Jewish Journal

A Goal Beyond Winning

Turning 20, the Maccabi Games still strive to help Jewish teens build identity, unity, and pride through friendly competition

by Michael Aushenker

Posted on Oct. 7, 1999 at 8:00 pm

Dr. Jerry Bobrow remembers it well. The year was 1990. The place: The Palace, in the Auburn Hills district of Detroit.

There in the bleachers, among 16,000 people at the Maccabi Games, is Bobrow and his youngest son, Jonathan.

As the Russian delegation of athletes entered the arena to the roar of the crowd, the younger Bobrow looked around himself in wonder, then turned to his father.

"You mean all the people in this row are Jewish," the boy asked.

Recalls Bobrow, "I said, 'Jonathan, all the people in the whole place are Jewish.' And his eyes kind of lit up [as] he realized the magnitude of the whole thing."

Jerry Bobrow has proudly served as the chairman of the Los Angeles Organizing Committee for the Jewish Community Center's Maccabi Games for 11 years, dating back almost to the inception of the program. Created in 1982, the first Maccabi games were held in Detroit in 1984, and, over the years, the final competitions have moved around -- Toronto, Chicago, Detroit again, Baltimore, Cleveland. Since 1982, over 25,000 Jewish athletes between the ages of 13 and 16 from all over the world -- Israel, Britain, Mexico -- have taken part in this program.

This August, two delegations from L.A., nearly 200 athletes, were dispatched to Rochester, New York, and Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to compete. At each of these delegations, Team Los Angeles won medals in every division, including baseball, golf, tennis, table tennis, in-line hockey, volleyball, basketball, swimming and track and field.

Bobrow's own three children have all enjoyed victorious stints with the Maccabi Games. Bobrow's daughter, Jennifer, competed on the first girls soccer team and helped them win silver and gold. Older son, Adam, competed in four different sports and won medals in all of them. And his youngest son won silver medals in table tennis and a gold medal in baseball. But Bobrow is proud to say that he's been involved with the Maccabi Games even before his own children ever started competing.

"It's a wonderful, athletic experience, but it's also a great excuse to get Jewish kids together," says Bobrow, clearly enchanted with the concept. "You really can't explain what the experience is like. It's much, much more than just an athletic event."

Technically, Phillip Bendetson, 48, is a real estate investment banker. But to the boys who've played over the last five years on the L.A. soccer team, Bendetson is better known as an outstanding coach who has led his team to gold medal victories every year, including 1999. But while Bendetson considers it a nice by-product, triumphing is not the primary goal of the Maccabi Games.

"Winning and losing aside," says Bendetson, "it's about the kids from different backgrounds coming together... It's a lifelong memory that they will hold onto."

Two weeks before competing, Bendetson's team members live together and attend training camp twice a day.

Strengthening the bond between the kids is the program's Jewish content. He says that this August, the Maccabi kids marched around Rochester from temple to temple, donating kosher canned goods for various food pantries. His players also met up for Shabbat dinners with the girls soccer team.

As a testament to the strength of the Maccabi program, several former participants have gone on to viable athletic careers, such as record-breaking swimmer Lenny Krayzelberg, who competed at Detroit. And many teens return to coach the new recruits.

Soccer player Itzik Rapaport, who this year made all three goals in the final, gold-winning game at Rochester, has nothing but praise for his three years with Maccabi. Says the 17-year-old Canoga Park resident, "We get really close. There's a lot of unity...when you're with the same boys, you form a bond...The people around us, they care so much about us."

Rapaport, along with Amir Benakote, 16, and Bendetson's 16-year-old son, Benjamin, are all captains on the L.A. boys soccer team. Rapaport singles out coaches Kobi Goren and Bendetson for making the Maccabi Games a great experience. He also adds that his involvement has taught him a lot about leadership and of friendship.

"My four best friends are from the program," says Rapaport. "I would have to say it's the greatest thing that's ever happened to me."

Closing out his fourth year with Maccabi, Benakote says he loves what the athletic program has offered him.

"It's always awesome," says the Calabasas High School student. "The L.A. soccer team is really tight...so we have a really good time...When you're with your team, it's a lot better. Plus you're with all Jewish people and you have a good sense of community."

In December, when the West Valley Jewish Community Center opens their new gym, Bobrow says that two walls will be devoted to the Games. And the doctor is already looking forward to next year when he expects over 200 L.A. athletes to converge in Tucson, Cincinnati, and Richmond for competitions. After all, year in, year out, he observes firsthand the impact that this athletic experience makes on participating teens.

"Aside from the fact that they come out typically with a lot of friends," says Bobrow, "I think they come out with a stronger sense of Jewish identity."

Teens ages 13-16 interested in participating in the Maccabi Games can contact the West Valley Jewish Community Center at (818) 464-3294.

Medal count at this year's Maccabi Games

August 15-20, 1999

Rochester, N.Y.

Boys Baseball (13-14) Gold

Girls Softball (16 and under) Gold

Boys Soccer (16 and under) Gold

Girls Soccer (16 and under) 5th place

Girls Volleyball (16 and under) Silver

Boys Basketball (13-14) Silver

Table Tennis 6 Gold, 4 Silver, 4 Bronze

Tennis 5 Gold, 5 Silver, 3 Bronze

Cherry Hill, N.J.

Boys Baseball (15-16) Gold

Boys Baseball (13-14) Bronze

Boys Basketball (16 and under) Silver

Girls Basketball (16 and under) Silver

In-Line Hockey (16 and under) Silver

Track and Field 12 Gold, 13 Silver, 8 Bronze

Swimming 8 Gold, 20 Silver, 17 Bronze

Golf (13-14) 1 Gold; (15-16) 4th place finish.

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