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At Jcc’s International Sports Event, Sneakers Serve As a Cultural Bridge

August 7, 2002
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Robbie Lipkin, a 16-year-old from Chicago, was practicing his jump shot during warmups on the Jewish Community Center basketball court when Ori Shahan, a 16-year-old from Israel, walked up and asked him about his shoes.

Lipkin was sporting a new pair of white-and-blue And 1 basketball sneakers. Shahan had noticed that the shoes matched his Israeli team’s uniforms, and wanted to know where he could get a pair.

“In Israel, there is no And 1,” the skinny, brown-haired Shahan explained as he looked down at his own aging green Nikes.

The two are among the 6,500 teen-age athletes from North America, Israel, Europe and South America competing this summer in the 2002 JCC Maccabi Games, an annual event celebrating its 20th anniversary. Modeled after the Maccabiah Games in Israel — an Olympic-style collection of amateur Jewish athletes — the JCC Maccabi Games are for Jewish teens between the ages of 13 and 16.

Though Shahan couldn’t play in Monday’s basketball game because of a foot injury, he said he was still enjoying his first trip to the United States.

Escaping from the daily terror attacks in Israel, Shahan could relax, play basketball and meet other Jewish teens.

“I like the cars here, and the girls are cuter,” Shahan added before the team of 15- and 16-year-old Israelis played its first game against a delegation from Cleveland.

Others shared Shahan’s sentiments.

“We’re happy to come here, I want to see what” the U.S. is like, said Shahan’s teammate, Yair Blaier, 16. He and the other Israeli athletes know “all the stories and see the movies. Now I want to be here.”

Organized by the Jewish Community Centers Association, Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel, the Maccabi World Union and Maccabi Canada, the games are being held throughout the month of August

They rotate among different cities each year, and are organized in delegations formed through local community centers.

The games began in Memphis in 1982 with just 300 athletes. Memphis is serving again as host this year, along with Omaha, Neb., Baltimore, Montreal and Springfield, Mass. Each city will host the games for a week.

The games have come a long way in those 20 years.

Beth and Phil Kohler began coaching swimming at the games in 1984. That first year, when the games were just “grass-roots sports,” their uniforms consisted of matching blue T-shirts, Phil Kohler said.

Now every delegation is outfitted with fancy warmup gear and uniforms, purchased through local JCCs.

As chairwoman of the Philadelphia delegation, the largest visiting group, Beth Kohler said the games are “infusing culture onto kids.”

“Financially we can’t give back to the Jewish community; this is our way,” Phil Kohler added.

Rachel Kohler, 13, has been traveling to the games since she was 13 months old. Finally old enough to compete on the dance team, she called her participation a “lifelong dream.”

The logic behind the games remains the same as it was 20 years ago: to offer an “informal Jewish education,” according to the games’ continental director, Lenny Silberman.

Israeli Uri Alkan, 22, is volunteering at the games. He just finished his service as a platoon commander in the Israeli army and is running “Hang Time,” a hands-on learning activity using trivia questions and a map to teach the athletes about Israel.

The activity is a “new experience about Israel,” Alkan said. For many of the teen-age athletes, “there is not a positive connection” to Israel “because of the bombing and the issue with the Palestinians.”

Through “Hang Time,” Alkan said, he and other Israelis can “show what Israel means to us. It is our home.”

But at the Maccabi Games, informal Jewish education mainly means competing and socializing with other Jewish teens.

By combining a Jewish event with pop culture and sports — ranging from baseball and soccer to table tennis and bowling — organizers hope less-affiliated Jewish teens will move closer to Israel and Judaism.

The opening ceremonies testified to this belief. Held in the Pyramid sports arena, home to the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, the show featured the Grizzlies’ dance team and basketball star Shane Battier, along with a fireworks show and video montage. The team’s mascot even joined the crowd by flying in from the ceiling on a rope.

The bear got stuck on his descent to the stage, but the rest of the show ran smoothly. Delegations paraded into the arena as more than 1,000 parents and supporters cheered.

Despite the fancy special effects, the Israeli delegation elicited the most excitement. The crowd erupted as the delegation entered and the announcer boomed out that they represented “Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people.”

“It’s very exciting. When we entered the pyramid, everyone stood up; I almost cried,” Shahan said.

While the Israeli delegation took center stage at the opening ceremony, there was little talk of politics and terrorism on the court and during social activities.

The Jewish Community Centers “use the games as a catalyst. They are heavily Jewish, but focus on the ethnic, cultural and social” aspects of Jewish life, said Steven Reiner, the chair of the games.

Indeed, the Memphis JCC teemed with boys sporting sideways visors and spiked hair, and girls in midriff tank tops and flip flops at registration Sunday, when local host families were paired with their respective teenagers and prepared for a week in the hot Memphis sun.

Richard Wurzburg and his son Josh, 3, were introduced to two shy, polite and visibly nervous boys — Jeff David Steiner, 14, and Aaron Phalan, 13, both from Columbus, Ohio.

The Wurzburgs were moving into a new house, but hadn’t let that stop them from housing two Maccabi athletes.

Steiner and Phalan, who live a block apart in Columbus, joked with Wurzburg as he described their prospective living situation.

Daniel Rubin, also of Columbus, is an attorney who coaches baseball during the summer. He began his connection to the games as a host, and now is in his fourth year as a coach.

It’s “fun to be able to go to different places,” he said. “I’ve been to Florida, Tucson and this is my first time in Memphis.”

His daughter, Aaryn, 15, will be competing on the dance team. She had accompanied her father to the games for the past three years, but hadn’t competed because she never knew there was a dance team and wasn’t so interested in other sports.

Now she is “nervous to dance by myself, and afraid I’ll forget my steps,” she said.

But she has a whole team to support her, and her father is confident she’ll do fine.

He added, “I wish I had it when I was a kid.”

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