By Cindy Mindell
STAMFORD – At last count, the Stamford Jewish Community Center will be welcoming 40 delegations and 1,600 teen athletes and artists to the JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest on August 7. The teams will congregate for the annual week-long Olympic-style sporting and cultural event from across the U.S. and Canada, as well as Mexico, Israel, and Great Britain. Athletes and artists will participate in competition and workshops, as well as community-service projects and social activities designed to strengthen Jewish heritage and community. Each delegation of teen participants is accompanied by a cadre of adults – not only parents, but coaches and managers, all led by delegation heads.
The Ledger spoke with three delegation heads who are preparing their respective broods for the trip to Stamford – from as close by as California and as far away as London, England. Together, they paint a behind-the-scenes picture of what goes into the job and why they do what they do.
Janice & Ian Aarons, Maccabi GB
Based in London, England, Maccabi GB is a member of the European Maccabi confederation, one of the six confederations of the Maccabi World Union. Maccabi GB (MGB) engages some 40,000 Jews across the UK in sport, health, and wellbeing programs, and has been participating in the JCC Maccabi Games for nearly a quarter-century.
This year, Team GB includes 58 athletes, and, for the first time, two ArtsFest participants. Accompanied by a 13-member management team and supported by United Jewish Israel Appeal UK and the Jewish Chronicle, the delegation comprises residents of Manchester, London, and the London suburbs. “I’m so excited to be representing Team GB at the JCC Maccabi ArtsFest,” says Abi Wander, 16, the musical-theater delegate. “I feel incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to spend a week with like-minded people from all over the world, doing what I love most – performing!”
The delegation is led by co-heads Janice and Ian Aarons. Janice joined the MGB staff in 2011, when she was hired as Team GB administrator for the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel. Her husband, Ian, has been involved as a volunteer co-delegation head over the last year, as the couple shadowed the 2015 delegation heads before jumping into the role themselves.
“For me, the delegation-head position is incorporated into my full-time job with Maccabi GB, but for my husband, this is over and above his own job,” Janice says. “For both of us, this job is a way of giving back to the community, to be able to take young Jewish athletes and artists to America, not only for the sporting and entertainment opportunities, but to bring together young Jewish people from all different backgrounds in social, religious, and charitable experiences that we can give them through the JCC.”
Janice grew up in a London suburb and was involved with the local Maccabi youth club. The Aarons’ children have played for the London-based Maccabi GB Southern Football League. “I believe that Maccabi is very important for Jewish continuity,” she says.
Team GB is accompanied by a substantial spectator cohort. “The parents are all on board and are so enthusiastic and proud,” Janice says. “It’s such a wonderful opportunity for them to cheer their kids on. Often, it’s the kids’ first experience in international games so for the parents to see their 13-, 14-, and 15-year-olds walk in during the Opening Ceremonies is very uplifting.”
Samantha “Sam” Cohen, Merage JCC of Orange County, Calif.
Born and raised in London, England, Samantha “Sam” Cohen first represented Great Britain as a tennis player in the 2000 JCC Maccabi Games in Staten Island, N.Y., at age 15. Since then, she has competed in 25 JCC Maccabi Games, European Maccabi Games, and the Maccabiah Games in Israel. She has run the gamut of roles, from coach to director and, at age 32, still competes as an athlete.
Cohen joined the Merage Jewish Community Center staff from 2006-07 as assistant director of the JCC Maccabi Games. She returned to the Merage JCC in 2011 as director of the 2013 JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest and was soon promoted to program director. Earlier this month, she was named Merage JCC assistant executive director and vice president of program services. Cohen first served as Orange County JCC Maccabi delegation head in 2012 and has done so every year since.
This year, the Orange County delegation comprises 108 athletes, four artists, and 17 adult staff – the JCC’s largest traveling delegation to date.
“We’re excited to be bringing such a big group this year, particularly because, in 2018, we’re going to be hosting the Games again in Orange County,” Cohen says. “So we are looking forward to returning the favor to Stamford when they come back to us in two years’ time.”
Cohen sees the JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest as an especially effective portal into Jewish engagement in Orange County, home to some 80,000 Jews. “I’d say that 75 to 80 percent of our 32 board members got their start in the JCC world because they or their families were involved in JCC Maccabi – either as the parent of an athlete or, more likely, as a key volunteer when we were a host community,” she says.
Perhaps even more critical is the JCC Maccabi’s role in inspiring the next generation.
“Like many people who are very involved in this program, I believe that this is one of the most, if not the most, impactful forms of Jewish engagement for our youth and one of the biggest tools for community-building existing today in the Jewish world,” Cohen says. “There is no other program that gets Jewish teens to the Jewish table – particularly many who otherwise would not be engaged if not through sport and art. There is no other program that exposes Jewish teens on this scale, together, to Jewish peoplehood, to meeting Jews from around the world, and to experiencing Jewish values in their everyday lives through sports and friendly competition and art.”
Over her quarter-century of involvement in the Jewish community, Cohen has collected many stories that illustrate her point.
This year’s Orange County delegation includes a teen from an interfaith family whose Jewish father died several years ago.
“The mom is not Jewish and she said to me that she absolutely wants her son to have this experience because without it, there’s no way for her to give him that connection to his Jewish heritage and his Jewish life,” Cohen says. “JCC Maccabi is something that has massively transformed my own Jewish identity and I can’t speak highly enough about this program as being vital to the continuity of the Jewish people. It’s a formula that works and I’m not sure what we would do if it didn’t exist or if the community didn’t step up to host it in the future.”
Alexa Steiner, Alberta, Canada
Alexa Steiner was born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and moved across the country to attend Western University in Ontario. Five years ago, she returned to Alberta, where she is communications advisor for the City of Edmonton Department of Sustainable Development and volunteer JCC Maccabi delegation head at the Calgary JCC.
Steiner first participated in JCC Maccabi in 2003 as a member of the Calgary soccer team, then as a volleyball player in 2004 and a soccer player in 2005. She served as a 16U boys’ soccer coach at the 2011 JCC Maccabi Games in Springfield, Mass. She has been a Calgary JCC delegation head every year since 2014.
“I had lived in Calgary for a little while and realized that they had not sent a delegation to JCC Maccabi since the 1980s,” Steiner explains. “So I wrote a proposal and went to the JCC president and asked them to let me volunteer to run the program for 2014. I brought seven soccer players to Detroit that summer.”
When Steiner moved back to Edmonton the following year, “I couldn’t give up on
Maccabi,” she says. “So, in 2015, I took seven kids from Edmonton and Calgary to the Games in Fort Lauderdale.”
This summer, assisted by a Calgary JCC staff-person, Steiner is bringing six athletes and seven artists to Stamford as the Alberta delegation, a newly-created partnership between Calgary and Edmonton, the two large cities in the province of Alberta. “Because of the small sizes of our Jewish communities and the connection our teens already have from youth groups and our one Jewish summer camp, combining the two cities to create one delegation just made sense,” she says.
As delegation head, Steiner is responsible for all organizational tasks, including fundraising and recruiting. Since she has been involved in the role, the Calgary JCC and Edmonton Jewish Federation have supported JCC Maccabi by providing financial support to families who cannot afford to send their teens.
Like Calgary, Edmonton has also been sending delegations to the JCC Maccabi since the 1980s. Neither city has ever been a host site, something Steiner hopes to change in the near future.
For the latest on the Stamford JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest: jccmaccabistamford.org.
CAP: Sam Cohen In Berlin at the opening ceremony of the 2015 European Maccabi Games, where she represented Great Britain on the tennis team.