Sports and Judaism all in one

On the website for the new JCC Maccabi Sports Camp (maccabisportscamp.org), Camp Director Josh Steinharter writes, “As a kid who hoped to one day play shortstop for the Yankees, I faced a dilemma every summer. ‘Why do I have to choose between sports camp and Jewish overnight camp?’”

Fortunately for like-minded kids today, that is no longer a dilemma. Thanks to Josh’s dream and a grant from the Foundation for Jewish Camp Specialty Camp Incubator,
young Jewish athletes can have both camps in one at the new JCC Maccabi Sports Camp. During two-week sessions at the new overnight Jewish sports summer camp near San Francisco, boys and girls in fourth through ninth grades can learn more about their favorite sport of choice – baseball, basketball, soccer or tennis. The camp combines intensive clinics and creative programming to help young Jewish athletes advance their skill levels while enjoying other sports and camp activities mixed in with the core
values of a Jewish summer camp experience.

“Parents and campers are thrilled about our new camp,” says Josh. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive, not just from families but also synagogues, day schools, JCCs and other Jewish organizations.” Josh says the reaction he gets most often is either “What took you so long?“ or “I would have totally gone to this camp as a kid!”

Though he says there are lots of amazing Jewish camps, unfortunately there aren’t enough kids going to Jewish camp.

“Our hope is to provide that same quality Jewish experience by using sports as the hook and vehicle to connect kids to their Jewish community,” says Josh. “A successful experience at our camp involves a camper leaving with stronger skills and confidence in his or her sport and a stronger sense of Jewish self and community.”

Josh already has seen how sports can connect youth to their Judaism. He served as the delegation head for Team San Francisco for five years, including 2009 when San Francisco hosted the JCC Maccabi Games. He also led the SF delegation to the Maccabiah Games in Israel in 2011.

“Some look at the Games and think of it as just a sporting event, but because all the participants are Jewish, it creates a unique and special experience, giving kids (an opportunity) … to meet peers around the country and learn about other types of Jewish communities and practices. … Since the idea of melding the worlds of sports camp and Jewish camp had been brewing in my mind for years, my experience in the Games helped to give the camp more shape and structure, both thematically and programmatically.”

Like all JCC Maccabi experiences, the camp culture is guided by Jewish values. Sportsmanship, ethics and the community-building nature of team play go hand in hand with Jewish values.

Josh says he has many ideas on how to weave Judaism into the sports camp experience. “Some (are) as nuanced as relating the everyday rituals of playing sports (dressing the right way, stretching before games, following rules) to the rituals of Jewish life.” Campers will celebrate “Shabbat as a separation from the routine week, giving athletes a chance to leave their specific sport and rejoin the community as a whole.

“One very specific way we are connecting sports and Jewish values is by giving every camper who registers their own camp water bottle,” says Josh. “Shmirat haguf, guarding the body, is one of our core values. By teaching the merits of hydration and creating a strong healthy body and therefore mind, we are teaching our campers how to be strong athletes and strong Jews.”

Oregon Hillel Foundation Executive Director Andy Gitelson grew up with Josh in the Union for Reform Judaism camp movement; he is enthused by his old friend’s effort to connect children who may not gravitate to some of the more traditional Jewish camps. “Josh is amazingly well qualified, and I have no doubts that some of the children in our communities … could have a truly enriching Jewish experience at his camp – and at the end of the day, that’s what is really important.”

For seven years, Josh has held the position of athletic program manager for youth & coach development at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. He is an alum of URJ Goldman Union Camp Institute.

JCC Maccabi Sports Camp is a nonprofit specialty camp being funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and AVI Chai Foundations in partnership with the Foundation for Jewish Camp. JCC Maccabi Sports Camp is a nationally affiliated camp of the JCC Association.

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