The teens, ages 12 to 16, joined some 4,000 athletes from across the country and around the globe competing in 14 sports categories during this summer's Olympic-style tournament, which included contests in Baltimore (Aug. 5-9), Houston (Aug. 5-10) and Orange County (Aug. 12-17).
"I play against tougher teams during the year, but I wanted to take part in Jewish culture. Knowing you're playing against other Jews is just a really great experience," said Charlie Bogart, who plays baseball for Beverly Hills High School and the gold medal-winning Team Westside. "How many times in your life do you get the opportunity to play against other Jews in a national or international tournament?"
The games take place every year in the United States (unlike the Maccabiah Games in Israel, which occur every four years), and serve as a springboard for promising young Jewish athletes, providing them with a venue to showcase and improve their skills.
For some Maccabi participants, the games represented a unique opportunity to meet other Jewish teens and learn about Jewish values, from practical hands-on learning through volunteer efforts to observing rules rooted in Jewish learning, including abstaining from gossip and demonstrating mercy and compassion to weaker teams.
Team Westside and Team Los Angeles both had successful games, medaling in numerous team and individual events in Baltimore and Orange County. The Westside JCC's boys basketball team took gold and its girls basketball team took silver at the Baltimore games. Westside also scored nine gold medals, five silver and nine bronze in Orange County for swimming, placing second overall behind Team OC. Milken JCC's 16-and-under girls soccer team and its 16-and-under boys baseball team both took gold in Orange County, and Team L.A. scored five gold medals in table tennis. In a Maccabi first, Harvard-Westlake runner Bridget Golob split the gold medal in a four-way tie for the steeplechase with athletes from Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia.
Other results for Team L.A. were unavailable.
Events this year included baseball, basketball, in-line hockey, volleyball, dance, golf, bowling, softball, flag football, tennis, table tennis, soccer, swimming, and track and field.
"It felt like you were really important. You had people giving you water, seeing if you're OK. You had your own trainer if you got hurt, so it felt like the real thing," said Joanie Moskowitz, 14, who played on Team Westside's girls basketball team.
The games feel like the real thing because they are. SoCal Maccabi team members have gone on to compete on the professional and world stage. Today's young athletes hope to emulate the success of Los Angeles Maccabi alumns like Olympic bronze-medal marathoner Deena Drossin Kastor and Olympic gold-medal swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg.
"Lenny came by to say 'hi' and wish us good luck," said Aaron Katrikh, 14, who swims with Krayzelberg's Royal Swim Club during the year and won bronze in the Maccabi 400 freestyle relay in Orange County. "It's really inspiring to know he swam in the games, because someday I want to swim in the Olympics," added Katrikh, who'll be a freshman at YULA this fall.
A global community-builder, athletes leave the games with new Jewish friends from around the world. They bond with other Jewish youth who are dedicated to the same sport and have shared similar experiences of wins, losses, challenges and comebacks.
"It's so great playing in a smaller community of table tennis players, who were all Jewish," said Jacqueline Zalener, a New Community Jewish High School freshman who brought home five gold medals for Team Los Angeles. "I can't wait to go back next year."
Bonding occurred on teams, in host houses, at social events and during hangtime - designated moments when participants enjoy Jewish cultural experiences in a relaxed environment. Athletes befriended each other standing in line at water parks and grabbing dinner at the cafeteria. The close-knit nature of the games had athletes making lifelong Jewish friends.
"My teammates and I, we all still hang out like we're one big family. We all go to the beach, go bowling together, or hang out at someone's house," Bogart said.
The games also introduce the teens to the Jewish idea of tikkun olam, or repairing the world. Every Maccabi athlete is required to participate in A Day of Caring and Sharing, taking time out from competition to take part in a charitable community project. Some athletes made water catchers, as a means of learning about Israel's water conservation efforts and global warming. Others created cards and paper flowers for hospitalized AIDS patients, learning that a small gesture can make a big difference in someone's day.
Katrikh and his fellow swimmers spent an afternoon in the pool with disabled children. "We swam with them and did relays with them - it was really fun. But I also learned that life isn't just about having fun, it's about living right," Katrikh said.