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Maccabi athletes seek renewal of Jewish pride, along with wins


From the outside, Beverly Katz's house is just another four-bedroom split-foyer in Reisterstown. But inside, it has become a salon for a cosmopolitan group of Jewish teen-agers.

The reason is simple: Ms. Katz and her 16-year-old daughter, Niki, are one of 1,200 host families for the North American Maccabi Youth Games this week.

More than 2,600 Jewish athletes, ages 13 to 16, have come to Baltimore from 44 U.S. cities and seven foreign countries to compete in sports, to get to know each other and to come away with a heightened pride in being Jews.

"They're coming together to celebrate their Jewish heritage through sport," said Sue Glick Liebman, chairwoman of social and cultural events for the games. "But the underlying purpose is for them to go away feeling a sense of Jewishness and their connection to Jews around the world. You can't tell them that; they have to feel it."

If the Katzes' house guests -- 16-year-old Australian basketball players Tammy Morris and Angie Missell -- are typical, the Maccabi (pronounced ma-CAH-bee) philosophy of forming a critical mass of Jewish youngsters through sport is working.

"You go back and you feel more Australian and more Jewish because you're surrounded by so many other Jewish people," said Tammy, a scrappy, 5-foot-4 point guard. "It makes you more proud."

The vast Australian continent, with its population of about 13 million, has only 95,000 Jews, about as many as live in the Baltimore area. Nearly half live in Melbourne, Tammy's city and ,, the capital of Jewish basketball in Australia. A smattering live in Perth, Angie's home in western Australia. Many, like her family, are recent immigrants from South Africa.

While the Australians were impressed with the vibrancy of Jewish culture as the athletes paraded at last Sunday's opening ceremonies in a packed Baltimore Arena, people like Beverly Katz enjoyed seeing represented such outposts of Judaism as Australia, Mexico and Venezuela.

"There must have been 20 to 30 kids in the house [Tuesday] night," said Ms. Katz, a city middle school teacher. "I was playing mah-jongg. I said you can have the basement. They got a movie and sat and talked. It's an extremely healthy outlet."

On Wednesday night, Ms. Katz, Niki, Angie and Tammy joined hundreds of others at an Oregon Ridge Park picnic. The Israeli Scouts' Friendship Caravan, a well-scrubbed, talented group from Israel, sang everything from "Let It Be" to "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" in Hebrew, Yiddish and English.

But, like the rest of the week, the picnic was more than anything else a mega-schmooze. Jewish teen-agers were encamped all the way up the grassy Oregon Ridge ski slope, trading pins and T-shirts, and flirting.

Which is precisely the point.

"The Hebrew word for connection or bonding is 'kesher,' and we're looking for that," Ms. Liebman said. "We think the kids have felt it, and they have created it themselves."

Once past the age of bar or bat mitzvah, Jewish teen-agers tend to get swallowed up by society at large, she said. The games, which the Jewish Community Centers have held every two years since 1982, are one way to maintain their Jewish identity.

And if the teen-agers feel they would like to marry a Jew, so much the better.

Tammy Morris and Angie Missell both say they want to marry within the faith, partly as a result of the Maccabi experience.

Neither attends synagogue more than a few times a year, but both feel strongly about their Jewish heritage (including the history that gave the games their name, the second century B.C. guerrilla war waged by the Maccabees against Syrians who threatened to snuff out Judaism).

"We're a small minority, and we've been through so much -- fighting through the Holocaust and wars," Tammy said. "There's so much assimilation now. To marry out, you lose some of your origin. I'm not particularly very Jewish, but it's good to know your identity."

Angie agreed that she would "feel more comfortable" with a Jewish mate.

"And my parents would kill me anyway if I didn't," she added, only half joking.

The Australian girls haven't lacked for male Jewish company at the games.

"The guys are very curious," Tammy said.

"They love our accents," Angie said.

Tammy and Angie's sporting experience came to an end yesterday, as Toronto eliminated Australia, 43-32, in a basketball quarterfinal at the University of Maryland Baltimore County field house. And Niki's Owings Mills soccer team was drubbed by Los Angeles the day before.

But the games continue for all three, the schmoozing and flirting and deepening of their Jewish identities.

Now Tammy and Angie can get down to the serious business of finding the best deals for their leather Australian bushman's hats, which are the envy of many athletes.

The games end at noon Sunday at UMBC as they began, with the blowing of the shofar, the ram's horn that calls Jews to prayer.

"It doesn't matter what your language, if you're religious or nonreligious, when you hear the shofar blow, that's for all of us," ,, Ms. Liebman said.

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