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Milwaukee to host JCC Maccabi Games in 2015

By Leon Cohen

July 1st, 2013

   Mark Shapiro participated in the very first JCC Maccabi Games, held in Memphis, Tenn., in 1982.

The Milwaukee co-chairs for the coming JCC Maccabi Games in 2015 are, from left, Moshe Katz, Nancy Kennedy Barnett, and James L. Miller. Photo by Kipp Friedman.

The Milwaukee co-chairs for the coming JCC Maccabi Games in 2015 are, from left, Moshe Katz, Nancy Kennedy Barnett, and James L. Miller. Photo by Kipp Friedman.

   He was on the Chicago delegation and was primarily a swimmer, though he also played basketball, volleyball and soccer in the games. And he especially remembers the procession of the athletes, even though then it took place “just on the back lawn” of the Memphis JCC.

   “You cannot understand the impact that has on every single person in that space until it happens,” he said during a meeting with The Chronicle on June 18. And as a whole, the games constitute a “life-changing experience for the kids and for the host community,” he said.

   Today, Shapiro is the executive director of the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Milwaukee, and he aims to help recreate that experience in Milwaukee.

   As was announced at the JCC’s annual meeting on June 5, Milwaukee will be the host of the JCC Maccabi Games in August 2015.

   This event will bring 1,000 or more teen athletes, ages 13-16, from JCCs from all over the U.S. and the world, including Israel, to Milwaukee, to compete in 15 different sports.

   Moreover, the plans call for Milwaukee to have its own delegation of athletes, plus an additional delegation for six sports for which half the teams’ members will be from Milwaukee and the other half from the Sovev Kinneret, Milwaukee’s Parnership2Gether region in Israel.

   And with the teen athletes will come another 1,000 or more people — coaches, parents and staff members.

   “It is not only a huge event for the JCC,” James L. Miller, one of the three co-chairs of this event, said during the June 18 meeting at the JCC. “It’s a huge event for the community as a whole.”

   In fact, Shapiro and the co-chairs said this event will have an estimated $2 million impact on the local economy.

More than athletics

   The games will not be confined to the JCC facilities. Miller, who is in charge of the athletics and the competitions, said the JCC has “already connected” with Nicolet and Homestead high schools to use their athletic facilities for the games.

          “I’ve been involved in athletics at the J for my whole life, and this is kind of the culmination for me,” Miller said. “As I get older and realize how important the JCC was to me, I want to make sure that carries on with other generations and youth.”

          Co-chair Nancy Kennedy Barnett is in charge of the volunteers, as she explained at the June 18 meeting. She said she is hoping to provide homes for the teen athletes during the games, at a minimum of two per house. She also said she is seeking housing appropriate for the more observant teens.

          This event will take a full two years of planning and work. “In order to do something of this magnitude that’s going to touch as many people and have as big an impact in the whole Milwaukee community, and to do it well, we really feel it needs this time to coordinate with all the agencies and all the different communities,” Barnett said.

          Barnett has two children who participated in the JCC Maccabi Games the last time Milwaukee hosted them in 1997. “And it was really wonderful,” she said. “My kids stood on someone else’s shoulders. Now I get to be the shoulders for other people.”

          Co-chair Moshe Katz will be in charge of raising the funds for the games. “I’ve been doing a lot of fundraising for a lot of years, and this is one of the few times it is actually fun,” Katz said in a telephone interview on June 21. “It is a great cause, it is about Jewish kids having fun, it is just awesome, and it is being done in the hometown of Milwaukee.”

          At present the fundraising is “in the quiet stage,” Katz said, and public events will take place later. Shapiro did announce that Milwaukee Bucks owner and former Sen. Herb Kohl and Milwaukee Admirals owner Harris Turer have agreed to be among the honorary chairs of the games, and others are being sought.

          Katz said the goal is to raise about $1.6 million — and that after the games end, there should be funds remaining to fund a local effort to combat childhood obesity.

          And this looking toward a good cause after the event is just one way in which these games are about more than just the athletics, as Shapiro and all three co-chairs emphasized.

          “I view this as something so much bigger” than an athletic competition, Barnett said. “I view this as the continuation of the mission of the JCC, along with the ability to work together with all our different organizations to have a real presence for all of Milwaukee.”

          To Miller, “One of the incredible goals of the Maccabi Games is to engage the local Jewish youth in athletics, to bring them to the J, and not only have them participate in [the games], but to introduce and reintroduce them to the importance of athleticism, competition, good sportsmanship and all those wonderful things that surround athletics.”

          And Shapiro pointed out that the schedule of the games includes time when the teens will not be competing, but will be deployed throughout the area to help with community service projects.

          This endeavor is now called JCC Cares, but was originally known as Days of Caring and Sharing. According to the JCC Maccabi Games website, this has been part of the games ever since they began.

          This demonstrates that the games constitute “a Jewish engagement and community-building experience masked by an athletic competition,” said Shapiro. “This is really about building menches and active participants in the Jewish community, and using athletics as a venue for bringing kids from all over the world together.”

          The JCC Maccabi Games are run by the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America. They are held every year at “two or three different sites,” said Shapiro.

          This year’s games, for example, will take place in Austin, Texas, and Orange County, Calif. After the Milwaukee games end in 2015, another week of games is scheduled to take place in Dallas, Texas, and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

          The games are co-sponsored by the JCCA, Maccabi World Union, Maccabi Canada and Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel, according to the website for the games.

          For more information about the games, and about competition or volunteer opportunities, contact the JCC by calling 414-964-4444 or through the JCC’s website, JCCMilwaukee.org.