Toronto athletes dominated in the pool, came home with a gold in hockey and otherwise excelled in the sporting competition at the recently concluded JCC Maccabi Games in Miami. But it’s not the on-field, or on-ice, competitions that are the be-all and end-all of the yearly event. The Games are just as important for their role in strengthening Jewish identity, forging bonds of friendship between participants and developing community-oriented young Jewish leaders, say officials from Toronto-area Jewish community centres, which sponsor Toronto’s participation in the event.
“It really is a celebration of Jewish pride and values that make these Games so successfully,” said Andrew Levy, executive-director of the Schwartz/Reisman Centre. “It’s become a rite of passage, an experience that creates a deep sense of meaning.”
Not only do teenage athletes represent their community while competing against Jewish athletes from across the continent and around the world, it also engenders “a sense of naches” in their families, he said.
Altogether, a delegation of 106 athletes and coaches from Toronto participated in the Miami games, one of the larger contingents among the 1,400 youths who participated in the sporting event. They were joined by an estimated 127 family members, making the Toronto delegation one of the most visible in Miami.
Toronto athletes competed in baseball, soccer, tennis, swimming, basketball and hockey. Another 27 young athletes and four staff attended a second regional JCC Maccabi Games in Albany, N.Y. A third event was hosted by the Jewish community in Birmingham, Ala., but it did not have a Toronto delegation.
While the Games are primarily known as a sporting event for 13 to 16 year olds, “there’s a tikkun olam (repairing the world) concept to this,” said Lorne Goldstein, president of the board at the Schwartz/Reisman Centre. “The kids must spend a day giving back to the community.”
For the Toronto contingent, that meant cutting old denim jeans into squares prior to the material being shipped to Africa, where it will be repurposed as shoes, Levy said.
The event includes an Artsfest, as well, said Goldstein. Three dancers accompanied the athletes to Miami and took part in a week of rehearsal under the supervision of a former Broadway dancer to prepare for a program at the end of the competition.
Inclusivity was a key component of the Games, said Alex Voihanski, head of the Toronto delegation. All the food was kosher and the Toronto team included youngsters from various religious streams and even those with limited connections to the Jewish community. There was some regional diversity to the team, as well, as a young athlete from North Bay, Ont., was a key member of the gold-medal winning girls soccer team.
Toronto’s 120 young athletes comprised “the biggest overall delegation in the history of JCC Maccabi in Toronto,” Voihanski said.
Eight years ago, when JCC Chai Sports, which Voihanski heads, took over the responsibility of organizing Toronto’s participation, only 10 youngsters took part. Since then, the numbers have been growing steadily, largely through word of mouth, advertising on social media and through recruitment by coaches, Voihansky said.
In Miami, the swim team had an “absolutely incredible” performance, earning 71 medals in all, including 29 gold, 25 silver and 17 bronze, Voihanski said.
“Superstar” swimmers Sean Neuman and Rachel Ironside led the way, with Neuman collecting 10 gold and two silvers, while Ironside won five gold, six silver and one bronze.
“These results obliterated our best results before,” Voihanski said.
The boys hockey team won a gold medal, as well, defeating Orange County 8-4 in the final and outscoring its opponents by a 52-7 margin in six games.
The girls soccer team likewise defeated Orange County in the championship game, this time by a 2-1 score, while boys under 14 soccer team settled for a silver medal after losing to Israel 5-4 in the final. Sarah Rubinstein won a gold in tennis without losing a single set.
In Albany, swimmer Eric Ginzburg won two silver and two bronze medals.
With the Games now over for another year and Orange County and Detroit lined up to host the next two youth Games, could Toronto be in the running to host a subsequent competition?
That’s something under consideration, Goldstein said. “We would have to consider it as a community event and bring community organizations together.”
A lot of work would have to go into it, including finding families to host the athletes from other cities, he added.
There is a huge upside if Toronto hosts the Games, said Levy. “The JCC Maccabi has the potential to galvanize the entire community.… But it requires a community effort.