Sporty Teens Learn Valuable Lessons

By Mark I. Levenstein

Published August 04, 2006, issue of August 04, 2006.
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The Maccabi Games are back. In mid-August, some 5,000 Jewish teenage athletes from around the globe will gather in three North American cities to compete, forge friendships and develop Jewish values.

Not to be confused with the quadrennial World Maccabiah Games for adult athletes in Israel, the JCC Maccabi Games are an annual event for 13- to 16-year-olds. The teens usually hail from eight countries — the United States, Canada, Israel, Mexico, Argentina, Great Britain, Poland and Venezuela — and compete in 15 different sports, from baseball to table tennis, dance to bowling.

“There are two amazing things that happen at the games,” Lenny Silberman, the Maccabi Games continental director, told the Forward. “Number one is when the foreign delegations’ flags come in. It’s exciting to see Jewish athletes from different countries. But clearly the overwhelming moment at the opening ceremonies is when the Israeli delegation comes in. It’s a standing ovation.”

This year, the games are in Phoenix from August 6 to August 11 and in Vancouver and Stamford, Conn., from August 13 to August 18. In each city, more than 2,000 volunteers will host competitors, run the games and oversee free-time activities.

“It’s all about building communities,” Silberman said.

The athletes bond with their host communities and with one another through the games’ community service volunteer program, Days of Caring and Sharing, when participants work together on social action projects.

Silberman calls the day “a Jewish teachable moment.”

Another Jewish teachable moment occurs during the opening ceremonies, which include a memorial to the 11 Israelis murdered by terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In 2004, Anouk Spitzer, daughter of Munich victim and fencing coach Andre Spitzer, spoke at the opening ceremonies.

“It was a personal and professional highlight,” Silberman said.

As for the athletes, the highlight is meeting one another.

Myles Swartz, Team Toronto’s pitcher, was born to play baseball; at least that’s what Shawn, his older brother, thought.

Their parents tell it like this: When Myles was born 16 years ago, Shawn, then 2 1/2, walked into the hospital room with his ball and glove, tossed them at Myles and said, “Let’s play catch.”

They’ve played catch ever since.

The practice paid off. Shawn’s baseball team won silver at the 2005 World Maccabiah Games in Israel. That same summer, Myles, in his second year at the Maccabi Games, pitched a no-hitter against Pittsburgh.

“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” Myles said.

Off the field, he enjoyed making friends with other players. “I’ve got four friends from Philadelphia and a bunch of friends from Toronto that I met last year, and I still talk to them regularly,” he said.

Baseball isn’t Swartz’s only passion. He is an accomplished cook who sometimes takes over for his mother: “My specialties are pasta sauces and gourmet pizzas.”

If Swartz doesn’t become a pro baseball player after college, he wants to cook professionally or go into sports radio broadcasting.

But baseball is his first love. He trained hard for the Stamford Games, playing for his high school, a league team, a city team and Maccabi. All told, he spent at least nine hours a week on the diamond during the school year. This summer, he has worked — and played — full time at a local baseball camp.

“Over the course of the last season, I’ve thrown one one-hitter and four two-hitters,” Swartz said.

While some athletes dazzle spectators with curve balls and homeruns, others make huge splashes in the pool.

When Bloomfield Hills, Mich., native Lauren Weiss goes to Phoenix to swim for Team Detroit this summer, it will be her first time in the Maccabi Games.

But don’t worry about this 15-year-old — unless you’re swimming against her. At a recent practice, Weiss clocked in at less than 27 seconds for her 50-meter freestyle. She was two-and-a-half seconds shy of the Olympic trial cut. Her personal record for the 100-meter backstroke is one minute and five seconds.

In other words, it’s not an issue of if Weiss will be an Olympian; it’s more an issue of when. “I am currently training to try and compete in the trials, and hopefully compete in the Olympics — if not in 2008, then in 2012,” she said.

Weiss, who is in the pool for three hours a day and up to seven days a week, and supplements her training with gymnastics and equestrian show jumping, is an honor roll student. She started swimming competitively at age 7, and she knows how to achieve her goals.

“Swimming means the world to me, and I want to become as fast as I can in a healthy way,” Weiss said.

Weiss is now focused on the Maccabi games, having missed out last year because of a prior commitment. She is hoping to make up for it this year.

Most of the athletes are multitalented, and Team San Francisco’s Joshua Rushakoff is no exception.

A two-year veteran of the games, Rushakoff played soccer in 2004 and baseball in 2005.

“I had a bunch of friends on the baseball team, and the outlook looked much brighter [than the soccer team’s] and I sort of jumped on the opportunity there,” Rushakoff said about last year’s games.

His instincts were correct: The baseball team took silver, with Rushakoff playing behind home plate or in the outfield.

This year, fresh from two weeks of intensive training in Córdoba, Argentina, the 15-year-old will be back on the soccer field, playing the sweeper position for Team San Francisco soccer in Vancouver.

“Over the past year, soccer’s really become my favorite sport over baseball,” said Rushakoff, this year’s team captain.

Team captain is a familiar role for Rushakoff. Last year, as a freshman, he led his high school’s junior varsity soccer team. Next year he’ll have to relinquish that position, because he’ll probably play on the varsity team. But that will give him more time for his schoolwork.

“Academics have always been first for me,” said Rushakoff, who has around a 3.85 grade point average. He’s also an accomplished piano player.

As an athlete, Rushakoff has received numerous honors. Aside from being captain twice, he was one of nine people from his soccer club selected to train in Argentina. He has been on several first-place teams.

He hopes to be on one more this summer.

Mark I. Levenstein is a freelance journalist and a master’s candidate at Boston University. He is working toward a degree in international relations and print journalism.

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