The Greeks expected people with special needs to be put away in some dark hidden place. Sixteenth Century Christians, like Martin Luther and John Calvin, believed people with disabilities to be possessed by evil spirits. During the third decade of the Twentieth Century the Nazis blatantly exterminated them.
The Jewish Community Center on Olympic Blvd. in Los Angeles has an evolved outlook toward mentally challenged men and women. Here they are nurtured and loved by their families and community giving these challenged athletes a strong sense of self-worth.
This was on display Saturday evening, February 25, 2017 when the Westside JCCA came together to support the eleventh season of the Special Macabees battling against the Special Olympics All-stars in their annual game of basketball.
Eleven years ago Jeff Liss, a sales consultant and his wife Liz saw the need for a sports program for men and women with special needs. Since nothing like that existed in the Orthodox Jewish movement, Liss organized the Special Macabees recruiting coaches, athletes, funding, and synagogue support.
Keir Jarrett, an immigrant from England coaches the Special Olympics All-stars. He said, “My athletes are between the ages of 20-50. I set aside time from my sheet metal business to coach the team, to which my son is an active player.”
For the athletes, its not about winning or losing. These men enjoy playing a sport they love and imagine becoming professional league players on NBA teams like the Los Angeles Lakers.
The athletes either have Downs Syndrome or other developmentally delayed conditions. On the court the players are kind to each other, share the ball, and exhibit sportsmanship everyone can admire.
A Special Macabees volunteer coach, Yossie Bock, is a retired electronic engineer. He described an experience he had with one of his athletes. “A few years ago I tried to teach Jonathan, a former Macabees, which way to run up and down the court. When he finally did it right, I don’t know who was more excited, him or I.”
The half-time score showed the Home Team had doubled the Special Olympic score of 17. The Special Macabees girls came out and showed off their basketball prowess by shooting a few hoops. Professional athletes demonstrating their awesome dunking skills followed this.
During the game the athletes double dribbled, traveled as they ran with the ball, and committed other basketball sins that were ignored by the referee. When an opposing teammate took a shot, everyone in the gym seemingly held their breaths as the athlete concentrated in front of the hoop. If the ball pushed through the basket, applause and shouts of glee rang out. If the athlete failed at his attempt to score, a group sigh of disappointment was palpable.
The final score of the game was 58-37, a huge Special Macabees victory. The boys on both teams gleefully congratulated each other and were then given gold medals by their respective coaches. All the athletes, Macabees and Olympians, wore the trophy proudly around their necks to the pizza party hosted by Olympic Gold Medalist Lenny Krayzelburg.
The people of Los Angeles supporting our special needs athletes reflect an evolved community supporting a group of people that have been rejected by older, less evolved societies. It is heartwarming and inspiring to see the outpouring of love for our special needs men and women.