CTeen Helps Make Mitzvot the Name of the Game at JCC Maccabi Events

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4,000 men wrap tefillin, women light Shabbat candles, in addition to great sports in three U.S. cities.

By CTeen Staff

Jewish pride was alive at this year’s JCC Maccabi Games, where more than 12,000 athletes and guests from around the world gathered in three U.S. cities to participate in sports, entertainment and community unity.

Though much of the energy can be attributed to the athletic events themselves in Boca Raton, Fla., Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit, Mich., what happened off the fields and tennis courts had a significant impact on Jewish identity, participants said.

In the course of three days, a record 4,000 men donned tefillin, while women and girls took on the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles. All this and more can be credited to the work of CTeen mitzvah booths, which were coordinated with the help of Chabad emissaries Rabbi Arele Gopin (co-director of Chabad of Boca Raton), Rabbi Mendel Mangel (co-director of Chabad Lubavitch of Camden County in Cherry Hill) and Rabbi Dov Stein (co-director of The Shul: Jack and Miriam Shenkman Building in West Bloomfield, Mich., and the Michigan Jewish Institute in Oak Park, just outside of Detroit).

In addition to the booths at all three locations, CTeen hosted the “Hangtime Room” at the Boca Raton site, an area for athletes to relax and play games in between their competitions. Teenagers enjoyed “Jewish Jenga,” musical chairs and a giant ring toss with volunteer rabbinical students Hirschel Gourarie, Levi Gerlitzky, Levi Sudak and Dovid Ginsberg. Rabbinical students Chaim Eilenberg and Eliyohu Spiro staffed the mitzvah booths at the games in Cherry Hill and Detroit.

One of the most popular activities was “Tiles for Smiles,” a project where athletes decorated ceramic tiles sent to Israel to adorn the walls of bomb shelters there. A huge success in the past, it was brought back because of its popular demand at last year’s games and because of the current desire to do something positive for Israelis, who have spent a large part of their summer at war with Hamas in Gaza, spending time going in and out of local bomb shelters.

Other projects included decorating sweatbands for special-needs athletes and making medals for wounded soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, who have fought so valiantly as part of “Operation Protective Edge,” launched in full force on July 8.

For their efforts, athletes received special mitzvah pins to display among their other Maccabi pins on their ID badges. This year’s expanded collection included categories such as tzedakah, mezuzah, Shabbat candles, tefillin, kashrus and learning Torah.

Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, executive director of Merkos 302, offered an explanation to the incredible openness teens had for various mitzvot. “Coming at the close of a difficult summer for Israelis and Jews around the world, the mitzvah booths served as a beacon of Jewish unity and encouraged strong Jewish identity,” he said.

‘Part of Something Bigger’

“I think this is such a pleasant surprise,” Cindy Bergman, associate executive director of the Adolph and Rose Levis Jewish Community Center in Boca Raton, said of the project. “It brings Israel home to all our Jewish teens. It’s important that while they are playing sports, they feel that they are part of something bigger and something that ties them all together—their Jewish identity and connection to Israel. This will help to ensure Jewish continuity today and in the future.”

Athletes at each location felt the impact of CTeen’s presence. “Spending time with the organization was an awesome, spiritual and fun experience,” said Anthony Fodamp from Boca Raton. “We all put on tefillin as a team before the games, and I felt how it made a difference.”

Jake Schner said he was grateful for the group’s presence as well. “The CTeen table was amazing; they always had the best energy and know how to have fun,” he said. “Getting wrapped for tefillin was great, too.”

“I love how CTeen is a welcoming environment for teens to explore their Judaism at their own comfort level. It allows teens to be Jewish in ways that they’ve never been before,” said Dave Dossick, South Florida area co-director of the Jewish Student Connection.

And Matt Cohen, a parent who attended this year’s event, was extremely impressed with how the booths were run.

Said Cohen: “The tefillin table was an excellent demonstration of the heritage of Jewish history, and the people involved were extremely helpful and eager to assist in any way.”