East Bay JCC makes sports history: its first Maccabi team

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There is at least one silver lining in the aftermath of the closure of the Contra Costa JCC last December.

For the first time in its 34-year history, the JCC of the East Bay will be sending a delegation to the JCC Maccabi Games. And some of the thanks can be given to the former JCC in Walnut Creek.

“We believe we were given a gift from the Contra Costa JCC,” said Michele Levine, who works at the Berkeley-based JCC and is the leader of the team that will be competing in the Maccabi Games in Houston from Aug. 5-10.

Many of the 21 athletes that will be representing the East Bay JCC are from families that used to belong to the Contra Costa JCC.

The East Bay JCC’s under-16 boys basketball team includes (back row, from left) Sam Mandel, Jake Bass, Parker Denison, coach Barry Kleiman, Sam Kreisberg and Sammy Greenwall and (front row, from left) Jared Abramson, Rylan Kobre, Noah Orlik and Jacob Galdes.

“This would have been their fourth year running this program,” said Levine, the East Bay JCC’s director of family and youth programs. “They had a little momentum going.”

Levine said the East Bay JCC had been hoping to field teams for the Maccabi Games for years, but said it wasn’t really feasible until now. The foundation and jump-start provided by the Contra Costa JCC played a significant part, she said.

Levine said the East Bay team is composed of athletes from all over the East Bay and as far away as Santa Rosa. The group is an eclectic bunch, she added, ranging from Orthodox teens to some that did not have a bar or bat mitzvah.

She said that through donations and a grant, the East Bay JCC was able to subsidize $1,100 of the cost for each athlete, approximately $2,500.

“We were really committed to covering expenses to make this event feasible,” Levine said.

The East Bay JCC will be bringing an under-16 boys basketball team, an under-14 boys soccer team and one girls tennis player.

Levine herself is no stranger to the games. She won a gold medal in hurdles and a silver in the long jump when she was a representative of a Minnesota JCC in the 1988 Maccabi Games in Chicago.

“The games were a phenomenal experience,” Levine said. “I still get goose-bumps thinking about that experience 24 years later. [The games] are a continual reminder of ‘I’m here competing against 1,400 others because I’m Jewish.’ Every minute that you’re there, you’re reminded that you’re Jewish.”

The East Bay JCC will be holding a community Shabbat dinner July 27 to send off the athletes.

Levine said she believes the Maccabi Games will be an annual event for the JCC. “We’re committed to growing this program for years to come,” she said.

Joining the East Bay delegation in Houston next month will be the JCC of San Francisco, which has been sending teams to compete in the Maccabi Games since they began in Memphis in 1982.

The games have grown in popularity in recent years, and separate competitions are now held in multiple venues across the United States each summer: this year’s venues are Houston (Aug. 5-10), Memphis (Aug. 5-10) and Rockland County, N.Y. (Aug. 12-17).

Jackie Lewis, recreation programs director at the JCCSF, said they would be taking 44 athletes and artists to Houston. In addition to the sports competition, the 6-year-old JCC Maccabi ArtsFest will be held there; it allows teens to take part in creative arts, performances and community service.

The JCCSF contingent will include boys and girls basketball players, girls volleyball players, a dance team, a baseball team, girls soccer players and a tennis player.

Lewis said the games have been a transformative experience for past coaches and athletes.

“People have connected to their Judaism after going to the games,” Lewis said.  “It really connects them with the JCC. Coaches have come back and they want to be involved with the JCC.”

The Peninsula JCC in Foster City is sending 32 athletes to Memphis. The delegation consists of a girls soccer team, a boys basketball team and a group of tennis players.

The Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos is sending 13 athletes and one artist to Houston. In order to form full teams, some of the players will be joining forces with players from the JCCSF.

The roster for the Houston-bound team from the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto includes one swimmer, one tennis player, three volleyball players and one artist.

The Osher Marin JCC, which hosted ArtsFest two summers ago, will not be sending a delegation this year. But Jessica Turk, the center’s camp, youth and family director, said she is hopeful Osher Marin will field a team next year.