Teenagers descend on New Jersey for the JCC Maccabi Games

Philadelphia athletes enter the opening ceremonies of the 2014 JCC Maccabi Games at Sun National Bank Center in Trenton. The games will be held in Cherry Hill this week.
Philadelphia athletes enter the opening ceremonies of the 2014 JCC Maccabi Games at Sun National Bank Center in Trenton. The games will be held in Cherry Hill this week. (ANDREW THAYER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 12, 2014

Bryan Eichen, 13, grew up watching his older brothers compete in JCC Maccabi Games soccer tournaments and is eager to play now that he's old enough.

"I want to be a part of it," he said, eyes wide, as he and his parents, Lisa and Eduard of Voorhees waited in the cafeteria of Eastern Regional High School for three towering 16-year-old soccer players from California.

The Eichens are a host family for the teens from Woodland Hills, Calif., who will be among 1,200 athletes participating in Cherry Hill, one of three host cities for the annual Olympic-style event for Jewish teens.

Californian Tal Kohavi sported dyed blond hair tips; teammate Alon Arnaldes, massive earphones. They ambled over to the Eichens with their cellphones handy, texting friends and parents back home.

"Give me a drink!" one yelled at another, eyeing the tubs of Gatorade and water and snacks. They were happy, restless, and thrilled not to be traveling anymore.

Though also excited, the grown-ups exhibited minor tension, given the current conflict in the Middle East.

"Security will be tight all week long," said Fred Lang, a detective with the Camden County Prosecutor's Office.

Lang pointed to a blimp equipped with cameras floating over the high school, the first of its kind to be used in New Jersey. SWAT teams with automatic weapons and bulletproof vests guarded the school entrance.

"What's going on in Israel adds challenges to the event," said Voorhees resident Mark Dannenbaum, a radiologist by profession and volunteer chairman of the games.

More than 1,000 visiting and 200 local athletes will compete this week at the Betty and Milton Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill. Sports include basketball, lacrosse, track and soccer, table and regular tennis, baseball, and swimming.

For security reasons, all visiting teenagers stay with host families rather than in hotels.

On Sunday morning, boys and girls ages 13 to 16 poured out of travel buses arriving from Florida and Maryland. Some had flown overnight from San Francisco.

Most, but not all, of the 400 host families are Jewish. The McIntyre family, members of the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill, are hosting 12 athletes from Mexico - "the entire Mexican delegation," said Rob Keiwe, games director.

"Greg and Maggie McIntyre already have six or seven kids of their own, and on top of that also took the Mexican athletes to Shabbat services this past weekend in their huge van, which was great," Keiwe said.

Eduard Eichen coaches soccer for the games and also volunteers as an underwater diver when visiting athletes tour the Camden aquarium.

The U.S. Maccabi Games began in Memphis in 1982, and New Jersey last hosted them in 1992. They've grown so large that "it's like starting up and running a small business for a week," said Les Cohen, executive director of the Katz JCC. The budget totals $1.2 million and involves 6,000 people, mostly volunteers, who need to be fed and transported. "But it really brings out the community."

At least that number is expected to attend the Olympic-style opening ceremony Sunday night in Trenton. Teen athletes will march with their city or country banners into the Sun National Bank Center arena.

"It really is like Olympics for Jewish teenagers," Cohen said. "For the kids, it's like a big party."

The athletes may not notice the extra security measures, "but their parents certainly care," said K.C. Isdaner, operations chair for the Maccabi Games.

The teens each year are shown a clip about the kidnapping deaths of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

That wasn't on the minds of Aden Goldberg and Lucas Ognibene, both 14 and from Oakland, Calif., who play baseball. "Last year, they had fireworks, trampoline dancers at the opening ceremony" for the Maccabi Games in Orange County, Calif., Aden said.

He decided to compete again this year because "there's sports and girls. And those are both good."




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