There doesn’t seem to be anything diminutive about the 2018 Mid-Atlantic Mini & Junior Maccabi Games that hit the Owings Mills JCC for a one-day sports competition extravaganza on Sunday, May 6. For the games’ 20th anniversary year, organizers expect 1,000 athletes (170 from the Baltimore-metro area), 200 coaches from 20 JCCs with 300 volunteers and 2,500 spectators. This is the first year for the combined mini and junior games.
“We have JCCs coming that day from New York to Virginia,” said JCC chief operations officer Paul Lurie.
The day-long, Olympic- style tournament for boys and girls ages 9-12 includes competitions in basketball, soccer baseball, swimming, tennis, table-tennis and flag football.
The games were started for younger athletes as a companion to the teen JCC Maccabi Games, which marks 36 years August 5-10 in Irvine, California, where about 6,000 youths ages 13-16 are expected to compete as well as participate in Maccabi ArtsFest.
In the run-up to this year’s Mid-Atlantic Mini & Junior Maccabi Games, special events are planned at the Owings Mills JCC for athletes and families with a “Lag B’Omer Pep Rally” for local families on Thursday, May 3, that includes a bonfire, s’mores and games. A “Havdalah Hangout” is set for Saturday, May 5, with inflatables, ice cream, swimming and other activities for all participants.
“We’ll stop toward the end and do a group Havdalah,” Lurie said. “It’s a great opportunity for people coming from out of town to get to meet some other people in a non-competing kind of way and just have some fun.”
Samuel Reyner Braman competed in his first Jr. Maccabi Games in 2011 when he was 10. Now 16, he’s headed for California in August.
“I did Jr. Maccabi because my family knew other kids my age that were participating and a coach had recruited me,” he said via email. “My first year of Jr. Maccabi I played soccer, but for the rest of Jr. and regular Maccabi, I played baseball.”
Part of the mission of the Maccabi Games, in addition to fun and sportsmanship is connecting children and teens with their Judaism. The JCC Maccabi Midot emphasizes tikkun olam (repairing the world), kavod (respect), rina (joy), ga’ava (pride), lev tov (big-heartedness) and amiut Yehudit (Jewish peoplehood).
“I feel it strengthens my Judaism because it frames Judaism in a way that’s fun while still emphasizing important parts like community service,” Braman said.
Pikesville High student Evan Flaks, 15, started in Jr. Maccabi when he was 10 and played basketball. At the upcoming Mini and Jr. Games he’s participating as a volunteer basketball score keeper. Then he’ll be heading to California in August for his third Maccabi Games, which he’s looking forward to as part of a “really good” basketball team.
“I’m looking forward to getting a championship,” he said.
His most memorable Maccabi experience was performing well at last year’s games in Alabama, after which a Maccabi coordinator referred him to the national Maccabi USA.
“So, this year I will be competing in Israel against other countries, representing team USA,” he said. “This is a great opportunity that Maccabi has granted me.”
He credits Maccabi with helping him feel part of the wider Jewish community.
“The events outside the games are really fun and you meet kids from other cities, from other areas that are similar to you,” he added. “It’s the whole Jewish community coming together. It’s really great.”
Lurie, who has been at the JCC for 20 years, has been involved with Maccabi since 1995 and Jr. Maccabi since 2002. He participated in the games as a teenager, playing baseball then coaching baseball and in-line hockey.
“There are so few opportunities in the world today for Jewish kids to be with other Jewish kids and experience things in a Jewish context,” Lurie said. “And being able to do it around something that kids are really passionate about — so the sports and arts are the context to bring kids together and have a day that really celebrates their Jewish heritage.”
He said powerful moments like singing “Hatikvah” together with 2,500 people at the opening ceremonies or doing Havdalah together make an impression on youngsters and deepen their experience.
“Just all the little things that are a part of at a Jewish- only event, which you don’t get when you participate in other sports tournaments or events,” Lurie said. “For the kids, it’s a really fun opportunity to showcase, be with Jewish friends, meet new Jewish kids from all over the East Coast and share who they are.”
He said athletes take home more than just trophies and sports memories.
“One of the other things they take away from it is just pride of being Jewish and a sense of community on a larger scale,” he added. “We’re a broad Jewish community, not just the Baltimore Jewish community. We want kids to appreciate the depth and the breadth and the size of what being Jewish means.”