Game time!: JCC Maccabi Games coming to S.F. in 09

Faster. Higher. Stronger. Jewish-er.

Soon enough, that will be an apt description of San Francisco. True, the city lost its bid for the 2016 Olympics, frustrating those who envisioned Tony Bennett in a cable car, warbling a torch song while grasping the Olympic torch.

But all is not lost. Because in 2009, San Francisco is getting an Olympics-style event for Jewish youth.

From Aug. 2 to 7 next year, an avalanche of hormones, text messages and raw energy will arrive in San Francisco in the form of roughly 1,300 teenagers participating in the JCC Maccabi Games. The Games were founded in 1982, and next year’s event will be the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco’s first turn as host.

But while JCC officials and lay leaders have been quietly grappling with the massive logistical puzzles and money issues needed to put on a weeklong international sporting event, JCCSF Executive Director Sandee Blechman is quick to point out that this is not just her gig. If it takes a village to raise a child, it’ll definitely take a city to house 1,000 of them.

Blechman and Jackie Lewis, the JCCSF’s longtime recreation director and “games director” for the 2009 contest, are looking for 400 to 500 San Francisco families to house an estimated 1,000 visiting athletes (300 of the 1,300 participants are expected to be local). Recruiting and organizing hundreds of host families is almost as big a job as orchestrating the games themselves.

In fact, “It’s even more important,” states Lenny Silberman, the New York-based continental director of JCC Maccabi Games.

“We’re not like the Junior Olympics or AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] who go to a city, take over athletic venues and hotels and have an event. We’re talking about community building. It brings together the JCC world, the federation world, the synagogue world and the alphabet soup of Jewish organizations.”

You also need non-organizational Jews to help out in a variety of ways. You need host families to house and feed athletes hailing from Indiana to Israel, to do their laundry and give them a lift to games. You need around 1,000 scorekeepers, ushers and folks to distribute water bottles, keep an eye on the door and do the million-and-one things that come up during a six-day event requiring at least 15 gymnasiums. After all, people will need to use the restroom — and someone will need to tell them where it is.

National JCC Maccabi organizers have been hinting for a while that they would love to see a contest held in the City by the Bay. But, notes Blechman, it was only in recent years, with the JCC’s new home built and running smoothly, that she and others started to think “why not?”

And San Francisco will be an unusual host — unlike most JCC Maccabi Games, the San Francisco games will actually be held in San Francisco. Competitions in Atlanta, Detroit and other cities took place in suburban communities far from downtown; the Detroit games — there have been four in the past 26 years — were housed in West Bloomfield, Mich. But that doesn’t roll off the tongue so naturally (or fit on a T-shirt).

While the JCCSF’s new home on California Street is sleek and palatial, the Pottruck Family Atrium is not exactly the most apropos venue to host opening ceremonies. After all, there could be up to 10,000 athletes, volunteers and onlookers, and an atrium is no place for basketball games or bowling contests.

Instead, a number of sites around the city will be utilized, with the nearby University of San Francisco serving as the nexus for athletic events. Other sites will include St. Ignatius High School’s expansive campus in the Parkside District, City College of San Francisco and Golden Gate Park’s polo fields. Blechman and Lewis have yet to nail down venues for the softball, golf and bowling competitions.

Opening ceremonies — featuring an Olympics-style march of the nations and a tribute to the 11 Israeli athletes killed in the 1972 Munich Olympics — will be held at the Cow Palace. When asked if this is the first time the opening ceremony will take place in a site previously graced by Metallica, Blechman and Lewis both laughed —then answered no.

Opening ceremonies have been held in professional basketball and hockey arenas (the Cow Palace is both).

Blechman noted that sites hosting an opening ceremony require a large space for athletes to mill about prior to their introductions — and joked that since the Cow Palace was built to host rodeos, that shouldn’t be a problem.

While to a remarkable degree the San Francisco JCC Maccabi Games will come together based on locals’ generous donations of time and labor, it costs a sizable sum of money to throw a sporting bash for 1,300. Though fees for many of the sites have been waived, the JCCSF is still responsible for hiring officials and keeping the places clean. And, of course, security is a major expenditure. The JCCSF set an initial fundraising goal of $2.1 million. To date, it has raised $2.175 million.

Richard Goldman’s $750,000 donation led to his being named honorary chair of the games. The S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund contributed $500,000. The Taube Foundation and the Koret Foundation — of which Tad Taube is president — donated a total of $500,000.

While the games’ organizers and backers are all sports enthusiasts, the rationale behind this undertaking encompasses far more than sports.

“Sports is the vehicle to get the kids there, but this is really a Jewish experience for Jewish kids,” Silberman said.

When Blechman was still undecided on whether San Francisco should host the games, she attended the 2005 event in Minneapolis. “The number of people involved, the excitement, the impact on the community — it was palpable,” she said.

“I came back with a very strong interest in the JCCSF taking the lead on behalf of hosting. I thought this would be an opportunity to galvanize the entire Jewish community.”

And not only the Jewish community stands to benefit. The general community does as well. The athletes will all participate in a charitable project titled “Days of Caring/Days of Sharing.” Past activities have included book drives, packing beans and rice to be distributed to the indigent, cleaning up parks and working with special-needs children.

“We have a captive audience of [1,300] kids; we need to give something back to the greater community,” notes Silberman. “No other sporting organization does what we do and takes time out of competition.”

In a nutshell, come for the sports, stay for the community building. But for those who simply enjoy watching hard-fought baseball, basketball and volleyball games, rest easy: It’ll happen.

As for Tony Bennett with a torch on the cable car — well, you never know.

For details about the 2009 JCC Maccabi Games, visit

cover design | cathleen maclearie

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.