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Despite silver medal at JCC Maccabi Games, Tucson boys put emphasis on fun

Tucson Jewish Community Center Maccabi Games participants and friends (in white and turquoise T-shirts) play with special needs campers in Columbus, Ohio. Back row (L-R): Oren Riback (delegation head), Max Silverman, Zach Giles, Dimitri Rally (Palo Alto), Zamy (Jake) Zwinger, Jake Blumenthal, Adam Rudy (Louisville). Front: Avin Kreisler, Matthew Gurovich (Palo Alto) and Henry Abrams. Dakota Kordsiemon (basketball coach) is kneeling on the right. (Courtesy Oren Riback)

Thirteen teen athletes represented the Tucson Jewish Community Center at the JCC Maccabi Games in Columbus, Ohio, July 24-29. It was Tucson’s return to the games after a three-year absence due to scheduling conflicts with local schools’ early start dates. Despite the lag, the Tucson boys’ basketball team members came home with silver medals.

But as in the past, the games, an Olympic-style competition for Jewish teens ages 13-16, were about much more than sports. They were about camaraderie, character and good old-fashioned fun.

“What a joy,” says Oren Riback, the delegation head, still riding a high days after returning from Columbus.

“Everyone said the Tucson guys were the sweetest, nicest, professional, showed sportsmanship on and off the court,” adds Riback, who was himself a Maccabi athlete as a teen and is now the children and youth assistant director at the Tucson J.

Tucson’s athletes and coaches were honored with eight middot or “values” medals, which staff members from any delegation could award on the spot when they witnessed a praiseworthy moment.

Trading team pins is a Maccabi Games tradition, and Tucson pins were a hot commodity. Zamy (Jake) Zwinger got one medal for helping an elderly man track down Tucson pins for his collection. “It made the guy’s day and he was almost crying,” says Riback. Zwinger earned a second medal for “killing it on the dance floor” with special needs campers, according to a Columbus JCC staffer Riback caught on video.

Dakota Kordsiemon, the boys’ basketball coach  and a former Maccabi athlete who traveled to Israel for the Games in 2011 and played for the Maccabi USA team in Brazil in 2012, also got a couple of values medals in Columbus.

“One of our mitzvah projects was to facilitate a Special Olympics program and the kids were kind of awkward around the adults with special needs,” Riback explains. “So Dakota talked with the kids about growing up with an older brother who has special needs … and instead of just doing it for the group of Tucson boys, he stayed back and helped the lady who was running that mitzvah project. He talked to every group he could. She said Dakota saved the day.”

The Israeli delegation gave Kordsiemon a second values medal for his efforts to connect teens from different cities and “help people become better friends,” says Riback.

Making friends with other delegates was the highlight of the experience, says Max Silverman, 16, a basketball player who also took part in the games in Austin in 2013.

More important than the athletics, he says, “was the social event and just having fun meeting people and playing games with people from all over the country and Mexico and Israel and Canada.”

He also enjoyed the basketball teams’ mitzvah project, working with Columbus’ special needs campers, recalling “a lot of smiles and a lot of positive energy.”

The teens reveled in the program’s late-night activities, which included a fireworks show and a chance to hang out at Columbus’ Magic Mountain, a huge venue with arcade games, go-karts and other attractions, says Riback.

Spending time with host families is another special aspect of the games, says Riback, who notes that one of the Tucson athletes, Avin Kreisler, is an Orthodox Jew. He and Silverman bunked with a Columbus rabbi.

“It was just awesome, great. He took us around town — we toured Ohio State University, he took us to  ice cream places, we met up with other host families and other Maccabi athletes,” says Silverman.

In addition to the basketball team, Tucson sent several soccer players and one baseball player to Columbus. It was an all-boys delegation this year and Riback was disappointed that no girls signed up, since many had participated in past years, especially in swimming. With his eye on the games in Birmingham, Ala., to be held the first week of August 2017, he’s hoping Tucson will field a co-ed team next year.