More Than a Game: JCC Maccabi and Athletic Endeavor
Jewish thought has always recognized the body as an integral aspect of human existence. It also has maintained ambivalence about the body’s significance.
Being created betzelem Elohim, in the image of God, obliges us to care for our bodies (Leviticus Rabbah 34:31), or at least not to harm them (Leviticus 19:28). The classical commentators understood the body’s role was to house the soul, so caring for the body was an act of kedushah, or sanctity (Tosefta Sotah 4:13). Developing the body for its own sake was another matter entirely, though, and the Talmud speaks disparagingly of the Roman custom of games and athletics (Avodah Zara 18b); these are chukkat hagoyim, the ways of the gentiles, and not activities fit for nice Jewish boys.
Post-Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) thought broke with this mindset, and individual Jews began to achieve renown as athletes (such as Daniel Mendoza, the English boxer). Still, these were rare cases. But the Zionist movement of the early 1900s promoted a muscular Judaism of physically fit and physically adept Jews who not only could farm, but could run, jump and play all manner of sports. Youth movements such as HaMaccabi HaTzair, founded in Prague in 1929, combined fitness with Jewish nationalism and introduced large numbers of Jewish youth into a culture of physicality. The Maccabiah Games, first held in Palestine in 1932, with 390 Jewish athletes from 14 countries, brought together athletics and Jewish ideology in a massive public event, a complete reversal of the historic ambivalence toward sports.
Jewish day schools in America reflect this history. The earliest day schools were Orthodox and were designed to insulate students from secular culture, including sports. Conservative day schools (beginning in 1951 with the Beth El Day School in Rockaway Park, New York) and the Reform and Community day schools that came after were designed to integrate American and Jewish culture under one roof. This created a new challenge: how to provide a “Jewish lens” through which to view sports and athletic achievement. The JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest, coordinated by the Jewish Community Centers of North America, offers one such lens.
The JCC Maccabi Games (or simply, the Games in JCC speak) began in 1982 as an international program of teen engagement. Each summer, approximately 1,000 teens between the ages of 12 to 16 from around the world convene for five days of individual and team athletic competition in one of several host communities. An entourage of coaches, chaperones and visiting parents accompany each delegation. Local families host the teens, and thousands of local volunteers contribute to the program’s success.
In 2006, JCC Maccabi added a parallel program, JCC Maccabi ArtsFest. ArtsFest offers Jewish teens interested in the arts (music, dance, drama, theater and more) five days of “Master Classes” with artists in residence. Athletes and artists join together for all other aspects of the JCC Maccabi experience, including unwinding each evening in high-energy social events.
While athletic endeavor and artistic expression comprise the central activities of the Games and ArtsFest, the larger context is the Jewish expression of pride, peoplehood and values. The opening ceremony (modeled after the Olympic Games) always includes a moving tribute to the Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics—something the Olympic Committee has never seen fit to do at its own games. During breaks in the action, athletes and artists socialize at JCC Hangtime, hosted by shlichim from Israel’s Maccabi Movement, where they learn about Israel through interactive programs. Athletes and artists all participate in JCC Cares, a service-learning project bookended by a conversation on the obligation to practice tikkun olam. In 2013, JCC Maccabi launched its middot initiative, awarding medals to JCC Maccabi participants, adults included, who demonstrate one of six core values (see below).
Surveys of participants indicate that participating in a program exclusive to Jewish teens, meeting Jews from around the world, and celebrating Israel as the connecting element of global Jewish peoplehood—and not the athletic or artistic activity—are the factors providing the program’s greatest impact. While the teens travel to the Games and ArtsFest to compete and to create, the real journey they take is to explore their identities as Jews.
The power of the JCC Maccabi experience certainly derives, in part, from its status as a massive, once-a-year event preceded by two years of preparation by the host community. While Jewish day schools cannot match those dynamics, they can provide an intentional Jewish context to frame their sports (and art!) activities. This requires thinking about athletics from two perspectives. The first is athletics for its own sake; that is, what are the goals of the program in terms of physical development? The second is athletics as a vehicle for the Jewish expression of values, with particular focus on three areas: vocabulary, behavior, and desired outcomes.
A Jewish day school athletics program is an opportunity to apply a Jewish vocabulary to an athletic context. JCC Maccabi takes this opportunity through its middot initiative. Kavod, the Hebrew word for respect, is one of the program’s six core values. Kavod applies to self-respect as well as respect toward others. How players from the same or opposing teams speak with one another, how they interact with one another during play, and what words they use to celebrate victory or accept defeat all are teachable moments for Jewish verbal expressions of respect. The other JCC Maccabi middot are ga’avah (pride), rinah (joy), lev tov (big hearted), tikkun olam (repairing the world), and amiut yehudit (Jewish peoplehood).
Promoting and supporting a shared Jewish vocabulary communicates the importance of those ideas in the athletic setting as well as in the classroom, creating a more congruent, comprehensive and coherent message from the school. The shared language allows a discussion of a Jewish approach to interpersonal relationships within the context of a competitive paradigm.
A school’s athletics program also provides a forum for exploring Jewish behaviors in an authentic space. Structuring a training schedule to accommodate Shabbat observance, setting limits on “trash talk” on the court, or establishing team dress codes all require asserting the school’s Jewish priorities. This, in turn, demands ongoing conversation between the faculty and students and their families about foundational concepts; for the examples listed above, religious pluralism, nibbul peh (obscene language), and tzeniut (modesty), respectively. These deliberations can inform an athlete’s understanding of personal identity and proper behavior—on and off the court. An athletics program presents a distinct forum for social and emotional learning, allowing teens to practice the interpersonal skills necessary for positive peer relationships.
Judaism’s classic mode of chevruta study offers a Jewish lens on the goals of an athletics program. In chevruta study, learners engage in verbal sparring both to parse the text’s meaning as well as to draw from the text a broader understanding of Jewish life. Chevruta study can be a competitive race to the “right answer,” despite the Talmudic dictum that “these and also those are the words of the living God” (Eruvim 13b). Ultimately, however, the chevruta approach to learning encourages friendship and not competition, drawing the learners together through the bond of shared achievement. In chevruta learning the partners do not move from the text unless both learners agree they are comfortable doing so; victory requires collaboration. This stands in opposition to the “winning is everything” ethos so prevalent in modern athletics.
A central element of competitive sports is to win. So the challenge to Jewish day school coaches is how to run practices, establish goals for advancing skills, and adjust behavior on the field to promote winning, but not winning at all costs. The chevruta model of parting in friendship articulates a slightly different goal for athletics in Jewish day schools: winning while remaining friends. Competition becomes a specialized context to help Jewish boys and girls grow together in the building of both athletic and social skills guided by the principle “According to the effort is the reward” (Pirkei Avot 5:21).
JCC Maccabi offers a model for Jewish day schools to explore how athletics programs can serve as a platform for Jewish learning. By using athletic activities to build a Jewish vocabulary, adopt Jewish behaviors and identify Jewish outcomes, Jewish day schools can make Judaism relevant for youth through authentic and transformative experiences outside the reach of the classroom.