For 17-year-old Stacy Naftaly of Columbia, competing in the North American Maccabi Youth Games in Detroit two years ago was more than just a week of playing sports.
"There were 1,600 to 1,700 kids there -- and all guys," Naftaly said with a smile.
Naftaly played soccer in the weeklong event that is put on every two years by the Jewish Community Centers of North America and billed as the Jewish Olympics. She had such a good time that she persuaded her 15-year-old brother, Brian, to play tennis in this year's Games, to be held in Baltimore, at five area locations, starting this Sunday. And she convinced her parents to house two of the expected 2,600 athletes.
For the first time since its inception in 1982 in Memphis, Tenn., the Maccabi Games will be held on the East Coast. More than 2,600 Jewish athletes from eight countries -- Australia, the Commonwealth of Independent States, Britain, Israel, Canada, Venezuela, Mexico and the United States -- will compete in the week-long event.
The Games -- a prelude to the 14th World Maccabiah Games in Israel in 1993 -- revolve around 13 sports ranging from basketball to wrestling. But cultural and social events are also emphasized.
"One of the prime reasons for the Games is to show and to instill some Jewish pride and culture in the young people," said Morton Plant, the general chairman of the 1992 Maccabi Games. "Making new friends and understanding heritage is equally as important as the athletic competition."
Stacy Naftaly said the bronze medal she won in Detroit was not as important to her as the people she met.
"If you lost early, it was no big deal because you'd just go watch other teams play with the people you had met the day before," said Naftaly, who was graduated from Atholton High in the spring and will be a freshman at Indiana University. "And the family I stayed with was great; we still keep in touch."
Each athlete is housed with a family, instead of in hotels or dorms, adding to the Jewish experience.
"You have dinner with your family on Friday, and depending on who you are staying with, you go to Friday night service," Naftaly said.
Two girls will be staying at the Naftalys' home this year.
"We've heard great things about the Games from Stacy, and we wanted to give some other kids the experience that she had," said David Naftaly, Stacy's father. "If [the Games] are half as good as Stacy says, they must be great."
Brian Naftaly also is taking his sister's word on the quality of the Games.
"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I just wish that the Games weren't in Baltimore so that I could go somewhere exciting."
Morton is anticipating the largest turnout -- by more than 400 athletes -- in the event's 10-year history. Even so, all of the athletes have been provided with housing, thanks to families such as the Naftalys.
"The community has been just terribly receptive," Morton said. "This has been one of the great if not the best community efforts of all time. It's the first time we've had an event like this, with people from all walks of life. All divisions of our community and all sects of the religion are represented."
Morton attributes the large turnout to the location of the event.
"It's partially because the Games are on the East Coast, giving easier access to the people," Morton said. "Many people can travel by bus rather than airplane, which is cheaper. But also, the Games are growing each year. Still, we could have handled another 500 kids."
In addition to the sporting events, the athletes will go to the National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center. Also, one night is entitled "Israeli Night" and features a traveling Israeli song-and-dance group.