By Randy Ellen Lutterman
In early August, we wrapped up three weeks of JCC Maccabi™, JCC Association’s premier Jewish teen engagement experience that brought more than 3,200 teens together from seven different countries. Three JCCs played host, in Columbus, Ohio, St. Louis, Missouri, and Stamford, Connecticut. And through the sister programs of JCC Maccabi Games® and ArtsFest®, teens – many of whom have little Jewish connection – explored their Jewishness, created community and discovered how those things connect to the sports and arts they love.
It’s exhilarating when you’re on the ground experiencing it, whether you’re a participating teen or an adult taking it all in. And it clearly holds some keys to how Jewish teens relate to and create their Jewish identities, and ways we can build on this model for engaging them “where they are at.”
Typically, host communities organize the venues and activities, fund raise, and arrange for the hundreds of volunteers and host families to house the visiting teens. JCC Association brings 34 years of guiding experience to the mix, and provides the expertise and support communities need to succeed.
This year, at the JCC of Stamford’s request, we explored adding ice hockey. It was not a sport JCC Maccabi had ever offered, but the popularity of hockey has grown in the United States and it has always been the sport in Canada, whose JCCs have long participated in the JCC Maccabi experience.
To our surprise, we had more than 200 youths from 15 communities participate, helping grow the number of teen participants in Stamford to 1,500. Who knew there were 200 Jewish teen ice hockey players?
But perhaps that’s the lesson – North American Jewish life is constantly evolving. How Jews envision where they fit into the mainstream is fluid and adaptive. Maybe the questions we should be asking are: “Why wouldn’t 200 Jewish teens play ice hockey? And what else do teens want to do at JCC Maccabi?”
JCC Maccabi is constantly evolving to challenge these assumptions. Ten years ago, JCC Association added ArtsFest, realizing what perhaps might seem obvious: Jewish teenagers are complex, with multiple interests and drives, both creative and athletic.
We were missing an opportunity to engage our youth who wanted to express themselves through music, visual arts, dance, writing and theater. Here was a vehicle that would allow them to explore Jewish pride and a connection to Israel – facilitated by the shlichim we bring – through the arts that make up so much of their personal identities. And ArtsFest, too, has evolved. A few years ago, realizing that many teens were avid fans of Food Network cooking shows, we added a culinary specialty. We’re committed to exploring the question: What do teens want? And we want to find a way to add something new – maybe even surprising – to the 14 sports and eight arts specialties that we already offer.
We began awarding medals for Midot, or values, in 2013 as a way to reward action and behavior that makes the world a better place. Teens have been recognized for including players with disabilities, comforting someone who lost badly in a match, and for a variety of other ways in which they model values that include: Tikkun Olam/Repairing the World; Kavod/Respect; Rinah/Joy; Ga’ava/Pride; Lev Tov/Big Hearted; and Amiut Yehidut/Jewish Peoplehood.
We first held the JCC Maccabi Games in Memphis in 1982, attracting a few hundred teens. But it was clear that we had hit upon a formula that stirred excitement in our youth and brought them together for something that extended beyond just their sports. With one day of the week-long experience dedicated to JCC Cares – service projects arranged by the host community that can include anything from hosting a “special Olympics” for kids with special needs, to packing lunches at a local food bank, to visiting a senior residence – JCC Maccabi is clearly more than a competition or workshop experience. The teens revel in their chance to make a difference, and hopefully carry that back home to their own communities.
When a JCC chooses to host, it takes up to two years of planning, but they engage many more than the teens who come for the week. The goal is to involve the entire community, and thousands of adults volunteer in a variety of ways, from hosting teens, to organizing security, medical support and transportation, to creating the evening activities, to fundraising. This year alone saw 890 host families and 2,475 volunteers in all three communities. It’s an enormous undertaking that creates a great deal of community momentum and unity.
Next year JCC Maccabi will be hosted by the JCCs in Birmingham, Alabama and Albany, New York. The Alper JCC in Miami will host the Games and ArtsFest. They are already in the thick of planning for the ways this powerful platform can benefit their communities.
Beneath the cheering, athleticism and performances is a more powerful message – that you can create Jewish community anywhere, and there are thousands of ways to do so.
We saw this most beautifully during the Stamford JCC’s JCC Maccabi Final Showcase. More than 1,200 people were in the audience, but among them were 600 teen athletes, cheering and rooting for their creative ArtsFest pals. By being flexible, and growing and changing with the times, the Games and ArtsFest can grow and retain its freshness, attracting new generations of teens, who will learn that while not every competition or performance ends with a gold medal, we are indeed, am echad, one people.
Randy Ellen Lutterman is JCC Association vice president for arts and culture and director, JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest. JCC Association strengthens and leads JCCs, YM-YWHAs and camps throughout North America.
Photos courtesy of JCC Association, taken at the JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest in Stamford, Conn.