Jewish teens skate, rattle and roll at Maccabi tryouts

A group of eight Jewish teens spent a recent Sunday morning putting a 21st-century twist on something that has been around for many generations.

No, they were not analyzing the Talmud.

They were playing hockey, although it certainly wasn't the kind of hockey their parents grew up watching.

For these young athletes of the online generation, their sport of choice at the local tryouts for the JCC Maccabi Youth Games was in-line hockey.

Even after the two-hour tryout session March 12 at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto was over, Boris Fridlib of Campbell was still zipping around on his rollerblades, taking slapshots and doing 360-degree turns with amazing ease.

"I love it," the sweaty 14-year-old said. "I always wanted to play hockey, so a few years ago I signed up for ice hockey. But this is great."

On a gorgeously sunny Sunday, Fridlib and more than 150 other 13- to 16-year-olds were attempting to win spots on the San Francisco team that will compete in the 19th annual Maccabi Youth Games this summer.

The San Francisco contingent will field teams in a wide range of sports, including baseball, soccer, basketball and softball. An initial round of tryouts took place March 5 in San Rafael. Over the next few weeks, roster decisions are expected to be made and practices will kick into high gear.

At this point, the rosters for the boys' teams are full. But girls are still needed to fill out the basketball, volleyball, soccer and softball teams. For more information, call (650) 493-0563, ext. 238.

The games will be held in August at five venues across the nation. Most of the athletes who qualify for the San Francisco squad will compete in Tucson, Ariz., and some will go to Staten Island, N.Y.

Last year, the athletes on the San Francisco team brought more than 60 medals back to their homes around the Bay Area.

But to organizers, getting Jewish kids together means much more than pursuing gold, silver or bronze.

"For some of the kids, it's their first exposure to being with other Jewish kids," said boys basketball coach Peter Pollat, who has been involved with the Maccabi games for 12 years.

He said it's a real pleasure to see both affiliated and non-affiliated Jewish kids coming together.

"Athletics is the hook," Pollat said, "but the bottom line is getting them with other Jewish kids and seeing the friendships develop. For some of them, it's their first connection to anything Jewish."

Then again, some of the teens aren't even thinking in those terms.

Of the seven other kids who were trying out for in-line hockey, Fridlib said, "I didn't even think about them being Jewish or anything. I'm just out there playing for the fun of the game."

In-line hockey — mainly because of its energy and "sport of the next generation" thrust — was one of the most interesting tryouts of the day. Eight kids showed up with varying degrees of experience, but all were surprisingly adept on their rollerblades.

They used standard wooden hockey sticks and whacked a plastic puck with ball bearings that glides on the concrete (the tryout was held on an outdoor basketball court). The players wore elbow pads, but knees and heads were mostly unprotected.

Assistant coach Greg Herb dutifully made notes on his clipboard about each player's skating ability, speed and puck-handling skills as they competed in 1-on-1 drills.

"In-line hockey is not one of those sports that everyone does yet," Herb said. "It's not like basketball or baseball."

That makes it difficult to find players. Last year, the San Francisco team had only five, so it merged with the New Jersey team at the national competition in Rochester, N.Y. in order to field a complete team.

This year, the San Francisco squad wants to have a full roster on its own. First-year coach Rob Sinita said he would like at least two or three more players.

Although only four skaters and a goalie are on the rink at any given time during a game, each team wants extra players to keep everyone fresh, because the action is fast and furious.

Herb put up flyers at a few local ice hockey and in-line hockey rinks in the region, but "I don't know how many Jewish hockey players there are in the Bay Area," he lamented.

One of them is Ben Methany. The 16-year-old from Fremont played on the in-line hockey team two years ago, but missed out last year because he went on a six-week trip to Israel.

As they watched him wrist a shot past the goalie, his parents, Larry and Marsha Methany, talked about how wonderful it is to see their son doing something he loves — playing sports — with other Jewish kids.

"He's one of the only few Jewish kids in his high school, and the only Jewish kid on his [all-star] soccer team," Marsha Methany said. "So this is really fun for him, and important."

Other parents expressed similar sentiments about the Maccabi games.

"It's a great program and great opportunity to meet Jewish kids not just from here but also from around the country," said Liz Mann of Palo Alto, whose 15-year-old son, Michael Mann-Stock, was trying out for basketball.

"Kids can play sports anywhere, but this experience has a little more dimension to it."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.