Answer the Call: The JCC Maccabi Games Are Coming Back to San Diego

by Jacqueline Bull September 6, 2019


maccabiOn a sunny afternoon at the Del Mar beach, a group of Jewish families was assembled. We trekked down the sand with a surfboard and three dogs. Larry Katz with his children Danielle and Adam (his son Evan Katz couldn’t make it), Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs with their son, Adam; and Kira Finkenberg with her four-legged family, Jackson, Jake Dog and Kookie; are all part of the team bringing the JCC Maccabi Games to San Diego.

The Olympic-style sporting juggernaut, the JCC Maccabi Games, is coming back to San Diego in 2020. Some 2200 plus Jewish Teen Participants (ages 13-16) will come together in San Diego for the event that is the largest annual gathering of Jewish teens in the world.

The JCC Maccabi Games were last held in San Diego in 2008 which many of the committee chairs for 2020 participated in. Gary Jacobs was the chair of the event then and now, his son, Adam has taken the torch and is now a co-chair.

“Usually we have two or three host communities every year for the games. This year was Atlanta and Detroit and next year will be San Diego and New York … We plan a couple years out where host communities want to go. And the real thing about the games is it is really not about the athletics, but it’s about bringing the community together. You need so much of the community to help put the games on. It really is an opportunity for the Jewish community to come together to do this and that is a great catapult into other things the community can do going on past the games,” Gary Jacobs said.

And even though the games are next summer, planning is in full swing. “We’re knee-deep into it,” Kira Finkenberg said. “We have already had marketing meetings, housing meetings, event meetings … host family meetings. We’ve had meetings for everything because we are going to have so many kids in San Diego, we’ve got to plan ahead and be ready.

“I just got back from Detroit last week to see the games and be prepared … It was amazing to me to see the kids all coming together. They had met two days ago and were participating in team sports and participating in the Art Fest. It was a really neat experience that these kids didn’t know each other and now have friends for life. You don’t get that opportunity very often,” Kira added.

Seeing the games in Detroit was part of a scouting mission, especially for those that hadn’t been involved in the games before.

“I met some people in Detroit that they were grandparents and had no kids or anyone involved, they signed up to be host families and said it was like the most amazing experience to have kids back in their home,” Kira said.

Jerri-Ann Jacobs has hosted athletes in years past.

“It’s a lot of fun and it’s not that much work. You just have to feed them breakfast, drop them off to the Hub or wherever their games are and pick them up later. It’s fun. Last time when we hosted, we had a whole party. The other host families in the neighborhood came and had a party here,” Jerri-Ann Jacobs said.

Larry Katz also hosted in 2008 and credited the experience for many of his kids lifelong friendships.

“It is not that much work to house, but you leave a serious lasting impression on the participants that you have. I know Larry’s kids are still in contact with the kids they hosted. And it’s just an amazing way to have an impact in a short amount of time on a young person’s life,” Adam Jacobs said.

“For me, both my sons did the JCC Maccabi Games four years each, eight years total between the two, and [in] different cities around the United States. And just watching the friends they made, the connections they made in different cities is amazing. In fact, in 2008, they were too young for the JCC Maccabi Games. They were supposed to be the bat boys for the San Diego baseball team and they practiced with them and everything. Well, I hosted four Austin baseball athletes at my house and after the first day, my kids said can we be the bat boy for the Austin team instead because we like them [laughs]. They ended up being the bat boys for the Austin, Texas baseball team,” Larry Katz said.

San Diego has been a big draw for participants coming from out of town with the weather and beaches as obvious highlights.

“We’re fun,” Larry said to the table to a big laugh. “I mean obviously the location and the weather is the biggest part of it. I mean there are not too many cities in the United States that are beach destinations, that is a big part of it, but it is our people, too.”

“We hosted in 2008 and everybody from every other city said it was the best games they’ve ever been to,” Larry added.

