S.F. host families earn Maccabi Games first gold medal

The beds are made. The fridge is stocked. The washing machine is ready. Bring on the athletes.

Or, as host parent Debby Harris says: “Welcome to your second home.”

Harris and her husband, Danny, are providing five of the 1,200 beds that host families are making available to out-of-town teen athletes competing in the JCC Maccabi Games Sunday, Aug. 2 to Aug. 7.

The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco is hosting the Games, in partnership with the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the Koret and Taube Foundations and the Jewish Community Federation Endowment Fund.

More than 1,500 kids from 12 to 16 years old — from around the Bay Area, across the nation and even a few countries overseas — will descend on San Francisco for the weeklong competition, which kicks off with opening ceremonies at the Cow Palace in Daly City, followed by a jam-packed schedule three years in the making.

They’ll battle it out on soccer fields, tennis courts and baseball diamonds. They’ll make time to beautify 17 neighborhood parks in San Francisco during the Days of Caring and Sharing.

And the visiting athletes will carb up and wind down with their host families.

In her kitchen, Debby Harris gets ready for the arrival of out-of-town Maccabi Games athletes. photo/jason winshell

Seven of the athletes — all female basketball players — will call the Harris’ residence in the Richmond District “home.” The family was set to began its volunteer duties July 29 by hosting the entire Guatemala delegation (five girls), and when two of those girls shift to another host family over the weekend, two girls from the St. Louis squad will move in.

Of the two sets of girls, perhaps the Guatemalans might feel even more at home.

“I know a lot of their parents, uncles and aunts,” says Harris, who was raised in Guatemala and Mexico. “I thought it would be fun to host those kids.”

Plus, “I happen to have enough room for five, so I was happy to do it.”

Harris’ roots have translated to a love of cooking the authentic food she remembers from her childhood. However, that’s not exactly what’s she preparing for the girls.

“I’m making hamburgers one night, macaroni and cheese the next,” says Harris, whose family belongs to Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco. “And on the host family night, we’re getting together with five families for a potluck with pasta, salad and ice cream sundaes. I’m trying, as healthily as possible, to make sure they get American food.”

Harris also has packed her fridge with plenty of fruit, milk and orange juice to go with the “tons” of cereal and bagels she’s purchased for the athletes’ breakfast throughout the week.

The Harris’ 15-year-old son, Jonah, also plans to get in on the action as one of 10 “star reporters” that will be providing coverage in the Games’ daily online newspaper, The Star. And he’ll get a chance to see what it’s like living with five teenage girls.

“We just sort of sprung it on him,” Harris says with a laugh. “I am sure he’s excited.” 

Before the girls’ expected arrival this week, Harris gave her guest room a bit of a makeover. She set up four extra air mattresses, courtesy of the JCCSF, and cleaned up.

Coming to San Francisco early definitely had its perks, as Harris read off the long list of potential pre-Games activities. They included shopping, visiting an amusement park, walking the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown and North Beach, and hopping on a cable car in between.

“We’ll treat the girls like they were our own kids,” Harris says. “I’m hoping they’ll have a wonderful time, feel safe and love the fun spirit of San Francisco.”

Because the Maccabi Games, which are also being staged this summer in San Antonio, Texas (Aug. 9 to 14) and Westchester County, N.Y. (Aug. 16 to 21), are a Jewish experience, hosts are Jewish — but being religious or keeping a kosher kitchen is not required. Families don’t have to have a teenager in the games or at home — or at all.

What they do need are beds or air mattresses for each athlete (at least two will stay in each participating household), breakfast daily and loads of snacks, and laundry facilities.

Host families must also drop off their teens (every morning) and pick them up (every evening) at the University of San Francisco or a designated venue. The JCCSF will take care of transportation throughout the day, along with food, drinks and other necessities.

Over at Denise Leadbetter’s home in the Castro District, she and her husband, Andrew Zacks, are prepping for the arrival of four girls — bowlers and basketball players — from Cincinnati and Washington, D.C. They’ll join Zack’s and Leadbetter’s three kids: Madeleine, 16, Olivia, 14, and Simon, 10.

Both Madeleine and Olivia are competing in the Games, in table tennis and on the under-14 girls basketball team, respectively.

“My kids are big athletes,” says Leadbetter, whose family belongs to Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. “They’ve always been involved in sports, and this is a great opportunity to meet other Jewish athletes from other parts of the country.”

Especially if they’re just a flight of stairs away.

A refinished attic — replete with a king bed and a queen bed (and a futon) — will be the teens’ home for the week. Normally reserved for Madeleine’s sleepovers, the attic will be filled with the girls’ equipment, uniforms and more.

“There are always kids in my house,” Leadbetter says. “This is a typical week for us — it’s not a big deal at all.”

She has planned a “full spread” for the athletes’ breakfast, including bagels, lox, cereals and fruit. And because kids are “always snacking,” she’s keeping the fridge filled. On host family night, Zacks and Leadbetter have arranged a banquet in Chinatown with two other families and their athletes.

“I want the kids to see how normal an urban family can be,” Leadbetter says. “We don’t have a big backyard, we walk to school, and we rely on each other. There is a real strong sense of Jewish community.”

Also in j.: Maccabi Games still looking for handful of volunteers