There should be a Special Olympics for Orthodox Jews. That’s what Jeff Liss thought about 11 years ago. A longtime volunteer for the Special Olympics, Mr. Liss had become Shabbat observant. During this process, one thing that had to go was much of his participation in the Special Olympics. Unfortunately, many of their events were on Saturdays.
But if this were a problem for him, he reasoned, it must be a bigger problem for Orthodox Jewish families with special needs family members. Wouldn’t they also want to compete? Wouldn’t a special needs child from a religious family appreciate the thrill of athletic competition just as much as anyone else?
Thus was born the Special Macabees, a special needs basketball and softball program and competition designed with Shabbat observance in mind. Over the years, the program has thrived. None of the practices or games have ever been on the Sabbath or any other holiday.
At the first game, ten years ago, there were barely enough athletes for a five-man basketball team. The special athletes competed against a crew of Jeff’s friends. There were maybe a dozen spectators and family members.
Flash forward to a few weeks ago: Saturday night, March 5, 2016. There were now several teams with substitutes…And a ladies’ game. The cheering section had grown even more dramatically. At this latest game, there were about 250 spectators, including a cheering section from Hillel Hebrew Academy. Plus, there was a dunking competition at halftime. And at the end of the game, there was a presentation of medals by a real life gold medalist, Lenny Krayzelburg, who also generously donated a kosher pizza celebration feast for the entire crowd.
It was quite a night. Billed as a ‟battle of the titans” – The Special Macabees versus The Special Needs All Stars – it was the culmination of a practice season that began in November. All that work paid off with quite an exciting competition.
The Special Macabees took an early lead which they never relinquished. Max Stein was one of the stars, at one point scoring three buckets in a row, two off steals. Avremel Mayer also had a big night, stealing a ball for a layup, before showing off with a behind the back pass and even a three pointer.
“He’s gonna be hard to live with tomorrow,” laughed his father, David Mayer.
If the athletes were happy, the parents were ecstatic.
“It’s a wonderful organization,” said Suzy Bedil. Her daughter Debbie played in the ladies halftime game. “It gives them something to do, somewhere to go…to be part of a team.”
Mr. Mayer agreed, commenting that Avremel “…always loved basketball and to be able to play on an organized team is a tremendous opportunity.” He explained how as an Orthodox family, they had always felt left out of the Special Olympics and were very happy when the Special Macabees came along. Not just Avremel – the whole family had smiles plastered from ear to ear at the March 5th event.
Jeff Liss admits he can’t take all the credit. “I couldn’t do it without Liz. She does all the work,” he said, referring to his wife. He added with a chuckle, “And the coaches are great. They come from pretty far to help out. I couldn’t do it without them. What, I’m going to be out here all by myself?”
If you’re interested in joining this free program, please search for Special Macabees on Facebook or call Jeff at 310-985-9676.
Matt Aaron is a teacher who writes in his free time. He can be reached at MattAaron55@gmail.com