Mexico come together to play, the games promote a sense of community and pride in their religion.

“We feel it’s very special for San Diego,” said David Wax, president of the JCC. “It’s just a wonderful thing, the spirit and energy of the kids. Of course there is competing but it’s about the experience, getting these kids together.”

Through Aug. 8, more than 2,000 athletes competed in everything from baseball to table tennis, flag football to dance. This year, teams traveled from cities like Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Miami and Houston and countries like Mexico, Canada and Israel to compete for medals. By far, host San Diego had the biggest delegation of athletes with 300 strong. Of that group, Carmel Valley brought some of the largest numbers, with 68 athletes competing. Del Mar had 10 athletes representing San Diego.

In addition to the games and building community, the JCC Maccabi Games are also about giving back. Every athlete came to San Diego with food in hand to donate to the Hand Up Food Pantry run by Jewish Family Services. Every athlete also took out a block of time from competing to do community service by volunteering at the Maccabi Cares Carnival. The daily carnival played host for 1,200 at risk children, military families and others “It’s a very nice activity for the athletes to give back to the community,” Wax said.

The games went down at venues all over San Diego, in local spots like The Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla, La Jolla Country Day and Carmel Valley schools Cathedral Catholic, Canyon Crest Academy and the San Diego Jewish Academy.

One of the most exciting events of the week was their opening ceremonies celebration, complete with a torch lighting of the Maccabi flame. San Diego State’s Cox Arena was nearly filled to capacity with family and friends as each city and country’s delegations paraded out Olympic-style. Each delegation held a surfboard painted with the name of the city or country they were representing.

San Diego had a raucous group - everyone was in their beach gear, with sunglasses, Hawaiian shirts and floppy straw hats. One athlete was even wearing only his bathing suit. One by one, each city and country circled the Cox Arena floor and when the small Israeli team was introduced, they received a standing ovation from the crowd.

One of the opening ceremonies’ many VIPs was Mayor Jerry Sanders, who attended with his wife RanaSampson, who called herself a proud member of the Jewish community.

“This is awesome,” Sampson said, looking out on the capacity crowd. “These games are a powerful experience for our Jewish youth. Play well, be well, mazoltof. You’re all winners already.”

Sanders looked equally awed as he looked out at so many athletes and their supporters.

“The success of the Maccabi Games comes from not only athletic excellence but also the host families,” said Sanders.

It’s true; the games could not go on without help from the Jewish community, who opens up their doors to house visiting athletes.

Over 650 residents played host to athletes last week and Wax said it plays to one of the greatest Jewish values, of “welcoming the stranger.”

In seeking to welcome the stranger, community members have gone above and beyond, Wax said. More than 40 committees helped plan every aspect of the event ahead of time and during the actual week there were more than 1,000 volunteers.

Members of the JCC’s theater group, the J Company provided entertainment during the ceremonies. Carmel Valley’s Emma Stratton sang a beautiful national anthem, which was followed by the national anthems of Canada and Israel. With dancers dressed up like fish and one as a giant sunshine, J Company sang Beach Boys songs and skateboarders and BMX riders performed impressive leaps and flips to the cheers of the crowd. It was all very Californian.

The ceremonies took a somber note with a video tribute to the 35th anniversary of the Munich 11, the eleven Israeli athletes who were killed in the hostage crisis of the 1978 Olympics.

Part of the Maccabi Games goal is for the young athletes to learn about that time and those athletes, as they were not yet alive when it happened.

“It’s very important that we always, forever remember those days,” said Munich survivor Dan Alon in the video, speaking at the 2006 Maccabi Games.

The video also paid tribute to sportscaster Jim McKay who reported on the Munich crisis. McKay died earlier this year and his saying the words; “They’re all gone” is a moment that many in the Jewish community still chillingly recall.

“We felt it was a wonderful, moving experience,” said Wax. “We really thought about the kids involved and making it special for them.”

To end the ceremonies, there was an amazing performance by Joshua Nelson, known as “the prince of kosher gospel.” He led all of Cox Arena in joyous versions of Jewish classic songs.

The ceiling then exploded with confetti and all of the athletes and their families were invited to come onto the floor and dance. But not too late - after all, they had to compete in the morning.