Love of hockey propels teens trip to Maccabi Games

Ethan Judkowitz has been playing hockey ever since he fell in love with the sport at a San Jose Sharks game when he was 5. Now 13, the San Jose resident plays right wing and travels regularly to Southern California for games.

But hockey had never taken him as far from home as it did the second week of August, when he traveled with a dozen other players from the JCC of the East Bay to Stamford, Connecticut, to compete in the Maccabi Games.

“Getting away from parents for a week was really fun,” Judkowitz said.

Ryan Kopelman of Berkeley, a member of the JCC East Bay team, at the Maccabi Games photo/stamford jcc maccabi games

Judkowitz came together with Jewish athletes from across the U.S. and around the world in Stamford to compete on the field (and ice) and build community from it. The Maccabi Games, which this summer were held in St. Louis and Columbus, Ohio, in addition to Stamford, bring together more than 6,000 kids between the ages of 13 and 16 every year for an Olympics-style sports competition and arts festival. Athletes travel in delegations from their local JCCs and can choose to compete in any of 15 sports, including basketball, soccer, swimming and tennis.

“It was a really relaxed environment where you could have fun,” Judkowitz said. “I felt our team really came together well.”

Judkowitz and his teammates got to be Maccabi pioneers: 2016 was the first year hockey was included in the games. It was played only in Stamford, where the JCC of the East Bay brought 70 athletes — the fourth-largest delegation.

“One of the reasons is we did have a focus on recruitment this year,” said Greg Cohen, the JCC of the East Bay’s summer programs coordinator and Maccabi delegation head. Ongoing recruitment with families, synagogues, schools and sports clubs helped boost the delegation size significantly from the 39 athletes who participated last year, Cohen said. The East Bay had the largest Maccabi delegation of any Bay Area JCC.

It was Judkowitz’s father, Jay, who spearheaded forming a hockey team. He saw a notice about Maccabi hockey on an Orange County youth hockey website and wanted his son to participate in a Northern California delegation. After connecting with the JCC of the East Bay, he helped recruit players from all over the Bay Area.

“I didn’t realize there were so many Jewish hockey players in the Bay Area,” Cohen said.

Ethan Judkowitz explained that his father’s motivation was rooted in a desire to give his son what he was sure would be a positive Jewish experience.

“He really wants me to get a bar mitzvah, and he thought this would convince me to be more Jewish,” the younger Judkowitz said.

It seems to have worked. Ethan Judkowitz said he was impressed by the cohesiveness of the Stamford Jewish community, where he and the other athletes stayed with host families. And he would like to return next year “and maybe win a medal.”

Winning was one thing the East Bay hockey players didn’t do much. They were on the younger side, around 13 and 14, playing against athletes who were a couple of years older.

“It was really hard, but it was kind of a cool eye-opener to see what goals to strive for going into the next stages of hockey,” Ethan Judkowitz said.

Other East Bay athletes did medal, including swimmer Emily Claridge who brought home 11 gold medals and one silver. Overall, East Bay athletes earned 17 gold medals, 12 silvers and eight bronzes.

Four Bay Area JCCs sent delegations to the Maccabi Games in Columbus. The JCC of San Francisco sent 37 athletes, who got one gold medal, three silvers and four bronzes. The JCC of Silicon Valley sponsored nine athletes, who took eight silver medals, and the PJCC of Foster City and the Palo Alto JCC sent a joint delegation of 21 athletes who earned more than 20 medals.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.