The JCC Maccabi Games last a week; new friends and a healthy dose of Jewish identity can last a lifetime.
That’s the hope for four young Jewish athletes from greater Milwaukee and Oconomowoc who will compete in the JCC Maccabi Games in San Diego from July 31 – Aug 5, 2022.
“I want to be able to connect with my favorite sport and the Jewish part of me. I think it will be really cool to be able to experience that and make new friends who are my age,” said Molly Schmidt, 14, a competitive distance swimmer who will attend Oconomowoc High School next year.
Other local participants in this summer’s games are Hayden Baum, 16, (basketball); AJ Katch, 14, (swimming); and Lexi Saber, 14, (basketball).
About 1,800 Jewish teens will converge in San Diego for the JCC Maccabi Games, now in its 40th year. Athletes, ages 13 to 16, celebrate their Jewish identity with social action projects and competition in 12 sporting events. They are ice hockey, baseball, basketball, 3X3 basketball, dance, flag football, table tennis, tennis, soccer, volleyball, swimming and golf.
“The JCC Maccabi Games is the largest gathering of Jewish youth in North America,” said Jake Klavens, 30, recreation manager at the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center. He heads the Milwaukee delegation, and this is his first time attending the games.
Sixty-nine delegations will be represented in San Diego coming in from all over North America, Mexico and Israel. About 1,000 volunteers and 500 host families will be there joined by several thousand spectators.
“This isn’t a typical Olympic-styled competition,” said Samantha Cohen, senior vice president for program and talent representation of the JCC Association of North America. “The games are equally, if not more so, focused on values and giving back to the community at large.”
The social action projects range from visiting sick children at hospitals to preparing school kits and spending time with adults in nursing homes.
The games were on hiatus for three years because of COVID-19. “We’re very excited to be restarting,” Cohen said. “This summer will be a huge homecoming for the games. We’re launching a new program, JCC Maccabi Access, for Jewish teens with intellectual and cognitive disabilities. The games will happen parallel to the JCC Macabbi Games program.”
In 2015, Milwaukee hosted the games which drew 1,000 Jewish teens including 200 from Wisconsin. Since then, rekindling interest has not been easy, Klavens said. “A lot of kids go to camp and have other activities. It’s been tough.”
Molly’s mother, Loren Schmidt, said, “We are excited for her to not only do something that she loves which is swimming but have her meet other Jewish kids from all over the country and the world.”
Lexi is a basketball league player and will attend Homestead High School in Mequon next fall. “I am thrilled that Lexi is able to use her basketball as a way to connect with the larger Jewish community,” said her mother, Jennifer Saber. She will attend the games with her son Jacob, 11.
There aren’t enough Maccabi female basketball players in Milwaukee so Lexi joined the Chicago team. “The girls are really, really nice and welcoming,” she said. “I’m excited to meet new people and play with other Jewish people my own age.”
AJ started swimming when he was 8 at the JCC. Now this Milwaukee Jewish Day School graduate swims with the Schroeder team, an affiliate of the YMCA in Brown Deer. He will start Whitefish Bay High School in the fall.
“I’ve forever loved the sport and love competition. I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to swim on a different level,” AJ said. “I hope to get a different look at other people’s experiences with their sports and get a good experience outside of where I live.”
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The Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay will hold a three-mile run/walk on July 10 to fundraise for the athletes going to the games. To register for the walk/run for the Maccabi athletes, visit JccMilwaukee.org