By Dann Jacobonson
I’ve been a volleyball coach for about 25 years. I have coached boys and girls, women and men, at every level from fourth grade through college.
Yet I have never been a part of something as life affirming and positive as my experience coaching at the JCC Maccabi Games, which took place Aug. 10-15 in Boca Raton, Fla., and which will be coming to Milwaukee in August 2015.
The Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center invited me to coach Team Milwaukee volleyball in Boca Raton. I wanted to experience what my daughter had raved about the summer before when she participated in the Games in Austin, Texas. And I never turn down an opportunity to coach volleyball.
Our team, which included my daughter, included girls from Milwaukee, San Antonio, Texas, and Palo Alto, Calif. The girls met only 15 minutes before play, and they quickly became friends.
I know that their quick bonding occurred because they were in the same special situation, but I know that being Jewish had something to do with it, too. It was a powerful thing to see.
We played a team from Houston first, and they beat us pretty easily. In our second match, we played a team from Israel. They beat us 25 to 6 and 25 to 7. Their team was clearly the best in the competition.
Yet the girls had so much fun. This is often lost in a day of competition — that athletic competition is supposed to be fun.
Just as our own team quickly bonded, so did our team and the Israeli players. Within 10 minutes, you would have thought the girls had known each other for 10 years.
It was especially heartwarming when I think what it must be like for the Israeli teens back home, knowing how difficult their lives must have been during the Operation Protective Edge fighting between Israel and Hamas (July 8-Aug. 26).
I appreciated the opportunity to make friends with the Israeli coach. It was fun to talk volleyball with a coach from another country.
Our players improved on the second day. We beat a team from Dallas, and I could see our girls becoming more confident.
On the third day, we were in the playoffs. We played Israel again in the quarter finals. They won again, but the scores were 26 to 16 and 26 to 17. Even though Israel was the better team, we made them work hard.
Afterwards, within minutes, the fierce competition ended, and the girls from both teams were hugging their new friends, teaching each other cheers and dancing on the court.
This was exactly what I want sports to be: a competition where everyone gives their best effort, but are friends after the competition is over.
The opening and closing ceremonies were like the Olympics. Thousands of people were in the arena. I had never been around this many Jews in one place. It was a unique feeling that made me very proud.
And it wasn’t just Jews. The athletes and the host families were all Jewish, but the volunteers and coaches represented many different faiths and backgrounds.
It was amazing to see the sheer joy of the kids. I kept thinking how cool it was that I had the opportunity to be a part of this, to represent my city, and to experience this with my daughter.
I had no idea what to expect when I got there. I thought it would be fun, but I didn’t realize it would be such a powerful experience.
I was so proud of our JCC staff members. They were strong representatives of our community. They worked hard and cared about our kids like no one else could. They coached and led the right way, and they taught me a great deal.
Each delegation head was given three Midot medals, which they can award to any participants at the end of the Games — coaches, volunteers, players — anyone.
The medals represent six characteristics: tikkun olam (repairing the world), kavod (honor), rina (joy), ga’ava (pride), lev tov (big hearted) and amiut yehudit (Jewish peoplehood).
I received a Midot medal from the Palo Alto delegation head. I have been honored to receive awards in the past, but no award has been this profoundly meaningful to me. It left me quite emotional (not surprising for those who know me) and speechless (quite surprising for those who know me).
I walked away with a lasting understanding of how important community is and how important it is to come together and celebrate our collective beliefs and values.
It was the peak of a great week — just being with one another and helping each other rise up to be our best. It was the best week ever.
Dann Jacobson is the varsity girls’ volleyball coach and a teacher of American history, sociology and leadership for social justice at Nicolet High School. He and his wife, Kirsten, an oncology nurse, have two children: Alyx (14), a freshman at Nicolet, and Max (11), a sixth grader at Bayside Middle School.
1st published in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle