Israel dazzles Bay Area teens at sizzling Maccabi Games

How hot was it in Israel during the JCC Maccabi Games? Try 110 degrees. Plus humidity. There was nothing to do about it but drink water — lots of water — and that’s what the athletes did, among them 47 Bay Area teenagers who traveled to the Jewish state to compete in the games.

Arielle Sacks, 16, who competed in the tennis tournament, admitted the heat was hard to take. “We played on outdoor courts,” said Sacks, a junior at St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco who is used to playing tennis in the city’s moderate climate. “It was really hard and it was definitely a shocker.”

Arielle Sacks, 16, plays in a bronze-medal match in the JCC Maccabi Games in Israel.

Sacks finished in fourth place. “It was definitely an equal level of competition” to high school tennis in San Francisco, she said, “and some of the girls were even better.”

The Bay Area delegates joined 900 other athletes from the United States, Israel and South Africa. It marked the first time the competition has been held in Israel since the games started in 1982 — and the 29th year the JCCSF has participated. One of the sites for the 2009 games was San Francisco, where the JCCSF hosted 1,500 athletes from 23 states and five countries.

In Israel, the teens competed in swimming, tennis, table tennis, bowling, soccer, volleyball and basketball tournaments. Members of the Bay Area delegation “learned to live together, play together and rely on one another,” said JCC recreation programs director Jackie Lewis. “Each team worked very well as a unit, communicating with one another and cheering each other on. … they always made sure that none of their teammates ever felt that they had failed, and that they knew they were all part of the team.”

Some of the teens traveled with the group to participate in the Maccabi ArtsFest, which offered dance, music, photography, acting, cooking and more.

Sasha Kharag, 14, who is entering ninth grade at Gateway High School in San Francisco, was drawn to the games by the ArtsFest component. He said he started seeing himself as an artist when he was in fifth grade. During the games, he spent his time painting and sculpting in the visual arts group with other teens from around the world. “Everybody had their own feel to them,” he said. “They all responded differently [to the art assignments] and they all talked [about art] differently.”

The 10 days the Bay Area teens and their four adult chaperones spent in the Jewish state weren’t all about competing and creating art. In fact, those activities took up only the first half of the trip. Many had never been to Israel, so the second half of the adventure was devoted to touring the country and seeing the sites, from the tank museum in Latrun to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

“My favorite part was going to the Carmel Market [in Tel Aviv] because it was a true Israeli experience,” said Sacks. “I was looking forward to going there.” Kharag enjoyed staying at Kibbutz Gonen in the Upper Galilee. “It was a very nice and quiet place,” he said.

San Francisco JCC basketball player Mitchel Thompson

The group spent a memorable weekend in Holon, a city bordering Tel Aviv, staying with host families and spending Shabbat with Israeli teenagers. Kharag recalled a night of dancing at a teen club. “The natives in Israel were very spontaneous and energetic and crazy,” he said.

Lewis enjoyed watching the teens from the two countries connecting and developing bonds. “Just to see them meeting with Israeli teens and seeing them become friends in 24 hours was really special,” she said.

For swimming and tennis coach Orville Thomas, the trip had personal meaning. The first-year grad student at U.C. Berkeley was one of two Catholic coaches on the trip, and he loved getting to dip his feet into the Sea of Galilee, where his faith teaches that Jesus walked on water.

“It was life-altering,” he said. “You’re standing in the same place where one of the most significant events [described] in your religious education was. It was like a shock of electricity.”

Throughout the trip the sun continued to beat down on the group. “If there was shade, we made sure they got into the shade, and insisted that they wear hats,” said Lewis. Added Thomas, “I think that I drank at least 20 to 25 bottles of water a day.”

As a closing activity, the Bay Area delegation took part in a “Day of Caring and Sharing,” going to Kiryat Shmona on the Lebanon border to paint murals at a school. “We were in the north, which is not as economically well off and not as heavily visited,” said Lewis. “The kids really gave it their all.”

“It was a good ending,” said Sacks. “It brought the group together.”

The teens came home with 30 medals (all won by swimmers Noa Berzon, Sophia Gross, Emily Josef and Brittany Salazar), great memories, new friends and a desire to return to Israel. “Oh, I definitely want to go to Israel again,” said Kharag. “I thought it was fun, and I made many friends.”

Lewis was thrilled with how the trip turned out. “This was incredible for me,” she said. “I got to introduce Israel to a special group of teens.”