Grownups find lasting pleasure in Maccabi Games for teenagers

Despite the name, the Maccabi Youth Games are not just for kids.

As a steady stream of eager teenagers registered for tryouts on a recent Sunday at the Marin Jewish Community Center, Bob Miller noted that his own involvement in this annual international athletic competition has far outlasted that of his own children.

"This is my 10th year," Miller said from his perch behind the registration table, where young hopefuls signed up for a chance to represent the Bay Area in dozens of different teams.

"When you become an empty-nester," he said, "you can continue and it's still the same thrill."

A Bay Area co-delegation chair and a member of the Maccabi board of directors, Miller loves the emotional highs, the competition and the sense of family the games foster. The Hillsborough resident still gets misty-eyed when recounting an episode from the 1990 games, which were held in Detroit.

"There was a team from Russia, and the [members] didn't have shoes. Our kids would go up to them and ask, `What size do you wear?' Then they'd take off their shoes and give them to the players.

"You cried watching it," Miller said.

Co-chair Joanne Bernstein agreed that the games deeply touch participants and spectators alike.

Describing her efforts as "a labor of love," Bernstein recounted some poignant anecdotes that she calls "success stories": One 13-year-old immigrant who could "barely speak English" at his first games is now attending U.C. Berkeley on a soccer scholarship. A Salinas boy — the child of a mixed black-Jewish marriage — "became affiliated with his religion" at the Maccabi games, Bernstein said, and now attends Menlo College on a scholarship.

Deborah Furano's son played in the games two years ago, and Furano liked what she saw.

"It's wonderful for [the teens] to see the bigger Jewish world," she said. The games are "very social," the kids "very equal. They all had two things in common, sports and Judaism."

Furano's daughter Melissa, 13, was taking no chances. Determined to make the cut this year, she signed up for soccer, softball, volleyball and swimming.

Tryouts draw a wide range of would-be players: active kids hoping for a summer adventure; super athletes eager for vigorous competition; and curious newcomers, perhaps there at their parents' behest.

Tov Fisher-Kershner, a Fremont eighth-grader, didn't know what to expect at his first Maccabi Games in Los Angeles. Any anxiety, however, melted away after he met his teammates and the host family with whom he would be staying during that week.

And when his team won a silver medal, that was icing on the cake.

As Tov and his brother Micah warmed up for soccer tryouts on this sunny afternoon, their dad contentedly looked on. "Once they went, they were hooked," said Alan Kershner. "It's not only a great Jewish experience, but there's tremendous comradeship with people from all over the country."

Kershner was so impressed with the games, in fact, that he tagged along as a coach. This year he hopes to sign on as chess coach.

Though chess is not an athletic event, chess competitions are a part of the Maccabi games.

Alan Fraser, a lanky Marin high school freshman hopeful of joining the team as a first-time Maccabi participant, simply liked the idea of playing more basketball. He'd decided to come at the last minute, urged on by his mom, Judith.

Arriving at the JCC just in time for basketball trials, he quickly explained that, previously, "I played with CYO and the YMCA."

Then he dashed to the court, joining more than two dozen others vying for positions on two 10-member teams that will represent the Bay Area.

A total of 46 13-to-16-year-olds vied for slots on the girls' and boys' basketball, soccer and tennis teams and the boys' baseball team. Further tryouts are set for the Albert L. Schultz JCC in Palo Alto on Sunday, March 9, with a full agenda of 16 individual and team sports.

The Bay Area delegation to the August games will include about 100 youngsters. Most will go to either Milwaukee or Seattle, depending on which sport they play, though a few might head for one of the four other U.S. cities also hosting the Maccabi Games this year. Next year, the games will return to a two-city format.

In the year 2000, all the competitors — several thousand in all — will gather at Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla., for the "mega-Maccabi" Games.

Most team practices begin in June, according to Sherri Smith, Maccabi program director. She encourages teens to try out for several sports, as some, like basketball, are overly popular, while others, like girls' volleyball, need more players.

Sometimes it just takes a few enthusiastic players to spread the news, Smith added.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.