This summer, 3,000 Jewish teen athletes from around the globe will get a chance to represent their country at the world’s largest Jewish youth sporting event. The JCC Maccabi Games offers Olympic-style sports competitions to youth athletes, and a group of 16-and-under Long Island teens will take to the international stage at this year’s games in Houston.
The team is comprised of 14 athletes — 13 from Long Island, and one from Brooklyn. Their hometowns include Bellmore, Merrick, Woodmere, Great Neck, Syosset and Commack, and on their high school and travel teams, they are all stand out players who compete at high levels of play.
Mark Rosenman, who is the team’s head coach, is originally from Seaford, and attended MacArthur High School. He’s long been involved in youth baseball, having coached travel teams for years. Right after the pandemic, he said Maccabi was looking for coaches, and he volunteered. The team’s other coaches are Danny Lackner and Kevin Baez.
Tryouts were held in September and October. All athletes who participate in Maccabi must be Jewish. In total, 27 players tried out, and 14 made the final team. The team is now practicing throughout the winter at the Long Island Field House, an indoor facility in Hauppauge.
Across the country, regionally, Jewish community centers have a certain number of athletes allotted to them for the Maccabi Games and they decide what teams they want to field — and in the New York area, one of them is baseball.
On a group video call with several players, coaches and parents, the Herald spoke with them about what their experience has been like taking part in Maccabi. For some players who were on the call, including Jake Bursztyn, who attends Syosset High School, Alex Demas, who attends John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore, and Sam Swedarsky who attends DRS Yeshiva High School in Woodmere, this is their second year participating in the games with Rosenman as their coach.
“It’s really great to be returning with these guys, and the new kids too, obviously,” Demas said. “I go to school with some of these kids and I play with them — but I am really liking how this team is shaping up and it’s going to be looking good this summer.”
Rosenman said it is fascinating to see the players’ maturity levels when it came to discussing topics relating to religion — which is one thing that connects each of the players.
“This was a u16 team and they were sitting down for breakfast and the conversation that was going on at the table, for me, was fascinating,” he said of last year’s team. “It was probably better than any intellectual talk show. Sometimes, when you become and old guy, you say things like ‘I’m worried about the next generation.’ Watching theses kids — I’m not worried. These kids, really, they get it. And it was eye opening for me.”
For players like Ian Yegidis, who attends Sanford. H Calhoun High School in Merrick, it’s their first year playing on the 16-and-under team. The age range of players on the team spans from 14 to 16, and for a lot of the players, it’s been fun to meet athletes from not only different schools, but also different grades.
“I used to play with some of these kids in little league, now we’re in different high schools, but it’s just good to be back with everyone,” Yegidis said. “And it’s more than just baseball this year, with everything going on in the Middle East. I think it’s a big thing that we do this. It’s important.”
The ongoing Israel-Hamas war in the Middle East has rocked Jewish communities around the world. There’s been a rise in antisemitism, but also a push for Jewish unity and pride.
“We’re feeling it through our local communities and school and everything that’s been done to silence everybody,” Yegidis said. “And I think it’s awful that’s it happening.”
Swedarsky said his sister is in Israel, where she’s been aiding Israel Defense Forces soldiers. He also has family friends who are enlisted in the IDF and are on the front lines of the war right now.
“This tournament is you know, religiously, very big for me,” he said. “I just want to have a good run and support for everything that’s happening right now.”
“In the beginning of practice, when we finally finalized the team and we got together, I told them for me, this tournament is more than baseball,” Rosenman said. “It’s not about winning and losing — it’s about them being proud. They go to school, some of them, where antisemitism is on the rise. They’re looked at differently. When they’re all together, there’s a comfort level — they take pride in who they are.”
Some of the parents on the call spoke about what it’s like watching their sons take part in the competition — whether they are returning athletes, or it’s their first year playing.
Gus Demas, Alex Demas’ father, said Rosenman’s leadership is incredible. “Mark is a huge factor for all of these boys, coming back to play with a phenomenal coach, not only for baseball, but just for life in general,” he said.
Darin Shapiro, whose son Charlie was not able to be on the group call, said that the games help athletes understand their connection to Israel.
“Secular Americans who (don’t) have any connection to Israel are now kind of waking up and maybe understanding that there is a connection between all of us to the homeland,” he said. “I think it’s really going to hit home, and really make it special this year.”
The team has been fundraising in effort to offset the costs of travel, and has been very successful — drawing in $16,000. More information on the team, its players and their journey to the games which will take place in early August, can be found at MarkRosenman.com/TeamMaccabi.
“There’s something about this group,” Rosenman said. “They all lead by example, it’s not just one kid. And I’m excited. I love doing this, and these kids make it easy to want to do it.”