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Tucson teens make friends and win big at JCC Maccabi Games in Atlanta

With a cowboy as their logo for the 2019 JCC Maccabi Games, Team Tucson galloped out at the July 28 opening ceremonies in Atlanta to the song “Old Town Road.” From left: Grant Cohen (front), Gabe Green, Pasha Maher (basketball coach), Elijah Nogales,Josh Shenker (delegation head), and Gianna Miltenberger

Tucson’s team for the annual JCC Maccabi Games for Jewish teens, held July 28-Aug. 2 in Atlanta, was “small but mighty” with four athletes, says Josh Shenker, delegation head and director of children, youth and camping services at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.

“Though we were the smallest delegation of only four, we brought home nine medals. From our theatrics during our delegation entrance at opening ceremonies to our spirit throughout the week, Team Tucson definitely made our presence felt,” says Shenker. The Olympic-style games included 1,800 Jewish teen athletes from 36 communities, including five international delegations.

Thirteen-year-old swimmer Gianna Miltenberger of Tucson, participating in her first Maccabi Games, won seven medals.

“The Maccabi Games was an all-around amazing experience,” says Gianna. “Being around so many other Jewish athletes from across the world was such a wonderful opportunity. I had so much fun competing in the sport I practice and love. Meeting others who share that same passion was so incredible.”

Each year the Maccabi Games include a social action project. This year’s JCC Cares day was a collaboration between the Israel Sports Center for the Disabled and Atlanta’s Shepherd Center for spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation, with informational presentations, a wheelchair basketball exhibition and a hands-on art project.

“It was very inspirational to see people who have faced adversity in their lives overcome that and continue to do what they love,” says Grant Cohen, 13, of the wheelchair basketball exhibition.

Participating in his first games, Grant won a gold medal in tennis in the 14-and-under age bracket, “going completely undefeated and largely uncontested,” says Shenker.

“While it was amazing to see our athletes compete and excel in their sports, the special aspect of the week was seeing the four of them come out of their shells as they forged relationships and friendships with not only each other but countless teens from other delegations,” says Shenker.

Gabe Green, 15, was Tucson’s only Maccabi Games veteran athlete, participating in his third games. He played on a mixed soccer team that bagged a bronze medal.

For Gabe, the best part of the games “was meeting and competing with all my teammates from six other cities because it was the first time I had met most of them and it was nice to see how close we got in four days.” Catching up with friends from past years, winning a medal, and the evening social activities, which included a concert by pop band AJR, also were highlights, he says.

Elijah Nogales, 15, had a great time despite fracturing his ankle playing basketball on a mixed team with kids from four delegations. He liked hanging out with his host family, he says, and “meeting teens from other cities was cool, and seeing how they aren’t that different.”

If Tucson fields a team for next year’s games, Elijah says, he’d like to be a part of it.

The Tucson JCC receives ongoing financial support from the Paul Ash Youth Maccabi Fund. Through this fund, the J has helped send more than 100 teens to the JCC Maccabi Games over the past many years. For information on participating in future JCC Maccabi Games, contact Shenker at 299-3000 or jshenker@tucsonjcc.org.