By Gila Kalman, Senior Opinions Editor
Athletes participating in the 41st annual JCC Maccabi Games came to refine their skills, compete against peers, and bring home medals. More than that, however, they came to build connections and find chosen family. For many athletic Jewish teens, the JCC Maccabi Games are an important milestone in their sports career, not just for the skills they develop, but for the people they meet.
The JCC Maccabi Games host thousands of teen athletes from around the world, including the US, Canada, Germany, Romania, Ukraine, Morocco, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia, and of course, Israel. Participating teams are brought to the games through their local Jewish Community Center (JCC) Maccabi delegation. This year, 2023, the games were hosted in Israel for the first time since 2011. These athletes competed in a series of games over a week-long tournament, after which they spent two weeks touring Israel and participating in community service activities.
While the games were created to facilitate healthy sportsmanship between young Jews, the true goal of the JCC Maccabi Games is to bring Jewish teens together. I had the privilege of interviewing two teams that were especially excited to be participating in the games this year, the J-Team and the Ukrainian team.
The J-team is made up of athletes from North America who either do not possess a JCC Maccabi delegation, or have no JCC at all. These teens hailed from very small Jewish communities and appreciated the ability to make friends who share their religion and interest in sports. “Where I’m from, there aren’t many Jews, so being able to meet so many Jewish kids is really awesome,” shared 16-year-old Noah Aframe. Aframe is from Hopkinson, New Hampshire, and played basketball for the J-Team.
Team Ukraine also felt immense excitement to be in Israel and participating in the games. I spoke to 14-year-old Sophia Krivchikova, who had short red hair and glitter-painted cheeks. She loves playing tennis for the freedom it gives her and was incredibly happy to be participating in this year’s games. The games are not just about sports or even just meeting other Jews for Krivchikova. She told me, “it is important for me because I have a war in my country, so it’s really nice and safe here, and I can feel like myself.” Fourteen-year-old swimmer, Platon Rybkin, echoed his teammates’ sentiments, declaring, “it’s very important to come. I’ve been feeling a big connection to the places I’ve been so far, and I’ve also been wanting to see how Israel is and how it’s managed to defend itself for so many years against bigger opponents just like Ukraine is doing right now.” Rybkin had a lot to say about the world’s role in assisting Ukraine. While he didn’t feel Israel specifically has a responsibility to help defend Ukraine, he did think that “it is the responsibility of most of the west to uphold democracy in other places,” especially America. “In my eyes, America is like the international police who help the countries who are on their side.” Later that night at the opening ceremony in Haifa’s International Convention Center, Rybkin could be seen striding through the stadium, holding his country’s flag high. Fellow Ukrainian swimmer, 14-year-old Luiza Myloslavska, commented on how good it has been to be participating in the games, saying, “Since the war started, I haven’t had much training, and since I came here, I’ve been training a lot.” She said her coaches were very professional, taking care that she didn’t overburden herself. She also enjoyed “getting to know some Israelis” and connecting with fellow athletes.
Some of the athletes valued the new perspective and different experience the games gave them. Stoic and soft-spoken, 15-year-old Ukrainian swimmer Mykhailo Prokofiev said that he came to the JCC Maccabi Games because “I would like to see the problems of other people and to see how sports are in other countries.” J-Team’s 17-year-old Spencer Buten, who has been playing tennis since he was three, also felt it important and inspiring to connect with those who are both the same and yet very different from him. They share a love of sports, but they also come from very different lives. “I’ve met a lot of cool people, especially a lot of people from Israel,” he said, “I’ve met a lot of tennis players, and I think it’s connecting me to the bigger tennis community.”
As these young athletes train, compete, and hopefully win, they will develop close relationships to their heritage, their homeland, and each other. Aframe mentioned that his favorite part of this experience is “Being closer to my Judaism and making a lot of new Jewish friends. I’m meeting so many more Israelis and Jewish people. It really makes you feel connected to the land of Israel.” Rybkin couldn’t agree more, “It’s been great hanging out with other Jewish people,” he says, “it’s been a good time to be with the Jewish community.”