Richard Friedman
Jewish Federation director, Journalist

Israeli Maccabi Teens Touch Hearts In Alabama

The JCC Maccabi Games, which brought 900 Jewish teens to our city this past week, was a magical experience. Every family in Birmingham, Alabama who hosted Maccabi athletes has a story to tell.

Staying with us were four wonderful young girls from Israel who came here to compete in basketball. Shy at first, they warmed up and we had a great time. Thanks to my wife there was plenty of food, lots of TLC, and a birthday cake for one of them to boot.

They were delightful, lovely young ladies, gracious and appreciative, serous but not too serious. They were a pleasure to host.

It was at lunch on the Sunday after their arrival, as we cut the Happy 16th Birthday cake for the oldest, that I began thinking about them and their future. What will the years ahead hold for them and their families? Will these bubbly young girls see peace in their lifetime? How much longer will their brothers — and perhaps one day their husbands and sons — have to fight to defend their tiny sliver of a homeland?

I found myself thinking — and praying — that they might be the first generation of Israelis to know peace.

Predicting the answers to my questions was like trying to predict how well they would do in the Maccabi Games — with the stakes much higher, of course. (By the way, they did great in the Games losing by a whisker in the championship game.)

What was clear was that these and other questions would likely hover over their lives for some time. In just a few years they will be entering the army.

Was I having downbeat thoughts? No, I reasoned. Israel is strong and resilient and can meet these challenges — and I could even sense hints of that strength and resilience in these four girls. There was just something about them that was very Israeli.

Moreover, while the JCC Maccabi Games were a triumph in every way for our small Jewish community, the two years of planning by the Levite Jewish Community Center and the extraordinarily successful week of activities symbolized dramatically what we as Jews can accomplish when we work together. Both locally and globally.

I am proud that our LJCC was the catalyst for bringing the Maccabi Games to Birmingham and am proud that the Birmingham Jewish Federation and Birmingham Jewish Foundation helped to fund this amazing teen experience.

The JCC Maccabi Games kicked off last Sunday night with a moving program at Bartow Arena at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Birmingham Jewish community member Robert Levin highlighted each group as they entered the arena. I was thinking of the four girls staying at my house as he introduced the large Israeli delegation. This group of young Israeli athletes, a tapestry of the country’s future, received a standing ovation.

Said Robert through the PA system, “What would Maccabi be without athletes from Israel, and what would we as Jews be without Israel?…These Israeli teens are OUR children, and we envelop them with affection. They are Israel’s future, they lift our hearts. Our love for their country unites us and we say ‘Shalom.’ We are glad you are here. Welcome, Team Israel.”

The four girls and the rest of the Israeli teens who spent the week here in Birmingham indeed are OUR children.

In fact, all of the 900 young Jews who participated in Birmingham’s Maccabi Games, regardless of where they came from, are OUR children. The connection we feel with one another as Jews is the glue that holds our people together.

So this is my host family story. And knowing Birmingham’s Jewish community as I do, I’m sure countless other families who hosted Maccabi athletes feel exactly the same way: These are our children.

About the Author
Richard Friedman is Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation in Alabama. He also is a well-known Alabama journalist.