JCC Maccabi: One Week Leads to a Lifetime of Engagement in the Jewish Community

JCC Maccabi swimmers 2018; courtesy.

By Jordan Lanczycki

I remember my first JCC Maccabi Games® in 2000 like it was yesterday. I was 13, and the opening ceremony was held in New York City’s legendary Madison Square Garden. I felt like an Olympian. My heart thumped with pride as I marched into the stadium with my delegation from the Bender JCC of Greater Washington, surrounded by more than a thousand Jewish teens and 10,000 spectators cheering us on. In my young mind, the roar of the crowd rivaled that of a hockey game after a Stanley Cup win.

That week I spent competing in Staten Island brought together my Jewish identity with my passion for swimming in a way I’d never experienced before. Growing up, I loved swimming. I still do – it’s one of the few individual and team sports. As a competitive swimmer, I was always motivated by the midot (values) of kavod (respect), rina (joy) and ga’ava (pride). As an adoptee who converted to Judaism as a baby, I was always eager to learn more about my family’s heritage. That moment at the Games was when I really knew that these were “my people,” the people who shared my values. It affirmed for me, once again, that the Jewish community was where I belonged.

In the years that followed the 2000 Games, I embraced my identity as a Jewish swimmer even further, competing on both a national and global level. In college, I was a Division I swimmer, and at 14, I participated in The Maccabiah Games in Israel, which was one of the most pivotal moments in my life. It was the first time I traveled to Israel, and the first time I really understood what it meant to have a Jewish homeland. Just as I had found my place in the North American Jewish community several years earlier, at Maccabiah I truly felt a part of world Jewry.

The teens I swam with at my local JCC always dreamed of working there one day – it was our home away from home. I’ve been fortunate enough to turn that dream into a reality and help create experiences for the next generation of Jewish youth who are exploring their spiritual identities through sports and the arts – including, someday soon, my own young daughter. To be honest, it feels less like a job than a privilege.

There have been so many highlights in my career, each progressively gratifying. In 2004, when the Bender JCC of Greater Washington hosted the Games and I was working as an intern, my family hosted four teens from across the U.S. who we remain in touch with to this day. In 2011, as continental delegation head at JCC Association of North America, I led a delegation of 60 U.S. teens to Israel, with many visiting for the first time. In 2015, all my memories and feelings as a Maccabi athlete in Madison Square Garden came rushing back as I stood in the Bender JCC auditorium and accepted my award for induction into the Greater Washington Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. I want every teen I work with to experience that feeling.

The look on the faces of athletes when they first arrive at JCC Maccabi leaves a snapshot in my mind that motivates me to ensure each of them has a successful week. And it isn’t just about those few days in the summer – it’s about helping those kids maintain confidence, strengthen their connection to their Jewish faith, and build ties to one another, year-round. JCC Maccabi athletes experience victory and defeat, joy and frustration, but more importantly they have the opportunity to connect with other Jewish teens from around the world and make friendships that will last a lifetime. They may not all remember which medal they received, but they never forget those that they met and will keep in touch with for years to come.

Every week, I receive emails from JCC Maccabi alumni (we’re over 15,000 strong!) looking to reconnect with former host families, or from soon-to-be spouses who met at the Games and are looking for photos to share at their wedding. I’m forever inspired by these relationships built in perpetuity.

My inbox is also filled with notes from more recent participants. They include parents sharing how their children are carrying the values and skills we instilled in them over the summer into the new school year. They also include leaders from the Merage JCC of Orange County and the Alpert JCC of Long Beach, California, our 2018 host communities, who are already seeing strengthened community ties, improved teen participation and a new crop of budding leaders.

JCC Maccabi is a huge undertaking for each host community, but one that involves so many people working together toward a common goal. The benefits far outweigh the costs: JCCs typically report seeing more participation after hosting the games. As we prepare the Marcus JCC of Atlanta and the JCC of Greater Detroit for next year’s JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest, I look forward to helping a new class of Jewish teens discover a program that’s been so ingrained in my self-discovery.

Jordan Lanczycki is JCC Association of North America’s deputy director of JCC Maccabi®.