JCC Maccabi Games: The Jewish Olympics

By Ilanit Turner – August 1, 2013

What do you call a Jewish Olympic-style athletic competition lasting four days, including 1,300 teens from the U.S., Israel, Mexico, Canada, and Panama? The JCC Maccabi Games, of course! As an Austinite, you couldn’t miss the countless charter buses schlepping athletes back and forth between the JCC, St. Stephen’s, and St. Edward’s between the days of July 28 and August 2. This year, Austin had the privilege of hosting the 2013 JCC Maccabi games, the largest gathering of Jewish teen athletes in the world! The first games were held in 1982 and, since then, more than 120,000 Jewish athletes have participated worldwide. The games not only give the athletes an opportunity to compete against other Jewish athletes, but also encourage sportsmanship; enrich their Jewish identity; and promote the health, physical fitness, and well-being of Jewish youth through participation in recreational and athletic activities.

The qualifications for participating in the games are simply that the athletes are Jewish teens between the ages of 13 and 16 and that they attend the tryouts for their team sport. The sports featured this year included baseball, basketball, bowling, golf, soccer, softball, swimming, table tennis, tennis, volleyball, competitive dance, and flag football; there was also the opportunity to be one of the "star reporters." Because everyone makes the team, the main purpose of the tryouts is to enforce discipline and dedication to the team. Some sports are more popular than others, so more than one team was created in each city. As for the less popular sports with relatively fewer athletes, participants from multiple cities created a single team, thus giving yet another opportunity for teens to meet one another from around the world.

My job as a star reporter for the Games allowed me the chance to cover all the sports and interview the athletes about their games. One of the many perks of being an interviewer was having the privilege of meeting gymnastics Olympic gold medalist, Aly Raisman. In reflecting on her Olympic success, Raisman stressed that it takes tenacity and perseverance to be a winner, and there’s certainly no substitute for hard training. Raisman was also honored to have lit the torch both at the Maccabiah Games in Israel and for the JCC Maccabi Games here in Austin.

In addition to the excitement of meeting Aly Raisman, the athletes got to celebrate each night of the games. The first night included a special country western-style dance at Graham Central Station. The next night, the athletes got to choose what they wanted to do with their host families—my four guests from Dallas and I enjoyed a taste of Austin by cooling off at Barton Springs. The following night, the athletes enjoyed go-carts and the arcade at Austin’s Park. The final party on Thursday night took place at the JCC, where there was a large dance, a casino, an arcade, and a makeshift UT co-op to give the out-of-town athletes a chance to take home a piece of Texas. However, even with all the organized activities, in a moment of serendipity, the athletes began to trade their own team apparel, including backpacks, team jerseys, jackets, pins, and even sombreros with each other. It was a fabulous, impromptu way for everyone to connect with their fellow Jewish athletes across the country and across the world. Personally, I found it incredibly interesting to see the bartering among the athletes. I came to realize that it wasn’t the value of the items that mattered, but the nostalgia and the excitement of walking away with a "tchotchke" (Yiddish for  small, decorative item or souvenir) from another city that serves as a permanent reminder of a great competition, conversation, and a new friend.


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