Muscular Judaism

For first time since 2011, JCC Maccabi Games being held in Israel, with plans to do so regularly

More than 1,000 teens, from North America, Israel, Europe and Morocco to take part in the three-week program in new push to deepen Israel engagement, organizer says

More than 700 teenagers from across North America are traveling to Israel for the JCC Maccabi Games, which kick off on Sunday and are being held in Israel for the first time in over a decade. They will be joined by some 300 Israeli teens and dozens more from Eastern Europe and Morocco, the event’s lead organizer told eJewishPhilanthropy.

Samantha Cohen, vice president for program and talent at JCC Association of North America and head of JCC Maccabi, said this year’s games in Israel are meant to serve as a pilot program with the hope of holding the event in Israel every four years.

“We had to take a long pause from the games due to [the COVID-19 pandemic], so we were able to undertake a strategic planning process for JCC Maccabi,” Cohen said.

“One of the things that came out of the plan was that we saw this huge opportunity to use the games, this platform that we have — I call it one of the crown jewels of the Jewish world – as an opportunity to do even more with Israel engagement,” she said.

Holding the JCC Maccabi Games in Israel every four years would also mirror the quadrennial cycle of the Maccabiah Games. 

According to Cohen, the main motivation behind this decision was the realization that the participants are largely Jewish teens who are not otherwise engaged in communal Jewish life. A survey conducted by the JCC Association found that almost half – 45% – are not engaged in any organized Jewish communal activity and more than two-thirds are not a part of a Jewish youth movement.

“These are the kids who otherwise would not be coming to Israel and would not be engaged in organized Jewish life with other Jewish teens. We recognized this was an opportunity to bring them in through the games,” she said.

Cohen said the possibility of tapping into this “unique audience” of otherwise less-engaged Jewish teens allowed the JCC Association to bring on board a number of funders and partners to support the games in Israel. This includes support from RootOne, which is providing vouchers to eligible participants to heavily subsidize the trip, as well as from Mosaic United, the Samueli Foundation, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Seed the Dream Foundation and other “individual and anonymous donors,” according to the JCC Association. The Coca-Cola Company also helped sponsor the JCC Maccabi Games.

“Funders recognized that this was a huge opportunity to do something, to really move the needle on Jewish teen engagement with Israel,” Cohen said.

The trip is split into two main sections: the first nine days are dedicated to the games themselves, followed by 12 days of touring around Israel. The more than 1,000 participants are all between the ages of 14 and 17. They are also joined by hundreds of coaches and other staff.

Alongside the actual sports that are taking place during those first nine days, that period will also include a number of educational programs, including meet-ups with Israeli teens, speakers, guests and workshops – all focused on sport and fitness, Cohen said.

The JCC Maccabi Games are being hosted by the northern port city of Haifa, where most participants are staying, though some of the events will take place in other locations in Israel.

Two major themes of this year’s games are the war in Ukraine and the Abraham Accords. All of the European participants are either from Ukraine itself or from countries that have played a major role in assisting Ukrainian refugees – Moldova, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary and Germany. (Poland was eligible but ultimately did not send participants.) Morocco is also sending a delegation for the first time since the country renewed its official ties with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords.

Though the participants have been making their way to Israel over the past few days, the games officially kick off on Sunday night in Haifa. 

The opening ceremony, which will be livestreamed, will include a recorded address from Israeli President Isaac Herzog, a performance by the Shalva Band and a tribute to the Israeli Olympic athletes murdered in the 1972 Munich Games by Shlomit Nir-Toor, a two-time Israeli Olympic swimmer and Maccabiah champion who survived the massacre at the Olympic Village. NBA star Deni Avdija will officially launch the games with the lighting of the ceremonial torch.

This year’s sports comprise: ice hockey, baseball, soccer, basketball, girls volleyball, swimming, tennis and flag football.

The ice hockey competition will be held at a rink outside the coastal city of Netanya. The baseball games will be held at fields in the central town of Raanana. 

Cohen noted that ice hockey is the games’ fastest-growing sport. “We had a maximum capacity of eight teams – and we have eight full teams,” she said. The hockey portion of the games is being supported specifically by the Samueli Foundation, whose funders – Susan and Henry Samueliown the Anaheim Ducks NHL team. The flag football competition, which includes both boys and girls teams, is being funded and organized in a 50-50 partnership with the American Football in Israel nonprofit association, Cohen said.

After the games conclude, the participants will begin their 12-day tour of the country on a trip that was specifically designed by the JCC Association around its six core values, Cohen said. These are: tikkun olam (repairing the world), respect, joy, big-heartedness, Jewish peoplehood and pride.

Cohen highlighted the importance of Jewish peoplehood and tikkun olam on the trips. “We really think that JCC Maccabi is a Jewish peoplehood-building program – that’s what it is, that’s what it does. Jewish peoplehood is really prevalent in everything we do,” she said.

The educational aspects of the tour were developed by RootOne and the iCenter, the latter of which also trained 21 JCC Maccabi educational fellows – a new initiative funded by the Seed the Dream Foundation – who will accompany the participants on the tour and help them “reflect on and process their experiences,” Cohen said.

During the tour, the participants will also volunteer with some Israeli nonprofits as part of an initiative known as JCC Cares and to highlight the value of tikkun olam. They were also all asked to bring gently used sports clothes and stuffed animals to donate to Ukrainian refugees in Israel.

The total cost of the three-week trip is approximately $10,000, but with the vouchers from RootOne and with “significant additional fundraising,” the JCC Association brought the price down to no more than $4,500, Cohen said. In some cases, local communities did additional fundraising for their delegations to bring down that cost further, she added.

Cohen said the JCC Association will assess the success of the Israel games at the end of the event in order to determine how they proceed. “But we have every indication that we will be able to do this every four years,” she said.