Medals and memories for teens at Maccabi Games

Tucssonans Gabe Green (front row, fourth from left) and Gabe Friedman (back row, third from left) were part of a multi-city team that won gold for 14U soccer. (Denise Wolf)

Ten teen-aged athletes from Tucson teamed up with other Jewish athletes from across the United States, Israel and Ukraine for the 2017 Maccabi Games in Birmingham, Ala., this summer.  And they’re already looking forward to next summer’s games — not just for the sports or the fun, but for lasting friendships and insights into caring about others.

From July 30-Aug. 4, the Birmingham Jewish community hosted nearly 1,000 teen athletes, ages 13 to 16. Along with the athletes, the Tucson delegation included Dakota Kordsiemon, basketball coach; Bar Alkaher, assistant coach and chaperone; and delegation head Denise Wolf, who is chief operating officer and senior vice president for the Tucson Jewish Community Center.

“My experience at the Maccabi Games was amazing,” says Bennett Silvyn, whose soccer team won a silver medal. “I played soccer in the 16U (designation for 15 to 16-year-olds) league and played under the Dallas delegation with people from Las Vegas and New Orleans. It was great meeting all of my teammates and now friends. Alabama did a great job; we got police escorts everywhere we went and had activities planned throughout the day, including a block party one night which was very fun. I can’t wait to do it again next year.”

Selma Fereres in action on the tennis court (Denise Wolf)

“Participating in the Maccabi games was one of the best experiences I’ve had,” says Selma Fereres, who won a gold medal for tennis. “I branched out to many other Jews around the country that are my age that share the same interest in sports. I have made many wonderful lifelong memories.”

Kordsiemon, coach for 16U basketball, has a broader perspective on the Maccabi Games. He participated in the Maccabi Games in San Francisco (basketball) when he was 13, Omaha (swimming) at 14, Israel (swimming) at 15 and the Pan American Games in Brazil (basketball) at 16. Last year was his first time coaching for the Maccabi Games, but he has coached many times for high school and summer league teams. He also played basketball while a student at Pima Community College, and this fall will attend Metropolitan State University of Denver as a sport management major.

“It is great to go and meet people from other states and countries,” Kordsiemon says. “The first day we meet and trade pins. Each city has its own pin, and the athletes collect the pins from each other.

“All these Jewish kids are making these connections and they keep in touch with the people they meet.  It is really exciting, especially if you have been to the games more than once and you see kids you have met before. I got to meet coaches that were at the games when I was younger.”

This was the first time Wolf, who led the delegation, went with the team to the Maccabi Games, where her sons, Cody and Jake Blumenthal, competed in 16U basketball. “The experience was much more than a sporting event,” she says. “The teens not only made friends and had a lot of fun, we also engaged them in social action.”

As part of the “JCC Cares” social action for this year, the teens went to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, an interpretive museum and research center that tells the story of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s and promotes understanding of today’s struggle for human rights. “I think it was extremely valuable for the kids to see and hear real stories about the struggle for civil rights,” says Wolf.

They also visited the African-American Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where on Sept. 15, 1963 a bomb placed beneath the church steps by members of the Ku Klux Klan exploded, killing four girls, ages 11 to 14, and injuring 22 other people.  The talk by one of the survivors of the explosion had a huge impact on the teens, says Wolf, especially when they learned that kids in their own age group were killed. Nearby, at Kelly Ingram Park, a 1960s civil rights demonstration site, sculptures provided the kids with visual depictions of police dog and fire hose assaults on demonstrators, many of whom were children.

The games also featured plenty of fun programs, including a block party held outside the McWane Science Center. “The police closed off the street for the event,” says Wolf. “The kids could go into the museum to explore the interactive exhibits as well as enjoying music and dancing outdoors, which gave them a chance to socialize.” They wrapped up the week in Birmingham at a carnival with rides, food and music.

The other Tucson athletes were Henry Abrams, Zamy Zwinger-Nathanson and Sam Peters, 16U basketball; Ronnie Barel, volleyball; and Gabe Green and Gabe Friedman, 14U (13 and 14-year olds) soccer, gold medal.

“Even though my basketball team didn’t win a medal (they were out in the first round of the championship bracket), no one got upset, and all of the players received midot (values) medals for lev tov (big hearts),” says Kordsiemon. “It was really exciting for me to see the sportsmanship of my team.”

Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.