After a year and a half of preparation for the 2017 Maccabi Games in Birmingham, the games are set to begin.
About 900 Jewish teens from across the United States and around the world will be in Birmingham July 30 to August 4 to participate in the games, which are being held in Alabama for the first time.
The JCC Maccabi Games is part of the Jewish Community Centers Association, and three communities across North America host the games each summer. Thousands of Jewish teens from ages 13 to 16 participate each year in an Olympic-style sporting event. It is regarded as the second-largest organized sports program for Jewish teens in the world, and Birmingham is the second-smallest Jewish community to host the games since they were founded in Memphis in 1982.
In addition to Birmingham, the 2017 Maccabi Games will be held the following week in the Albany, N.Y. area and at the Alper JCC in Miami.
Games Co-Chair Layne Held said, “This is an event for the entire Jewish community, to showcase our community, our people and the city.”
Birmingham’s selection was announced at the Levite Jewish Community Center‘s (LJCC) annual meeting in January 2016. Then-President Alyssa Nadler said, “This is a game-changer for Birmingham, for our JCC and for our Jewish community” by putting the Birmingham Jewish community on the international stage.
Betzy Lynch, who became executive director of the LJCC in 2012, had chaired the 30th anniversary Maccabi Games in Memphis that year.
LJCC President Allison Berman said Held and Co-Chair Bruce Sokol “have logged hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteer hours this past year. Without their time and dedication, we surely would not have been able to fully fund our games ahead of schedule and create the amazing volunteer and professional team, which is working tirelessly to make it happen.”
Held and Sokol have led a team of about 50 committee heads and volunteer organizers, with honorary co-chairs Mike Slive and Charles Krulak.
Dan Tourtellotte, who led the LJCC’s first Maccabi delegation in 1988, is the games supervisor.
Figuring that the games will benefit the community at large, Held and Sokol approached Birmingham’s corporate community to sponsor the games, and received tremendous support. Held said over 70 companies around Birmingham and in nearby communities have stepped up.
With coaches, support staff and family members, as many as 3,000 visitors are expected for the games.
The games will include an opening ceremony on July 30 at Bartow Arena at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and a closing ceremony on Aug. 3. Because of security concerns, an exact schedule is not being released to the public.
Competition will take place at numerous venues across the city, including Birmingham-Southern College, the CrossPlex, Altamont School and UAB. The LJCC will be the hub for lunch, Maccabi Central and Hangtime.
The CrossPlex is a relatively new world-class facility that has a six-lane oval hydraulic track and eight 60-meter lanes for sprint and hurdle events. The facility also features a 50-meter indoor Olympic swimming pool.
The hydraulic track features a Mondotrack surface and is one of only four in the United States and one of six worldwide. This is likely the first time a Maccabi Games has been able to hold track and field indoors.
A plan to use Rickwood Field, the oldest professional baseball park in the nation, fell through as the historic park was closed earlier this year for emergency repairs.
Athletes will circulate via a Maccabi transit system among the venues and two “hubs.”
The schedule also includes a “block party” at the McWane Science Center and the newly opened Pizitz Food Hall downtown.
The traditional Day of Service will provide an opportunity to explore Birmingham’s civil rights history. The athletes will be divided into three groups and rotate among the Civil Rights Institute, Kelly Ingram Park and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Every year, delegates to the JCC Maccabi Games do a community service project, JCC Cares. This year, Birmingham city schools will be the beneficiaries.
Each delegation is collecting school supplies, and there is an ongoing drive at the Levite Jewish Community Center in Birmingham, with an Amazon wish list online.
Lynch said there is an effort to put a Birmingham stamp on every aspect of the games. For example, all the chips will be Golden Flake and the cookies will be from Bud’s Best, both of which are headquartered in Birmingham.
“We’re showcasing the great things about our city,” Held said.
The JCC Maccabi Games is co-sponsored by the JCC Association of North America, Maccabi World Union, Maccabi Canada and Maccabi USA/Sport for Israel.
Security a top priority
Want to be see the 2017 Maccabi Games in Birmingham? It isn’t as simple as showing up to a competition.
Maccabi Games Co-Chair Bruce Sokol said they would love to have everyone participate in the “big party,” but because of security reasons, everyone who is involved with the games in any way must be credentialed and have it with them at all times.
Those attending the opening ceremony at Bartow Arena, for example, must either be credentialed or have a ticket that has been picked up in advance at the LJCC. Likewise, anyone who wants to attend the closing ceremony on Aug. 3 needs to make arrangements through the LJCC.
The easiest way to be part of the games is to volunteer or be a host family. All volunteers and host families must register with the national JCC Maccabi database, which is accessible through the Maccabi Birmingham website.
These procedures have been in place for years and are not a response to the rash of bomb hoaxes earlier this year, which saw over half of the country’s JCCs receiving threats in several waves of calls. Birmingham’s LJCC received four such calls over two months, before an 18-year-old in Israel was arrested.
Security for the games is being coordinated with several local agencies.
This story originally appeared in Southern Jewish Life magazine.