Athletes in Marin try out for spots on 2002 Maccabi team

"You know, when I grew up there were very few Jewish athletic role models other than Sandy Koufax," says the San Francisco father, carefully watching his son, one of the smallest boys trying out for the San Francisco Bay Area JCC Maccabi baseball team.

"That's why these games are just great: They give Jewish kids a chance to really show their athletic prowess," Hirschfeld says.

Since 1982, the Maccabi Games have sent delegations made up of Jewish athletes between the ages of 13 and 16 to compete against each other in Olympic-style competitions.

Seven thousand participants from more than 115 U.S. and Canadian cities, plus Israel, Mexico, Australia, Venezuela, Argentina, Poland and Great Britain are expected to participate in the 2002 Games, which will take place Aug. 4 to 23 in four U.S. cities — Baltimore; Memphis, Tenn.; Omaha, Neb.; and Springfield, Mass. — and in Montreal.

Along with those at the Marin JCC, Bay Area tryouts for all sports — including volleyball, softball, bowling and in-line hockey –were also held March 10 at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto. Those who make the cut at both locations will compete in either Baltimore or Omaha, depending on the sport. And they will probably find out their status within the next couple of weeks, according to Sherri Smith, program director for the San Francisco Bay Area JCC Maccabi team.

Meanwhile, more than 200 athletes registered for the March 3 tryout in San Rafael vying for a coveted position on the Maccabi soccer, basketball or baseball team. Many are seasoned middle school, high school or community team athletes with several years of athletic participation to their credit.

The goal, says Smith, is to contribute to the enrichment of young Jewish lives. "The games offer these kids a unique opportunity to meet and connect with so many other Jews their age from all over," she says. "It's an experience they carry with them for a long time after the games are over."

Tryouts on March 3 presented tall and short, young and younger, veteran team players and beginners vying for spots in a highly competitive arena.

Leah Wolfcale, a Marin eighth-grader, is one of the 13- year-olds trying out for a spot on the girls' basketball team. She still wears her number — 45 — pinned to the back of her shirt as she works on her shots 20 minutes after basketball tryouts have ended.

"I know a lot of the kids were older and a little more experienced," she says, "but I think I did OK." She shrugs off the fact that she thinks she wasn't on her shot today.

"It's all right. I'm going to try out for the soccer team in a few minutes. I've been playing that for nine years," she says.

Through a series of dribbling, passing, catching, blocking and swinging exercises, some proficient players have come to show their abilities to a handful of volunteer coaches, who will evaluate the athletes and choose the makeup of their teams based on skill and sportsmanship.

Once the coaches, such as girls' basketball coach Bradley Solomon, finalize their teams, they will train the players through the summer.

"The sheer number of kids participating this year is amazing," Solomon says, emphasizing that this does not make the finalizing process any easier.

But an increasing interest in the games is a testament to the success of a program built around a framework of tzedakah, peace, hope and the Jewish community.

With projects, such as the Day of Caring, Day of Sharing, the Maccabi Games stand for much more than the sum of a team's talent on the playing field.

The Day of Caring, Day of Sharing is an integral part of the program, a hands-on community service project, which athletes will be a part of in Omaha or Baltimore during the games.

While this year's community service projects have yet to be determined, in the past participants have volunteered at animal shelters and homeless shelters in the host cities.

"We see it as a chance to do more with the Jewish community than winning games," says Mandy Marks, 15, of Moraga. "Of course bringing home a medal would be nice, too."

Sandy Koufax would be proud.