This summer, Jewish teens from across the country will travel to Atlanta July 28-Aug. 2 and Detroit Aug. 4-9 to compete in the JCC Maccabi Games, an annual multi-sports event open to Jewish teen athletes from all over the world. To Parkway North freshman Jordan Eisen, the Maccabi Games reminded him that there are many Jewish teen athletes across America.
“The Maccabi Games showed me that Jews can excel in sports, more than I had thought,” said Eisen, who belongs to Congregation Shaare Emeth. Eisen is one of the few Jewish athletes on his high school’s baseball team. He also played baseball in the Maccabi Games when it was hosted in St. Louis in 2016.
“I had to play up to my competition,” said Eisen, explaining that competing against other Maccabi teams helped him become a better player. Eisen says that he wasn’t confident in his baseball skills compared to his teammates but his Maccabi team made him feel like he had a safe place to improve.
“[I] was the worst player on the team but my teammates still taught me skills that I couldn’t have learned anywhere else,” said Eisen. He felt accepted on a team that was not only driven to compete, but also cared about getting to meet and connect with the other teams and their new teammates.
One piece of advice Eisen offers those who will be participating this summer is to enjoy interacting with others. “It’s very rare to get an opportunity to meet so many new people that you wouldn’t meet anywhere else, so meet [them]” Eisen said.
Eisen also reflected some of his favorite activities the athletes did together.
“Besides gaining knowledge of baseball, the best part of the games was going to the City Museum where all the teams got to get to know each other more,” said Eisen. “This allowed me to see the real personalities of my teammates when they were less serious and off the field.”
When St. Louis hosted the Maccabi Games, many local teens became interested in the event. Ayden Simckes, an eighth grader at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School and member of Congregation B’nai Amoona, was convinced by her school basketball coach to join the Maccabi team.
“I got interested in the Maccabi Games through my friends telling me about it,” said Simckes, who will travel to Atlanta in late July to play basketball with other St. Louis Jewish athletes on her Maccabi team. “I’m most excited to get to know my teammates better and to play with them.”
As much as she is looking forward to the trip, Simckes knows preparing for the competition will take a lot of work.
“I feel a little nervous about my competition because I know they will be older than me,” said Simckes. The basketball team is mostly comprised of middle-schoolers but they will be playing against teens up to age 16.
Gary Lerner, the St. Louis girls’ basketball coach and a member of Traditional Congregation, is coaching the Maccabi Games for the second time. He coached baseball when the Maccabi games were in St. Louis. This summer he is coaching the Maccabi girls’ basketball team.
“It was an amazing overall experience. From the opening ceremony to the games itself it was all pretty special,” said Lerner, who is athletic director and teaches social studies at Mirowitz. Lerner’s son happened to be one of the athletes he was coaching at the St. Louis games, which made the experience even more enjoyable. One of Lerner’s favorite things about being part of the Maccabi Games was seeing a diverse community of Jews.
“To be able to meet and develop friendships and compete with other Jewish kids is great,” said Lerner. The Maccabi Games is particularly special for him because he got to see his son compete in previous years; this summer one of his basketball players will be his daughter.
Lerner remembers how important it was for the athletes to meet and connect with one another. “Trading pins, exchanging gifts is amazing for the kids and it’s great to see that happen,” said Lerner, adding that it wasn’t just about the competition, but also the connections the kids made.
This summer in Atlanta, Lerner hopes that the girls’ basketball team does well.
“We are a very young team. I’ve been told that we’re going to be the youngest team in the bracket.” Lerner said. “We only have one high school student but our goal is to compete at a competitive level and to no matter what, have fun.”