“I think it is a great way to bring all the San Diego Jewish community together. It is a pretty spread out group, so to be able to have something for everyone can participate in,” Adam Jacobs said.

“How many things can you have this experience with and continue to go back to?” Betzy Lynch, CEO of LFJCC said. “Take Adam Jacobs for example, he was a JCC Maccabi participant, then a JCC Maccabi coach and now is a Co-Chair of San Diego’s JCC Maccabi Experience. The same is true about the JCC. We just hired two Nierman Preschool teachers who years ago started as Nierman Preschool students! It is rare that an event or a place becomes such a part of a person’s Jewish experience and connecting to community that they keep returning for more. That’s our secret sauce.”

Adam added that it has been interesting to see the whole progression from the inside and now on the outside (“I’m excited to put my stamp on with the rest of the team”).

“Just the wealth of experience of the people in this room who you are interviewing bring to the table, their history with the JCC, Gary’s role with the [JCC Association of North America], but also having been chair of the 2008 games, Adam passing the torch he is co-chair here, and Kira, all your work in the community–just people able to elevate the profile of the games in San Diego. And also Betzy Lynch though. Betzy has hosted games in both Alabama and Memphis and Spencer Lynch, he was games director there too, so I think that San Diego has a pretty solid team to be able to host this,” Robyn Statman, Senior Director of Marketing and Strategy for the LFJCC said.

And it’s not just the athletes, the whole art fest is such an amazing experience for kids that don’t play sports, but they cook together, or they created art together and to see them shine at the showcase was a really neat thing. I cried through the whole thing [laughs]. It was so neat to see these kids that you could tell don’t normally get the spotlight,” Kira Finkeberg said.

“Another story we had this year there was a young lady from Orange County who hadn’t been able to come to the games because she has a disability. And her sister had played in the games, but had aged out, so her sister, as her chaperone, brought her along as a bowling participant. And actually, she won a medal and the Orange County basketball team got on a bus, went out 20 minutes to the bowling match to watch her get her medal, support her, cheer her on, and then had to come back 20 minutes for their game. It is that kind of rachmanus that comes together for the groups that are together,” Gary Jacobs said

Rachmanus, which encompasses compassion and sportsmanship, is a guiding principle for the games.

“When I was coaching in one of the Maccabi games–I think it was Milwaukee. The project was to pack backpacks for underprivileged kids who normally get all of their meals in school, but in the summer: no school, no food. They challenged all of us to pack like 100 backpacks and all of my team was like, ‘100? Let’s crush that,’ so everyone else did 100 and we did like 500. And they were like even more fired up about that accomplishment than winning a baseball game,” Adam Jacobs said.

“Along with the 25th year of inclusion, we are piloting the Access Games this year as part of the JCC Maccabi Games and Arts Fest. And so what that is participants with cognitive disabilities will be able to participate and this the first time in history of Maccabi, so we’re very excited about that,” Robyn Statman said.

To put on a community-wide event of  this scale, they need a community-wide effort. In addition to host families, they need volunteers and sponsors.

“Tons of volunteers,” Larry Katz said. “Some of the things you wouldn’t even think
are very personnel intensive like water and ice–a must. And with athletes all over San Diego county, transportation, there is 75 buses going around. And coordinating that and getting them back to the hubs, so they can hang out, food, everything.”

All the people on the Maccabi team for San Diego emphasized how much they got out of the experience and the joy of feeling one with the local community and also to Jews from all over.

“I just love watching the camaraderie of the kids. One side is the camaraderie of the kids coming together and the other part is the community coming together. The fact that it does bring out people who wouldn’t normally be affiliated with the Jewish community or be involved in anyway and this brings them out and gets them connected,” Gary Jacobs said.

“I think it is a great way to bring all the San Diego Jewish community together. It is a pretty spread out group, so [it is] to be able to have something that everyone can participate in,” Adam Jacobs said.

Click this link to register in the games as an athlete, artist, volunteer, host family or sponsor.

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