Togetherness wins big at tryouts for Maccabi Games

"Atta-boy," said Richard Harrit, catching a pitch from 14-year-old Jacob Lavinghouse. "Atta-boy."

Harrit, just one of many parents who'd been standing by during the recent JCC Maccabi Youth Games tryouts in San Rafael, jumped in to lend a hand while his son, David, slugged his way toward a position on the baseball team that will represent the San Francisco Bay Area.

"David plays on a lot of competitive leagues, but this is the first time he's tried for the Maccabi team," said Harrit, who made the trek to the Marin Jewish Community Center tryouts from his home in Danville.

"I thought it would be something good baseball-wise and also socially. There aren't too many Jewish baseball players in our area. Well none, really."

This year, the Maccabi Youth Games will be held at five sites across the country, with most athletes from the San Francisco squad heading to a competition in Tucson, Ariz., in early August.

Girls' basketball coach Bradley Solomon, in his sixth year as a volunteer, said the games are like a "Jewish youth Olympics," combining a Jewish cultural and social program with an aggressive athletic competition.

"You have to have a fair amount of skill in your sport if you're going to make a team," said Bradley. "But once you're on, you're going to make friends and have experiences you'll remember long after the games are over."

Many of the 13- to 16-year-old baseball, basketball and soccer team hopefuls are still waiting to find out if they've made the cut. But the socializing has already begun — and not just for the athletes.

"The parents bond too," said Margo Ogus of Palo Alto, mother of 13-year-old Amanda, who tried out for the basketball team. As Ogus waited for the tryouts to finish, she and other mothers discussed everything from their kids and basketball to shopping and the correct pronunciation of "Maccabi."

"Amanda's brother, Simon, has been to the last three Maccabi Games and she's been patiently waiting her turn," said Ogus. "It's a fabulous program. The kids go and stay with host families, meet kids from all over the country, even some other [countries], and it's really a joy for the families to watch all these Jewish athletes compete and have fun together."

Fun is the operative word for 14-year-old Mika Cohen-Bertel, a Richmond resident and member of last year's basketball team. which captured a bronze medal in Houston.

"The schedule was hectic," she said, "but it was jam-packed with fun activities. I liked the independence and I liked my host family. I still keep in touch with them online."

If Cohen-Bertel doesn't make the team this year, she said she'll "just have to find other basketball games to play." But she's fairly confident, since "I'm three inches taller than last year."

And if she makes it, "I'll jump up and down and scream," she stated, matter-of-factly. "Last year was just so much fun."

Perhaps that's why, despite intermittent rain showers, more than 45 teens showed up for the Feb. 27 tryouts in San Rafael.

The wet grass didn't seem to stifle or concern the kids as they ran bases or kicked the soccer ball. Many parents watched from under umbrellas and hooded raincoats as the youths sprinted around in shorts and T-shirts. "Rain or shine," explained soccer coach Mehrdad Elahi.

"The Maccabi Games philosophy is not so much about winning, but having Jewish kids play together and meet," said Jacob's mother, Randy Lavinghouse.

"Of course, don't get me wrong," she quickly added. "My son would like to win."