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Stamford families open up their homes to teen athletes

By Cindy Mindell

STAMFORD – A month after Jewish teen athletes from New Orleans returned home from the 2005 JCC Maccabi Games in Houston, Hurricane Katrina decimated their city. The athletes and their families were invited back to Houston, where the teens attended high school for a semester while New Orleans officials worked to get the community back on its feet.

“That’s the kind of bond that gets formed by hosting Jewish teenagers from throughout the country and the world,” says Mike Gold, co-chair of the JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest that will be hosted by the Stamford JCC this summer.

The Games are an Olympic-style sporting and cultural event for Jewish teens held each summer in several North American communities. This year, Stamford is among three U.S. host communities, and the only site to also hold the JCC Maccabi ArtsFest for creative Jewish teens. Athletes and artists participate in competition and workshops, and also enjoy community service projects, social activities, and explorations of Jewish heritage, community, and Israel.

From August 7 to 12, Stamford will be filled with 1,300 teen participants and many of their families. Volunteers from Westport to Greenwich help out in a variety of ways during the week-long extravaganza, but perhaps no function is more significant than that of host family.

Joy Schwartz hosted three boys from a Long Island basketball team the last time Stamford hosted the Games, in 2006, while her son and daughter were away at overnight camp. “I came home and told my husband, ‘I signed us up’ and we both got so involved: we went to the boys’ games, we met some of their parents and went out to dinner with them; one of the families gave me a hamsa that hangs in my kitchen,” she says. “It was just so fulfilling.”

On the last night of the Games, two more team members were looking for a place to stay. “Within the first 24 hours, we had enjoyed the experience so much that we agreed to take them,” Schwartz recalls. “The boys wanted to enjoy the Games on every level and most of them were rising seniors and this would be their last Maccabi, so all they wanted to do was bring home the gold medal, so the excitement and adrenaline just kept building.”

“Joy’s Boys,” as they dubbed themselves, went on to help their team win the basketball competition.

When it was announced that Stamford would again be hosting the event this summer, Schwartz wasted no time in approaching Stamford JCC board president Jeff Goldblum to ask how she could help. She was named co-chair of the Host Family Committee, along with Jocelyn Avidan and Lisa Manheim. Their task is to recruit 400 to 450 families in communities from Westport to Greenwich to host the expected 1,200 athletes and artists.

“It’s a great way for the community to connect on a personal level with these young adults who come with a sense of Jewish pride and a sense of wanting to be part of an event that teaches them to be good peers and good citizens, in addition to athletes and artists,” Schwartz says.

Robin Frederick was president of the Stamford JCC board that approved the hosting of the 2006 JCC Maccabi Games. Her husband, Mike Gold, became chair of the Transportation Committee. Their two daughters competed in the Games and the family hosted four athletes from around the Northeast.

“It was likely the most demanding and undoubtedly the most rewarding endeavor I have ever undertaken,” recalls Gold, who now serves as co-chair of the 2016 event committee. “If you talk to people who had leadership roles in the 2006 Games, you’ll hear many echo the same sentiment, which is why, overwhelmingly, they are back again in 2016. They were the first in line.”

Any family with two extra beds or air mattresses and two extra car seatbelts can host. “Whether you’re a family with young children, Maccabi-aged children, or no children, there is something special about bringing these Jewish teenagers from around the country and around the world into your home,” Gold says. “Within four or five days, you learn about them personally and establish a lifetime bond. Host-family experiences have transcended far beyond just the Maccabi Games and ArtsFest.”

In addition to providing lodging, breakfast, and snacks for a minimum of two Maccabi participants, the host family is responsible for early-morning drop-off and evening pickup. Host families attend the opening ceremonies and provide dinner on one “host family” evening, where several host families often plan a joint event.

For more information on this and other Stamford Maccabi volunteer opportunities visit jccmaccabistamford.org or call (203) 322-7900.

CAP: Joy Schwartz with “Joy’s Boys” – the Maccabi teen athletes she hosted during the 2006 Games in Stamford.

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